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Julien Sprunger wants to conquer the Gottéron curse

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Julien Sprunger wants to conquer the Gottéron curse

At Fribourg-Gottéron he is the last protagonist of a culture that has made this club great. Now the Romands are once again experiencing a high with Julien Sprunger – but is that enough for their first title?

“I won’t have it anywhere better than in Freiburg”: Julien Sprunger warming up on Saturday.

Peter Schneider / KEYSTONE

The canton of Friborg has three monuments: the Moléson, St. Nicholas Cathedral and Fribourg-Gottéron. It is possible that this Freiburg trinity will soon be joined by Julien Sprunger. The 38-year-old striker is in his 22nd season with the club.

When he played his first two games with the first team in the 2002/03 season, his teammates were called Gil Montandon, Patrick Howald and Thibaut Monnet. The best scorer was an American defender named Mike Gaul, who today hardly anyone even remembers at Gottéron.

Spending your entire life in the same club is a rarity in professional sports today. In the spring of 2010, Sprunger briefly considered leaving Gottéron and joining the ZSC Lions. “The Lions had an incredible team back then. If I had signed for two or three years, I would definitely have won the championship at least once.”

He sat down at the kitchen table at home with his then-wife, discussed the options with her and came to a conclusion. «Why should I leave here? I won’t have it anywhere better than in Freiburg.”

Einmal Gottéron, immer Gottéron

Sprunger’s wife was pregnant at the time and wanted to have family and friends close to her after the birth. But regardless of this, hardly anyone could seriously imagine that Julien Sprunger would ever leave the club where he more or less grew up.

Einmal Gottéron, immer Gottéron. Oder in den Worten, die in der neuen Arena an die Wand gepinselt sind. “For one day, forever.”

At the age of three, Julien Sprunger joined the youth department at Gottéron. He stood in the stands with his school colleagues when Vyacheslav Bykov and Andrei Khomutov transformed the Patinoire de Sainte Léonard into an ice hockey magic land.

The club was founded on December 1, 1937 in Freiburg’s lower town, the Basse-Ville, where the poverty of the former day laborers who had moved from the country to the city in order to find a living for themselves and their families is still there can be guessed. The club played its first games as HC Friborg on a fish farming pond at the entrance to Galterntal. He later moved to the Patinoire des Augustins.

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The Café des Anges, the Café of Angels, under the mighty bridge that runs over the Saanegraben, is still the meeting place of the old “copains”. Jakob Lüdi, Charles Rotzetter, Rudolf Raemy and Robert Meuwly were the heroes of the team that shot Gottéron into the National League A against the old Zürcher SC in 1980.

A draw would have been enough for ZSC to win a promotion, but Freiburg won 6-0. Slightly hungover, the NZZ headlined its issue of March 6th: “A new A-club and its mortgage” and wrote in the text: “The problem of the new A-club is not only to strengthen the team, but also to to adapt the NLA-unworthy conditions on the Patinoire de Sainte Léonard to higher standards.”

HC Fribourg became Fribourg-Gottéron and has played continuously in the top division ever since. It is the longest serving club in the league. The brevity of his palmarès is all the more astonishing. Gottéron reached the play-off final four times, but lost twice each against SC Bern (1992, 2013) and the Kloten Flyers (1993, 1994). One title is missing so far.

Hubert Waeber has been Gottéron’s president since 2019. He says: “The whole of Freiburg is eager for the championship title. We had good qualifications, had a broad range of personnel and were better prepared than in recent years. And what’s more, we’re in the Chinese Year of the Dragon.” If that’s not a good omen.

Not everyone shares Waeber’s confidence. In Bern, just twenty kilometers away, where Gottéron’s biggest rival is based, there is a joke going around: What distinguishes a Freiburger from a carpenter? The carpenter can become a master.

Julien Sprunger only finds this somewhat amusing. He says: “I want to make history with Gottéron.” Hasn’t he already done that? “Maybe so, but there is still a free page in the club’s big book. It is my big dream to fill this. As captain of this club, lifting the trophy in our stadium would be the fulfillment of all our dreams, not just for me, but for the entire city, and probably even the entire canton.”

