LOS ANGELES – Without question, Damien Brunner has been one of the most exciting first-half stories of the NHL’s lockout shortened season.
Following his amazing four-point performance on Sunday, the Swiss import with his boyish grin and sparkling personality finds himself in the same elite scoring company as all-stars Steven Stamkos, Patrick Marleau and Patrick Kane. Brunner scored twice in the Wings’ 8-3 win over Vancouver on Sunday, giving him 10 for the season, which is now three off the league leader. It was his first multiple game of his NHL career.
While expectations for him were high from the start, the 26-year-old who grew up in the shadows of an airport in Zürich, Switzerland, has excelled beyond anyone’s imagination. Considering that he’s in a land, which he’s never been before, this year has been a dream come dream, Brunner has said.
“He looks like a hockey player to me,” Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “Obviously we feel we found a pretty good player. It looks like he’s a good fit.”
Brunner has been a fit wherever he’s played … well, almost everywhere.
He began playing organized hockey when he was eight-years-old. His only dream was to play professionally in the Swiss league, and he got that opportunity six years ago. But things quickly soured until he was traded to a team coached by a former NHL player.
Doug Shedden played parts of two seasons with the Red Wings during the mid-80s and was coaching Zug in Switzerland when Brunner arrived via a trade. To this day, Brunner credits the former Wings’ center for encouraging him to chase the NHL.
Recently, Brunner sat down with DetroitRedWings.com’s Bill Roose to discuss life back home, his transition to North America and his expectations for the season and beyond, and his first transcontinental trip to Los Angeles.
Here is their conversation:
What was growing up in Switzerland like?
It’s obviously a lot different than here. Everything is so close, you know? Before, when I was 11 or 12 (years-old) my school was a three-minute walk or something. To get me to the rink, my mother (Karin) needed five-minutes with the car. A lot of fun. A lot of playing outside with different sports, street hockey, soccer, basketball.
But Kloten is right beside Zürich, right where the airport is. So, yeah, I grew up there. We had a lot of friends in the neighborhood who played with us.
Was hockey always the favorite sport or was it whatever sport was in season?
Hockey was my favorite sport, but I loved to do the other stuff too. If we couldn’t play hockey we would do something else, so it was never a problem to find something to do. But I did a lot of growing up between ’93 and ’96 my hometown team (Kloten Flyers) won four championships in a row. It was the last time they won it. I started when I was eight, and I was pretty much there until I was 22 when I was traded.
Were you a good academic student?
I finished out highest school level, I do I say this … we have different stuff. I finished gymnasium, so now I’m allowed to study whatever I want. I wasn’t an A-student, but above average. But my interests were really with sports, not only hockey, I watched every sport.
If you weren’t an athlete, what would you be doing for a living?
Not an athlete? Seriously? Hockey was my dream. I wasn’t like the kids growing up, ‘I want to be a pilot. I want to be this. I want to be that.’ I wanted to play hockey. That’s what I wanted. My father (Kurt) brought in the know-how and taught us the right things. Not only during the games, but off if the ice and how to handle myself; he never pushed too hard, but he showed us how it was to be. We always talked about taking the next step to get better and that really helped me. I was never satisfied and that really is a big part of my game today. I want to get better every game and I want to produce every game and I want to show up every game. That pushes me from inside. And then my mother, I don’t know how many hours she spent in the car driving three children everywhere and cooking and waking up in the morning. I mean, I can say that I’m really happy to have parents like them, who have supported me all of the way. I’m here because of them.
We know your brother, Adrian, still plays hockey back home, but how about your sister, Marlen?
She’s a volleyball player. She played under-18, under-19 and under-21 world championships for beach volleyball for Switzerland. She’s small, but she jumps really high. Beach volleyball is tough, but she’s on one of the top five national teams.
As a kid, did you follow the NHL and other sports on TV?
Well, we don’t have all of those great sports programs that you have over here. They’re the best. But you know my father was a volleyball coach so we spent a lot of hours in the hall watching practices and games, and running around and jumping around.
Does a lot of your competitiveness come from being around your dad’s volleyball teams?
Well, pretty much, sports-wise, I learned everything from my father. It wasn’t always about one thing. He always wanted us to do different things. Get to learn your body, don’t just do one thing, try to balance and show up with different balls and get the vision for everything. So, yeah, he taught us a lot about coordination and juggling.
I can juggle like three balls in the air, not too much.
When did you realize that hockey, particularly the NHL, was in your future?
For me, I always wanted to play hockey. But when I grew up we had a hard time to see NHL games. We knew there was an NHL, but we talked about the Swiss league. For me, I was a good player, and actually always at the top of my age until I was 13 or 14. Then I stopped growing, so I had a really tough time from the time I was 14 to 18. For me, this time was about, ‘Am I good enough to make it to the Swiss league?’ I was really small, I mean, small, small. Then I grew maybe 20 centimeters (seven inches) in two years after I was 17, so that’s a lot. Before then if somebody touched my I was out. Even when I was fast and acted with high skills it was for nothing. I was too small.
