Ice hockey and Italy. It’s rare that these two words go together in the same sentence. In fact, there is no denying that ice hockey in Italy is a fringe sport. It’s a sport that is not very considered in a country where football is placed at the forefront and where other sports are not covered enough. Wrongly so, in our opinion.

Yet, there are lots of hockey enthusiasts in Italy. Perhaps they’re hidden somewhere but they do exist. We personally realized that especially last year during the 2019 Worlds played in Bratislava. In particular, when we presented the Switzerland vs Italy game preview and many people shared our article in the “bel paese”.

From that moment on, we promised ourselves that, as people from Ticino and therefore as people living close to the Italian reality, we would talk more about Italian ice hockey. Unfortunately, mea culpa, we weren’t really able to do so during this last season. But we will do it more and more in the future.

One thing is sure, even though we haven’t written much about it, we continued to follow Italian hockey and over time we’ve realized that there are many problems. The passion and the will – especially of the players – are huge. However, many things can improve in order to revive this sport that years ago was very followed.

As usual in our case, we don’t just want to know but we want to deepen though. Therefore, we had the possibility and the chance, thanks to a mutual friend, to get in touch with Pietro Nicolodi. The latter is a SKY journalist that regularly follows football for work but that, originally, is most and above all a hockey commentator.

Pietro has been a journalist at SKY Sport since 2005 and previously had worked for Rai Sport and other local TV. He followed 5 winter Olympics and commented three gold medal Olympic ice hockey finals other than dozens of Stanley Cup finals and as many Italian league finals.

Moreover, he is also a passionate of our Swiss league that he’s been following since when he was a child. And this, because in Bolzano he was able to receive our German channels. In particular, he became a fan of SC Bern – at the times of Reijo Ruotsalainen, a player he loved – and his second team is Davos thanks to the countless editions of Spengler Cup watched.

With Piero, anyway, we wanted to talk solely about Italian hockey.

INTERVIEW

Last year, during the 2019 Worlds, we realized that there are a lot of ice hockey enthusiasts in Italy. What is the current situation of ice hockey in the “bel paese”?

Let’s say we’ve had better times. During the early 90s the movement was on the top. Exceptional players were coming from overseas and from Eastern Europe. Moreover, we had excellent foreign-born Italians. There was a lot of interest and a great fan base. Then, slowly, the enthusiasm dampened, we run out of money and the level decreased a lot. Now we’re in a transitional phase and only Bolzano can be considered an “oasis”, thanks to the fact that they participate in the EBEL.

During this “transitional phase” who is responsible for reviving the ice hockey movement?

The means at the federation disposal are what they are. Surely some wrong choices have been made by the federation but if ice hockey is currently in such a bad situation it’s also the clubs’ fault. The latter in fact, mostly think about their own “garden” and don’t have a general overview of the situation. It’s always been like that though, also during the good old days.

What about the infrastructure and the chances for young players to play ice hockey?

At the national level it’s a disaster. There are not many rinks available if we exclude the regions of Alto Adige, alto Veneto and some part of Piemonte. In Milano there is a lot of passion but there is also the lack of opportunities of practicing this sport. When it comes to central and southern Italy instead, let’s just forget about it.

Little money, little media coverage, lack of structures. What could be done, in your opinion, in order to revive the movement and feed the hockey enthusiasts?

When it comes to technical level the only solution is to invest in youth hockey and improve the level of the coaching. Up to the U14 level our guys are ready to stand up to foreign clubs but after that age the gap is huge. When it comes to media coverage it’s even more complicated. The Italian league and the NHL have been broadcasted for years but the results weren’t good enough. I know that because I was the commentator.

Do you think, however, that a larger media coverage (blogs, websites) could help?

It would certainly help but that’s not the only thing to be done. Let’s take football for example, there is such a coverage, but the current situation is not very bright.

Let’s talk about the game now. The EBEL is a good league and Bolzano is representing Italy very well. However, what is your opinion? Is the EBEL a good or a bad thing for Italian hockey?

