UNIONDALE, N.Y. – While the on-ice results haven’t shown it just yet, there’s no doubting the dynamic of what the New York Islanders can do on both sides of the puck has changed dramatically with the return of All-Star defenseman Mark Streit.
The Islanders, in the midst of a 5-10-3 start this year, were without their best blueliner for all of last season after he was lost due to a training camp shoulder injury. Ask his teammates, especially his fellow defensemen, and the impact he’s made in his return is immeasurable.
"I think people are finally starting to realize what he’s capable of. Early on this season, it’s obvious he’s picked up right where he left off," said Islanders defenseman Andrew MacDonald, himself a fellow ECHL graduate.
"I think Montreal kind of saw him as an offensive player, and that was it. They didn’t really see his value on the defensive side of the puck. Thankfully, we were able to pick him up, and he’s very underrated when it comes to the defensive side of the game. He’s very sound positionally, has a good stick and finishes his plays. His patience with the puck and his ability is one of the best of the league. You ask any of our D core, and they’ll tell you that."
Streit, who appeared in 14 games with the ECHL’s Tallahassee Tiger Sharks during his first pro season in North America in 1999-00, has come a long way since then. In a one-on-one interview with ECHL.com in the Islanders locker room, Streit discussed his lengthy journey…
Mike Ashmore, ECHL.com: You split your first pro season in North America between the AHL with Springfield, the ECHL with Tallahassee and the IHL with Utah. What do you remember about that first pro year over here?
Mark Streit: "Well, it was not an easy experience, but it was a great experience. I started out in the IHL in Salt Lake City, and they sent me down to Tallahassee, which was back then the East Coast Hockey League. You know, it was difficult for me to get sent down, but on the other hand I met a lot of great guys down there. We had a tight group and a fun group. It was a really good experience, and the hockey was good. I enjoyed it a lot. There was a lot of buses and traveling, but it was like an adventure."
ECHL.com: So, you come over from Switzerland and you get to check out places that, by comparison, are pretty unique in Salt Lake City, Tallahassee and Springfield. Was that kind of a whirlwind introduction to the United States for you?
Streit: "(Laughs) Yeah, it was like a sightseeing tour of the U.S. I was young, and I really enjoyed it. I came over as a kid, and I thought after that year, I was a man. It was good. Playing with three different teams in one year was challenging, but it was great.
I met so many great guys, I had good coaches, and I just learned so much about North American hockey and the culture here as well.
Overall, it was a great experience. And you know what, it helped me the second time I came back. The second time I came back, I was 26, and I was drafted by Montreal, and I’d had the experience of playing over here and playing in the different minor leagues and that helped me, big time."
ECHL.com: After that first pro season here, however, you went back to Switzerland for five seasons. What went into that decision to go back home?
Streit: "My biggest goal was to stay and sign another deal and maybe play in the American Hockey League, but it didn’t work out. No team offered me a two-way contract, so I decided to go home. I had a good offer from back home, and the Swiss League is good. I had a big role on that team back home, and I got a lot of ice time. But I never lost sight of the NHL. My goal was to still one day come back and make it all the way to the NHL. I needed to get a little bit bigger, and that’s what I did. I worked out in the summer and got bigger and bigger, and just tried to showcase myself at the World Championships.
Finally, Montreal drafted me, and signed me to a contract and gave me a shot."
ECHL.com: You mentioned getting drafted, and most guys obviously end up getting drafted a lot earlier in their careers than you ultimately did. Were you expecting to get drafted? Was that a surprise to you, given that you’d already spent a year in North America?
Streit: "It was always a dream of mine, getting drafted. When I was 18, 19 and 20, I followed the draft, but I never got drafted, so I decided to just sign with the Utah Grizzlies and come over and give it a shot. After that, I just tried to work as hard as possible and get noticed by the scouts. The year I got drafted, I didn’t really check the draft. The years before, I was checking the draft every time. It was a huge disappointment not getting the call and not being drafted. But then I finally got drafted, and I didn’t even see it. A journalist back home gave me a call on Sunday morning and told me that I was drafted, and it was obviously a big surprise and a great day in my life."
