Story and photos by Mark Newman.
Switzerland is known for its Alps, bank accounts and precision watches that are exported everywhere across the globe. It is not known for sending hockey players to the NHL.
"There is only one" says Julien Vauclair, a 22-year-old defenseman who is making his North American professional debut in Grand Rapids after playing the last four years for Lugano in his native country.
"The scouts don't come to look a lot in Switzerland" he continues. "It's not like playing in the Czech Republic or Russia. We don't have big names playing in my country."
The fact that the one player -- goaltender Daniel Aebischer -- got his name on the Stanley Cup last season as a member of the Colorado Avalanche is not lost on Vauclair.
"Maybe one day I can bring the Cup to Courtemaiche" Vauclair says, referring to his hometown, a village of some 800 people who would find the whole experience rather remarkable.
Of course, there's the small detail of getting Vauclair to the NHL first. It may be only a matter of time for Vauclair, a natural skater with good offensive ability who was a third-round pick by Ottawa in the 1998 NHL Entry Draft.
In fact, it was Vauclair's play in world competition that helped convince the Senators that he might be good enough to eventually earn a spot in the NHL club's lineup.
"Physically, I think I'm ready" he says. "When I see the other guys here who have played in junior, I think it's totally different for me. I've played at the world championships against Russia, Team Canada, the Czech Republic. All those guys play in the NHL."
Signed to a three-year contract, he is ready to show Ottawa that the organization has made a wise investment. "I'm really happy to be here" says Vauclair, who speaks French in his native country. "At my age, I think I am more prepared in my head."
Vauclair is seeing significant playing time with the Griffins, including plenty of opportunities on the power play, a privilege that wasn't accorded him in Switzerland where skilled, imported players see most of the power play time.
"I'm playing a lot" he says. "I'm getting lots of ice time in every situation and I'm learning lots of things for the future."
Vauclair made a strong impression in the Senators' regular training camp after getting a couple of looks in previous rookie camps. He was named the third star in a 7-0 exhibition victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs when he scored a goal on a Steve Martins pass.
"Julien's a guy that's looked real good to us -- he's done things well" Senators blue-line coach Don Jackson told the Ottawa Sun. "Any young guy that comes here and feels as confident and does a does a lot of little things away from the puck as well as he has is helping themselves out."
For Vauclair, it's a matter of breaking the game down to fundamentals. "I have to skate a lot and play it simple -- try not to do too much" he says. "I have to use my skating and join the play."
Vauclair hopes that the Senators will be patient with his progress. "I have to be stronger in front of the net and learn to move players" he says.
He is confident that his game will improve, much as his grasp of the English language will get better over time. He admits that coming to the U.S. has been a bit of adjustment.
"I'm okay, but everything is really different" he says. "The first two weeks here I was without a car. In my hometown, you can do everything without a car. Here you cannot do anything."
He misses seeing his family. He has two hockey-playing brothers, one older and one younger, along with seven adopted siblings.
His father, a home and garden store manager until back problems forced him out of work, and his mother, who taught her boys how to skate, have always been very supportive.
"They were always there, all of the time" says Vauclair, who would like nothing better than to be able to bring the Stanley Cup home to them someday. You don't need a Swiss watch to know that would be a special time.
Vauclair would love be able to have his family get close to hockey's most hallowed trophy. He owes his offensive abilities, in part, to time spent playing with his brother Geoffrey, a forward who is three years older.
"We played together in Lugano, but I've been playing with him all my life" Vauclair says. "Being younger, it helped me to be in the same town with him. It was a good situation."
And it's a situation that likely will be repeated soon. "My 16-year-old little brother, Trestan, is going to sign with Lugano and he will be living with my big brother" Vauclair says.
When Vauclair returns home this summer, he will have plenty of stories to tell his brothers, including, he hopes, how he helped the Griffins win their first Calder Cup championship.