As a person from Bolzano I can say that the EBEL was a godsend for ice hockey in the city. We’d reached a point when no one cared about ice hockey anymore. The EBEL brought back an impressive enthusiasm. Moreover, the title-win at the first year was an event that literally drove people nuts. Then, of course, the absence of Bolzano from the top national competition – the IHL, which is not even so badly organized and includes historic teams such as Merano, Varese and Alleghe – has further impoverished the national scene.

Well, it seems to us that the EBEL is both a good and a bad thing for Italian hockey. Are there any other Italian clubs interested in joining the EBEL? And what is your general opinion about this league? Or rather, would it be better to try to improve a league made of only Italian clubs and therefore generate more interest due also to “historical rivalry”?

At times there are Italian clubs that seem interested in joining the EBEL but there was never anything more than interest. Again, in my opinion the EBEL is a fantastic league and at least for Bolzano is the perfect size.

Let’s talk now about the national team, that oftentimes constitutes the mirror of the movement in a country. Our impression, from the outside, is that the “Azzurri” national team reflects very well the current situation. There is a lot of good will but not many means. What do you think about the Italian national team and, thinking about the future, about Greg Ireland as new coach?

Frankly speaking, it’s crazy that we’re in the top tier of the Worlds Championship. Both the promotion and last year’s survival were earned in an incredible way. It was difficult to do more than that. Instead, I’m excited about the fact that Greg Ireland is the new coach. His CV is impressive and in Bolzano he did a terrific job. That said, he’ll have to equip himself for miracles.

Always talking about national team, the OG of Milano-Cortina seem to be the perfect chance to revive ice hockey in Italy. There is no time to be wasted though. What do you think?

I believe, or rather I hope, that this chance will not be missed. For now, it’s important to get out as soon as possible from this international crisis and then I hope there will be enough time to present a serious project.

When it comes to the Azzurri national team, it’s impossible not to think about the foreign-born Italians. The so-called “Oriundi”. What do you think about them?

The “Oriundi” were a huge resource. The quality ones, and there were many of them during the 80s and 90s. They helped us to make it to the Group A at the Worlds Championship that back then were made of 8 teams and improved a lot the level of our league. Those times will never be back though because today the whole world of ice hockey changed. There are more NHL teams and the minors in NA are much better organized. Let us not forget, moreover, that nowadays clubs in Italy cannot afford to pay salaries like during the good old days. So, the problem is different today. It’s better less “Oriundi” but only the good ones. For the rest, let’s give space to our young talents.

Thinking about the whole movement anyway, honestly, are you confident? Do you really believe in a better future?

It’s difficult to be confident right now. Let’s get out of this darn time due to the coronavirus and then let’s try to work all together for a better future. It’ll not be easy…

Nope, it’s not gonna be easy Pietro. Thank you so much for your availability!

WE’LL TALK MORE ABOUT ITALIAN HOCKEY…

Right, it’s not gonna be easy at all. We still have in front of our eyes the class and professionalism of Gates Orland, former Bern and Lugano that in Switzerland has left his mark. And who knows, perhaps all the great Italian legends of the past can help to improve the current situation of ice hockey in Italy.

Of course, you cannot think that everything can change from one day to another. However, the fact that the Italian federation was able to sign Greg Ireland as the new national team coach help us to be optimistic.

Let’s not forget that Italy – and the Italians – have often shown in history that they are able to give their best in the most difficult moments. Well, if we’re talking about ice hockey, this is a very difficult time… and so, let’s wait for the Italians to “break through”, awaiting to see them get up and bring the whole movement back up again.

We, as Leading Sport, in our little we want to give our small contribution. We’re planning our next season and among our “crazy” ideas there is the one to follow Italian hockey and the EBEL more closely. We mean, this is not the last time you hear about Italian hockey on our website…

Because in Italy there is not only football. There is also ice hockey and there are thousands of fans who deserve more respect.

See you soon, Italian friends!

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