It’s holiday time. What about your destination? In our case, without further ado, it’s Italy. Fantastic landscapes, the best food in the world, friendliness… and much more. Including sport. Including ice hockey. A “niche sport” trying to conquer its space in a country where football in particular is lived as a real religion.
During the recent World Ice Hockey Championship, we realized – talking about Italy as opponent of Switzerland – that in the peninsula there is a lot of “hidden” passion for ice hockey. We had the chance to realize that people are hungry for ice hockey and therefore, in our new “European Hockey” section, we wanted to deepen.
We wanted to understand “how” Italian hockey is doing. Italy was able to save its place in the top division at the last gasp.
After that, we had the chance to get in touch with Johnny Lazzarotto.
Johnny is a journalist, commentator at Eurosport during the last Worlds in Slovakia and he’s a hockey amateur who plays in Feltre (province of Belluno).
We asked him 10 questions… we thank him for his availability and we propose you the full interview.
Johnny, how is Italian hockey doing?
The ice hockey movement is working to grow, despite the difficulties. In my personal opinion, important steps forward were taken compared to the past. However, it takes time before we can achieve some results. There are many young players currently playing abroad, also in important leagues, and this is positive. And also the “Alps” is an experiment that, even though it has some limits, gives new strength to the movement. There is still a lot of work to be done, but I think in Italy we have set the right course.
Ice hockey is a “niche” sport in Italy. However, we realized that there is a lot of passion. The media attention is mainly limited to local news. Why? And do you think things can change in the future? It’s a near impossible feat to find more sponsors without a good media coverage, after all.
I’m coming from the so-called minor sports. And as a sport passionate, I realize that it’s “Italy” that gets people attention. Just to be clear, I don’t watch the Oxford vs Cambridge boat race, even though it’s the most prestigious in the world. I mostly watch an italian team that fights for important medals. As a consequence, the media cover mostly events when Italy is involved. In other words, Italian hockey will get more attention only if our National Team will improve. In this regard, the survival in the top division – together with a hopefully qualification to the Olympic games – are fundamental requirements to revive ice hockey.
Bolzano is playing in the EBEL and looks the only competitive club in Italy. Could you please explain to us how ice hockey in Italy is structured today?
The Alps Hockey League includes the best Italian teams who are fighting against Austrians and Slovenians teams. The Italian teams in the Alps then fight for the “Scudetto”. Moreover, there are the second leagues in which are included all the other teams. Mainly we’re talking about teams based in the north of Italy. The reason for that is quite simple. In the north, the lower temperatures allow to make cut costs. In the center and south of Italy instead, it’s way too hot and it’s complicated to keep ice rinks in profit.
They say the National Team is the mirror of the movement. In this regard, there is no denying that Italy is struggling. What has happened over the last 20 years? What has gone wrong?
I’m not enough informed in detail to give a precise answer. I believe, however, that the newly taken path which aims at enhancing young Italian talents is the right one. The “Oriundi” who are not so young anymore and their value is questionable, don’t really help. It would be better to count on the really telented ones or our young Italian guns who wear the jersey with pride. I think that even painful defeats such as the ones suffered against Japan or Korea a few years ago, helped the players to improve as they learned from experience.
What do you think about the 2019 Worlds of Italy? Survival looked like a half-miracle. Even though, the “Italians” got us used to the fact that they’re almost always able to give their best at the key times.
Italy survived. That was the target and it was achieved. Point. We were also lucky, we don’t deny. But in the end, the results rewarded the “Azzurri” just like the “British” while the French and Austrians got relegated. The strength of Italy is that they’re aware of their limits but, at the same time, they have faith in their heart and in a system of play that nevertheless allowed them to defeat Austria in the “do or die” game. It’s gonna be very difficult to stay in the top division also after next year, but our guys gained a lot of experience and this can help.
Who are currently the best players? And who are the ones to count on for the future?
