“More popular than football”: Switzerland’s ice hockey stars loving the spotlight

Life has taken a strange but wonderful turn for 15-year-old Swiss ice hockey player Rodwin Dionicio.

Picture by Vedran Galijas / IIHF.com

“There are kids in the hotel every time asking for autographs and selfies,” Dionicio said after a team training session at the Vaudoise Arena on Friday.

“It’s awesome, the atmosphere here is unbelievable. My social media is so busy.”

The Swiss men’s team start their campaign on Sunday against the USA and Dionicio’s teammate Timour Namalgue can barely believe the reaction they are already getting in Lausanne.

“There are so many of them here,” Namalgue said of the groups of schoolchildren waiting to greet their newest heroes outside the city’s impressive arena. “It’s a good feeling, they look up to us. I like to see them here. It feels like we are superstars.”

Luke Norman

Namalgue, a fan of National League club EHC Biel-Bienne, is adamant ice hockey is “more popular than football” in Switzerland currently. Given that, he knows what an opportunity the team has in the coming five days.

“We have the chance now to be a pro player in a couple of years, this [Lausanne 2020] is big for us,” said the 15-year-old who cannot wait to strut his stuff in the home of Lausanne HC.

“I have never played with such good players in such a good arena.”

While the Biel resident admits that the fans’ passion and expectation does make him “nervous”, he is confident that the 21-strong squad will prosper, thanks largely to the close ties they have built over more than six months training together.

His friend Dionicio is equally bullish they can stand up to the array of powerhouse hockey nations gathered for the men’s tournament.

“We are not USA, Canada or Russia, big names, we are a little country but if we can make the finals we will make everyone so proud,” he said. “And it’s possible we can go on and win the gold.”

Home advantage is significant, with Namalgue labelling the arena “our ice”. But they are going to have to do it the hard way.

After facing the USA, whose men’s team won Youth Olympic Games gold four years ago in Lillehammer, in their opening Group A match, the Swiss take on the ever-powerful Finns. 

Only the top two progress to the semifinals, with Canada, Russia and Denmark fighting it out on the opposite side of the draw.

Namalgue has, however, already been dreaming of the final on 22 January.

“It makes the hairs on my neck tingle to think about it,” he said. “My friends back home think we have already reached something pretty big. They text me because they are so proud of me doing this.”