CORTINA D’AMPEZZO – It’s the second season for Italy’s new hockey blueprint – and the evidence suggests that the country’s transition is starting to bear fruit.
Following relegation from the top division in 2014 with a roster that included 10 dual-nationality players, the Italian hockey authorities decided to focus more attention on nurturing home-grown talent. Young products of Italy’s own clubs and development programs would take priority in a bid to reinforce the game throughout the country.
It was a brave new world, and the first steps in last year’s World Championship Division I Group A were somewhat tentative – despite being the top seed, Italy finished fifth out of six in Poland.
But for head coach Stefan Mair the experience was useful and now, on home ice, he has a roster where all but four players learned the game in Italy itself.
“In my opinion we’re on the right track,” Mair said. “We are in transition and during this time I want to keep the team young. At this tournament the average age is just 26 and, especially up front, we have lots of guys who are just 21, 22 or 23 years of age.
“We’re seeing players like Joachim Ramoser playing in the DEL at the age of 21, Diego Kostner in the NLA, even Andreas Bernard, our goalie, who’s a starter with Assat Pori in the top league in Finland. That’s the core group we need to build around for our future.”
That trio all made a contribution in the opening 8-0 win over Serbia: Kostner scored, Ramoser had an assist and Bernard posted a shut-out as the Italians got off to a flyer on home ice. The success also reinforced Mair’s belief that there is no reason to fall back on the old guard to combat the pressure of playing at home as tournament favourite.
“Obviously when you go to tournaments and Olympic Qualifiers you want to win,” Mair added “But it would be the wrong message to completely change the team and take senior players just to get a result. We need to have the right mix, create the right environment and make sure we have the right characters in the locker room as well.”
The new-look Italy line-up is getting the thumbs up from the players as well. Alexander Egger is a long-serving defenceman and the Bolzano native is right behind the effort to ice a more Italian team.
“Our federation did the right thing when it cut down on imports and started getting more local players involved,” he said after the Serbia game. “It will take a couple of years to get it right but this is the way forward.
“You can see that our younger players are gaining in confidence because they have more opportunities to play than they did in the last few years. That’s great for the national team because everyone gets more experience in different situations.”
Meanwhile, dual-national players will remain part of the mix for Italy – as long as they prove their worth on the ice.
“I get asked about dual-passport players a lot,” Mair said. “It’s important to make one thing clear: if someone has a double passport, if he has that bond with this country and he wants to play for Italy, he’s more than welcome. But as a coach I also need to make the decision to see who we need in terms of players and roles. Just because someone is an Italo-Canadian player doesn’t mean he should play ahead of an Italian-born player just because of his passport.”