The enthusiasm around the club is huge

Three play-off series still separate Freiburg and Julien Sprunger from completing this vision. Gottéron started the quarterfinals against HC Lugano on Saturday evening. As always this season, 9,047 spectators will fill the arena to capacity. The stadium occupancy is 100 percent. The club is currently working on increasing the capacity of the arena, which only opened two years ago.

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Waeber says: “We currently have 6,400 sponsors and a waiting list whose wishes we cannot fulfill because we lack the business places.” Gottéron makes a profit of around 200,000 francs per match. These are fantastic prospects for a club that was castigated by the NZZ for the “unworthy circumstances” during its rise over forty years.

Julien Sprunger is the face of this new Gottéron. His contract runs for one more season. He is 38 years old and his time on the ice is coming to an end. His role in the team has changed over the years. The scorer has become a team player.

“I don’t have that much ice time anymore. But that’s normal. You have to accept that and put your ego aside. That is not a problem for me. Of course I still love scoring goals. But if other people do it for me, that’s okay too.”

Who knows what Sprunger would do if he were to fulfill his lifelong dream this spring? There is an expression for this in French: “La boucle est bouclée.” The circle has closed, or probably better: it is complete.

But somehow no one can quite imagine that Gottéron will break his curse and actually become Swiss ice hockey champion for the first time. And it seems almost even less conceivable to see Gottéron playing without his number 86 soon. He is already a monument to this extraordinary club.

Unique club loyalty and a moment of shock

Member of the Thousand Club: Andres Ambühl.

Marusca Rezzonico / freshfocus

The so-called Thousand Club, the group of players who have played at least a thousand games in the National League, now has 16 members and is therefore no longer quite as exclusive as it once was.

Three from this group are still active today and will play for the championship title in the coming weeks: Andres Ambühl (41 years, 1244 games) with HC Davos, Beat Forster (41, 1153) with EHC Biel and Julien Sprunger (38/1031 ) with Fribourg-Gottéron. The record player is the retired Bern defender Beat Gerber (1270). Andres Ambühl is likely to replace him next season.

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But Sprunger is unique in this group because he is the only one of these 16 long-term runners to have played all the games for one and the same club. Ambühl went overseas for one season in 2011, then played for the ZSC Lions for three years before returning to Landwassertal. His contract with HCD runs for another season.

In addition to the HCD, Appenzeller Beat Forster also played for the ZSC Lions and now for EHC Biel since 2017. He is the oldest player in the league and will retire after the playoffs.

For a long time, club loyalty was not a rarity, but almost the rule. It was particularly pronounced at EHC Kloten, which dominated the National League in the 1990s with four titles in a row. The head of that team was Felix Hollenstein, who never left Schluefweg despite various offers and, like his wing Roman Wäger, did not play for any other club, at least in the National League A.

In addition to Ambühl, Hollenstein and Zurich’s Mathias Seger, there are other players who are inextricably linked to their clubs. The Von Arx brothers, Sandro Rizzi and Marc Gianola in Davos, Renato Tosio at SC Bern, Sandro Bertaggia at HC Lugano.

What also makes Sprunger’s story special is that he repeatedly struggled with injuries, especially in the first few years of his career. A terrible memory remains of a check at the home World Cup in Bern in 2009, when the American defender David Backes checked him head first into the boards.

Sprunger remained on the ice for minutes before he was rolled off the ice on a stretcher and immediately transported to Inselspital. There, doctors diagnosed a cervical vertebra fracture in addition to a concussion. Initially, Sprunger was unable to walk or move his hands. He later said: “It was the only moment when I considered quitting ice hockey.”

Today he no longer likes to talk about that time. He says he has suffered five or six concussions in his career, but he doesn’t keep a diary about them. “I feel physically excellent today, almost better than ever before.” Sprunger is one of the few players in the league who did not miss any of the 52 qualifying games. Here too he is one of the most consistent.

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