Bernard, the goalie, had a fantastic 2019 Worlds but also the youngest players of the group like Lambacher, Hochkofler, Ramoser, Pavlu, Deluca end Morini are in a good moment of their career and can improve furthermore. There are other players who could be named, some of them didn’t even play the last tournament in Slovakia. The most important thing in my opinion, however, is to work hard every day in order to enhance those who’s been already playing in the National Team since a while.
As we said previously, we feel like people in Italy want more of ice hockey. Can you confirm our impression?
Yes, in the cities where Ice Hockey is known, people want more of ice hockey. And many people became interested in this sport after the last World Ice Hockey Championship, also thanks to the fact that Eurosport showed the games in the country. To remain at this level (top division) and perhaps to have another Italian team in the EBEL, could help to increase the media coverage.
What do you think about the “Oriundi”? Do you think they can be an asset? Or rather, do you think it’s feasible to search – perhaps in North America – for young talented Canadian and American players with Italian origins in order to increase the talent of the team? In Poland, the former coach Ted Nolan, tried to do so (without success…) with the target to increase the level of the Polish National Team.
As I said before during the answer of another question, to have the really talented “Oriundi” in the team makes sense. But let us not forget about the Italians we have already. If you want to cook pasta carbonara, you need pecorino, guanciale, home made pasta and the eggs from granma’s henhouse. Then it’s clear that if you find some quality shrimps, you can try to cook carbonara di mare. But it must be a quality alternative that can give you a solution. I mean, I’d never exchange an italian guanciale with any of overseas ones that may be cheaper and may look better but then, on the palate, is inferior. We must bet on quality, we’re Italians and this is the way to go.
In Switzerland, we all still remember Gaetano “Gates” Orlando… who did a terrific job in Bern and Lugano and is currently in the scouting of the New Jersey Devils. Is it unthinkable that he can play a role for the Italian National team in the future? Even if only as an ambassador.
As an ambassador, of course yes. I see it difficult instead, to see him to be part of the coaching staff. That’s because I don’t think he would resign from his job in New Jersey to come back in Italy. It may happen in the future, whenever he achieves something big with the Devils. But I still see it difficult to see him fully involved in the Azzurri’s staff. One thing is sure, collaboration between the Italian hockey of today and the big names of the past could increase. But meanwhile, it’s also safe to say that if you have faith in the current staff, you must put it in the best condition to work and support it.
How you see the future of Italian ice hockey?
There are great opportunities out there. The difficult part of the job starts immediately after the World Ice Hockey Championship. If we can work well, we can play the 2020 Worlds in Switzerland more prepared compared to the one in Slovakia. If I were at the head of Italian hockey, I’d work to improve the Alps, I’d keep an eye on the young Italian talents who play abroad and I’d try to work in the direction to bring another Italian team in the EBEL.
Which is a question we didn’t ask but you’d like us to? Ask yourself a question and give us an answer.
Well, here we are. “What could you journalists do for Italian hockey?” And the answer is quite simple.
To work with passion, just like now or even more. And maybe even to play the game in order to feel this sport even more. We could organize charity events and roundtables open for the fans. We’re working in this direction to create an ice hockey Italian team made of jornalists and media workers. I think that a country that has a team in the top division, should have journalists who are ice hockey passionates. I’m saying this a bit serious and a bit ironic, but I think these ideas are a great way to make ice hockey not any more a totally “niche sport”. We’re trying to do something like this though… “Giornalisti sul ghiaccio” (Journalists on ice)… our level might not be sublime, but it can be a way to come together and help to spread the passion of ice hockey around the country.
By the way… if in Switzerland you have a “Press & Media team” who would like to face us… let me know 🙂
Thank you very much, Johnny!
And good luck to Italy for the future. Ice hockey is a fantastic sport and deserves more attention. Also in Italy. A country where it’s likely that ice hockey will never be the national sport… but a country where, nevertheless, also this sport deserves space and respect!