ECHL.com: When you did come back to North America for the 2005-06 season, were you expecting to go to the NHL right away?
Streit: "Well, Montreal offered me a two-way contract, but they told me I would have a fair shot. They gave me that chance. I stayed up in the NHL. It took a while, because it was a big adjustment for me playing in North America again and playing on that stage, but they were patient with me. I established myself in the NHL, maybe after one year. They were patient and they stuck with me, and I’m really thankful and grateful for that opportunity in Montreal and for giving me the time to establish myself in the league. It worked out great."
ECHL.com: That last year you had with the Canadiens in 2007-08, you had the third highest point total of all defensemen in the NHL. Was there something that kind of clicked that led you to progress that much, at least from an offensive standpoint, from the previous two seasons?
Streit: "The first year, I played like 50 games. The second year, I played like 76 or something like that. Sometimes I played as a forward, and I played a lot on the PP. For me, I’m kind of a slow starter, a late bloomer. It just took me a little longer to feel comfortable and get the confidence. Our power play up there, we had a good power play, and that’s one of my strengths as well. That made everything easier for me. But as I said, some guys come in and they blossom right away, and some guys take a little bit longer, and that was my case. But my last year in Montreal was unbelievable, and we had a great team."
ECHL.com: What went into the decision to sign with the Islanders prior to the start of the 2008-09 season?
Streit: "As I mentioned before, I was kind of a defenseman/forward. I had that role as a multi-task guy, playing both positions. It was great for me to establish myself in the league and get into the lineup. That was fantastic. But in the bottom of my heart, I’m a passionate defenseman, and my goal was to play as a full-time defenseman. Garth Snow offered me a position as a top four D, and he gave me the opportunity and he believed in me. I felt that he really wanted me, and I felt that I needed a change of scenery. I think in Montreal, I kind of had that tag as a forward/defenseman, and for me there was no way I wanted to stay in that position. I wanted to play as a full-time defenseman.
ECHL.com: Missing last season…how frustrating was that to have to sit out an entire year?
Streit: "It was a shock. You work out the whole summer, you come to training camp and then in one second, you hurt yourself and you’re done for the year. Obviously, it was a big disappointment and a shock and a challenge to be hurt the whole year. But I accepted it and I just tried to come back as quick as possible and get healthy and it made me realize I missed hockey, how much I missed the guys, how much I missed playing. I was just really looking forward to coming back for a new season and being healthy and being back with the team. It was a rough year, but you always try to learn something, and I did. I was just happy to move on and to play again."
ECHL.com: Being named captain of the Islanders, and to be the first Swiss-born captain in the NHL, what did that mean to you?
Streit: "It was a really big honor and a surprise. I was overwhelmed. I’ve played here three years now, this is my fourth season, and it shows they have a lot of confidence in me and they respect me. It’s a big honor to be a captain in the NHL, especially here. It’s a storied franchise with a lot of history, and some great leaders have been captain of this team. Being one of them is a great honor, and I’m so thrilled. I want to do all I can to serve as a great captain. And it’s big for Swiss hockey for as well. I think Swiss hockey has grown in the past few years, and hopefully more Swiss guys are going to come over and try out the NHL."
ECHL.com: You’ve already served as captain of Team Switzerland in the Olympics, you’ve played in three Olympic Games already…is it too early to start thinking about 2014?
Streit: "It’s always nice to play for Switzerland. Vancouver was such a fantastic tournament, it was such a big experience that I’m never going to forget the Olympic Games up there. I think all the NHL players love playing in the Olympics. It’s a big honor to represent your country. There’s no more World Cup, there’s no more Canada Cup, so that’s the only stage where really the best players can face each other. Hockey fans love it, the players love it. I don’t see a reason why NHL guys shouldn’t be a part of the Olympics."