Laich (right) gets into a tiff and loses his flaming bucket.
Brooks Laich is not an NHL player. He’s a hockey player.
The Wawota, Saskatchewan native has played seven seasons in the National Hockey League, scored 116 goals, and tallied 278 points. He makes six and half million dollars a year. But that’s not what drives him. It’s his love of the game. He first stepped on the ice at five months. He began skating when he was two years old. By five, he was playing minor hockey. Laich lives for the sport. And when it didn’t come around to Washington last September, Laich wanted to go somewhere where they were playing the game.
“I grew up loving the game of hockey, not loving the NHL,” he said at the time.
So on September 28, Laich signed with Kloten Flyers of the Swiss National League A. Ten minutes away from Zurich by train, Kloten (pronounced k-LOOOO-ten as Laich is quick to point out) is city of around 20,000. It’s hockey team has been around since 1934, 40 years before the birth of the Washington Capitals.
Laich suited up 19 times for Kloten before the owners and the Players Association reached an agreement to end the lockout just before 5 a.m. on the morning of January 6. He had some good games and he had some bad games. He got hurt once. Then he got hurt again, an injury that could cost him the first two weeks of the NHL season. But, to be trite, it was an experience the 29-year-old will never forget.
“I loved it,” Laich told RMNB recently in an otherwise deserted Capitals locker room. “I loved every second of it.”
“First off, I was fortunate to be playing hockey,” he continued. “Second I met some tremendous people — people that I will be friends with for the rest of my life. There’s already a group of people planning a trip over to Washington and I’m already planning a trip back to Switzerland. It was great, great experience. I can’t speak enough of it. Moving forward, I would make a recommendation to players during the lockout to go play somewhere else — to keep playing the game, but because also the life experience is awesome.”
For such a great fit, it was mostly out of Laich’s control. He just wanted it to play. The connection came from Laich’s agent, Roli Thompson, and his European partner, who happened to have multiple clients playing for Kloten. After a quick phone call to the team, the deal was done.
“I was on a plane the next day,” Laich said.
The game was a bit of a change for Laich. Though he’s been playing hockey for just about his entire life, the game across the pond is different. With a wider ice surface, there is more of a premium on skating and less emphasis on checking. While Laich was easily one of the team’s most talented players, he struggled to adapt to the ice sheet and altered style of play.
Laich provided this example: In the NHL, wingers are used to stopping in their own zone to play defense. But with a larger ice sheet in European hockey, they instead swing around to better position themselves for an offensive rush.
“In my brain I know in the NHL I have to stop,” Laich said. “That’s my habit. I have to stop.”
“At some points it’s an internal battle between your habits and what’s right for the game,” he added. “I was so conscientious not to create bad habits. I didn’t want the NHL to start up and have to change my habits again.”
Laich may have had difficulty adjusting to some of the finer points, but he’s still a top-six NHL player. And that meant he could score. In his 19 games in Switzerland, Laich racked up 18 points, constantly fighting for the team lead in that category. On many teams in many different leagues, that might just mean a little gloating in the locker room. But in the Swiss National League, they don’t go for subtlety. Each team’s leading scorer must wear a uniform featuring flames running down the helmet and onto the jersey. For Laich, the time came just three games in.
“I was like ‘Come on, are you serious? I really have to wear this or are you playing a joke on me?” he recalled.
“It’s the worst for the trainer because different players have different visors,” Laich went on. “On our team there was myself, Denis Holenstein, and Victor Stancescu who were alternating. Every day our trainer had to look at the stats and then go and take the visor off that helmet and put it on the top scorer helmet. The next day he’d have to switch back because somebody got two points and the other guy only got one.”
A funky uniform, though, wasn’t the biggest surprise for Laich. After all, he’s played in the AHL, a league in which teams sport ridiculous novelty jerseys just about every other night. Instead, it was his immersion into an entirely different culture. The son of a first-generation German immigrant and a guy who spends most of the year flying all across North America, Laich is hardly an insular figure. But he has grown accustomed to his NHL routine. The moment the change really hit Laich came in Quinto, located in a valley in the southeast part of the country. The local team, HC Ambrì-Piotta, plays in a 7,000 seat rink that is open on both ends.
“You could take a face-off and look up and see the mountains,” Laich said. “After getting stuck in your own culture you realize how narrow minded you sometimes are.”
In a European country, it isn’t just the people and traditions you have to acclimated to but often the dialect too. English, luckily for Laich, is a universal language. He was also aided by his rough knowledge of German — the most popular of Switzerland’s four languages — which he learned from his father and his mother.
“It’s funny,” said Laich. “Everybody on our team, the players, everybody, spoke English except for two people — our head coach and equipment manager.”
“It was a nightmare to try to tell our equipment manager how to sharpen my skates,” he added.
Nevertheless, that wasn’t Laich’s biggest frustration. While he’s not a punishing enforcer, Laich enjoys the physical part of the game — grinding out goals, delivering the big hit. In Switzerland, they play hockey a little differently. More skating, less hitting — or rather no hitting.
“When I first got there I had 26 penalty minutes in the first eight games, which is a little excessive,” said Laich, who had a total of 34 penalty minutes in 82 match-ups in the NHL last season. “Every time I made a big check or hit a guy solid I would get a penalty.”
Laich recounted a story to illustrate his point.
“I got called for two penalties on consecutive shifts,” he said. “I was complaining to the ref saying ‘This isn’t a penalty, this is normal hockey. This is physical hockey. We’re men, we can play this way!’ Next shift out, there was a scrum in front the net and some guy gave me just a little push in the chest. And the ref goes, two minutes and says ‘See, I got him for a roughing!’ And I said to him ‘No, that’s not a penalty!’ And he’s like, ‘It’s on him!’ I’m like, ‘That’s not a penalty! He can push me! He’s not going to hurt me! I can push him!’ That was at the end of the second period. At the start of the third period the ref came over and grabbed me and said ‘That’s the first time a player has ever told that it’s not a penalty on the other team.’ And I said, ‘That’s the first time I’ve ever said it!” That was a lesson that I had to learn: that you can’t go make the big hit all the time. That was the first time in life I’ve ever complained to a ref that it wasn’t a penalty on the other team.
But Laich hadn’t quite learned his lesson yet. In a game on October 9, he racked up an own goal and 16 penalty minutes including misconduct for a hit to the head. Laich insists, however, that he explain.
“So I got a penalty — I got a penalty for a body check,” he said. “It was five seconds after I got out of the penalty box and boom I get called for another check. Roughing or something. And I get ten minutes for a hit to the head. A guy on our team, Matthias Bieber, goes slapping his stick on the ice and he goes ‘Are you going to f-ing call him for a penalty every time he hits somebody?’ At that point, I realized I have to just back off otherwise I’ll be in the penalty box all the time.”
Additional reporting by Ian Oland.