QUEBEC CITY – Imagine waking up with a huge hangover after getting beaten up at an exclusive club the night before. Not only do you feel terrible, but the management informs you that you can’t come back for at least two years, and possibly longer, depending on how you behave.
That’s essentially how Italy and Slovenia feel today. Both were relegated to Division I after being swept by their opponents in best-of-three series. Italy’s defensive lapses resulted in a 6-4 loss to France, which had been relegated in both 2000 and 2004. Meanwhile, the Slovenes battled back bravely to secure a 3-3 tie with Slovakia in regulation, but Lubomir Visnovsky’s shootout goal delivered victory for the favourites.
To understand the pain of being defeated this way, look no further than Italian captain Mario Chitarroni.
“When I look back, it’s going to be very disappointing that there’s a good chance this is my last game, having it end like this,” said Chitarroni.
The 40-year-old native of Cobalt, Ontario has amassed 67 games for Italy at the IIHF World Championship dating back to 1992, scoring 14 goals and 19 assists. He’s been part of the highs and lows of the program, from finishing sixth on home ice in 1994 to receiving a two-game suspension after an altercation versus Switzerland in 2001.
Italy entered the 2008 tournament ranked 13th in the world, but will now fall behind nations like Norway and France. What’s harder to take than a reduced numerical standing, though, is the blow to the team’s pride.
“It’s tough,” said Chitarroni. “Our budget’s extremely small, and without the funding from the IIHF, it’s very hard for us to get anything together, apart from our pride about not being in the B Pool. The other problem we have is that there’s not a lot of hockey players in Italy, let alone a lot of very talented hockey players. It’s lagged behind a lot of the other countries for a few years, and our national team program has worked hard to help our players come along. I don’t know if they’re quite there yet. There are a few of us who are too old to be on this team, almost, well, definitely! I hope the young guys can improve and help the national team get back to the A Pool. It’s going to be tough.”
The veteran Serie A forward still bitterly recalls how changing formats hurt Italy’s hopes of qualifying for the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. But he doesn’t believe that this year’s altered Relegation Round format (the best-of-three series) is to blame for the Azzurri’s relegation.
“Now, it would be easy to say another format change has cost us again. But if you have the four teams with Slovakia, Slovenia, and France, it’s not an easy road either. I think we thought our chances against France in a best-of-three were better than if we did a round-robin. We just needed to beat France two out of three, and we didn’t do it.”
The hangover will last until at least Germany 2010, when fans of Italy and Slovenia will hope their teams reappear at the World Championship in Cologne and Mannheim.