Were you thinking that perhaps hockey wasn’t meant for you?
You know, I questioned myself. But quitting was never an issue. My father never pushed, but he showed me the direction and found the right words to believe in me. There were a lot of ups and downs, but finally I made it when I was 20. I had a really good rookie season in the NLA. I had the chance to play with some top guys right away. The second season started, the coach (Anders Eldebrink) there didn’t want to play me at all, thought that I probably wasn’t going to make it in this league. So it was a tough 80 games. It was a terrible second year in Kloten. Nothing changed in the third year, so after 12 games they traded me. That gave me the right kick.
I think I scored in the first two games right away (for Zug), but after seven to 10 days, Doug Shedden came up to me in practice and said, ‘Listen kid, that’s not what I want from you. You have to be way better and I want to see you scoring every game. You have the ability to do that.’ Realizing that the coach had such high expectations for me, it was like the best motivation. It fired me up and I wanted to do my best every night. That was four years ago. He was the guys who said that my goal had to be to play in the NHL one day. After that I started working toward that and getting better every day and playing really consistent. I found the right coach.
It’s been a few weeks since you made the move to North America, what’s the transition been like?
The game seems faster, but I don’t think it’s faster. It feels that way because you have less space. The bodies are bigger. The first game I was obviously like, ‘Wow, what’s going on here?’ They ran us over. They were one step ahead of us on every single play of the game. So I was sitting in the dressing room after the game and was like, ‘Is this going to be like this every night?’ But the next five games I thought we made little steps every game. I began to get used to the areas that I know that I have to make a quick play; I have to get in fast, maybe take a hit, or drive to the net. Find the areas where I can get open and shoot the puck. They’re small steps and I’m learning shift by shift by the coaches telling me, or I learn by watching good players, and obviously there are a lot of good examples on this team. I’m learning every day just to get better.
Has the offensive part of the game been the easiest transition for you?
When I came over here, I knew it was going to be tougher to create scoring chances because the players were bigger and tougher. But I tried to come in with the strategy to just play my game, be confident and when I got the puck, do the same things that I did in Switzerland. It’s paid off so far.
Originally, some thought the physical nature of the NHL would be your biggest adjustment, but how about the compressed 48-game schedule?
I have to admit that’s the toughest part so far, playing in so many games and the travelling. You have to be mentally focused every night and try to get the best out of yourself. You can’t have nights off, because they will take advantage of you. But it’s an excellent challenge and you have to learn to grow in this role.
Travel wasn’t much of an issue for your Swiss teams, right?
Well, you know, travelling around Switzerland is easy. Heading east to west is only six hours and north-south is 3 ½ hours. Kloten is pretty central, so the most we would do were 2 ½ hour bus rides.
We know Henrik Zetterberg has helped you assimilate to life in the NHL. How about the other guys on the team?
I have to say that everyone in this dressing room is amazing. A lot of great guys and they’re all willing to help you. If they see you’re in trouble, they help you, no matter who. That’s what you really appreciate coming in as a new guy. It’s difficult because not only do you have to adjust to the new ice, the new team, to a different lifestyle, and all of the players and the whole organization has been good to me. That’s something that gives you confidence and it gives you a good feeling about being here every day.
What do you miss most about being away from home?
I miss the area where I live and going out to dinner with my friends. But you really don’t have that much time to think about that here, because everything goes so fast. I mean, we play every other day and the travelling. It’s exciting. You see new cities and you get to text your friends and let them know where you’re at. You don’t have much time to think, but I love Switzerland. It’s a great country, and obviously I’m looking forward to going back there in the summertime, but right now I’m enjoying my time here.
Several Swiss newspapers have followed you around the U.S. already. Do you have rock star status back home?
In Switzerland, it’s not the same with the sports like over here. People don’t make a big scene, so Roger Federer is probably the only guy that gets that kind of attention. He’s our sports icon. Because of him people know about Switzerland, otherwise it’s Sweden. They treat sports guys differently in Switzerland. For sure we get the attention here now when Swiss guys make it to the NHL. They write about us, and obviously a lot of people get to know you, but it’s not like rock stars, not at all.
Do you know that you’re now three goals off the NHL lead?
I have to be honest with you, since I got here, I feel like I have no time to study the stats because I’m always sleeping, recovering and eating. I know I have 10, but I have no idea who is leading the league.
Is your goal to stay in the NHL and get another contract with the Red Wings?
For sure. My goal is to play in the NHL. But I have to prove that I belong here and my goal is to play well enough to get another contract at the end of the season.
What were some of your personal goals that you established before the start of the season?
We can talk about this after the season. I know what I want. When I play a good game, when I have a good night, I want to do it again.
This is your first time to Los Angeles?
It’s exciting, yes, but we don’t have the chance to see a lot except for the rinks.
Is L.A. the largest city that you’ve ever visited?
“Yes, for sure. Paris and Stockholm would be the largest before now.”
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