Ambri-Piotta resists urbanisation

Swiss village club is surviving modern hockey business trends

31.07.2008
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Ambri's ice rink Valascia has the rustic charme as it had decades ago. Photo: Martin Merk

AMBRI, Switzerland – What is the smallest village with a hockey team? There should be many, from Siberia to Scandinavia to Canada. However, the strongest village team is likely found in Ambri, a 400-person village in the Swiss Alps.

It takes a long car or train ride to get to the tiny village from the bigger Swiss cities, which is right at the entrance to the 16-kilometre long Gotthard tunnel through the Alps. When you finally arrive, you are in Alto Ticino, the upper part of the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, or more exactly, in the Leventina valley. It might not be the most prosperous part of the country, with little villages and a high unemployment rate. The area has a lot of fog and few daylight in the narrow valley. Located on the route between Basel to Milan, it was once a footpath of Stone Age people and is now covered by a highway and train tracks. You can see Ambri’s landmark a few kilometres after the long tunnel. It’s not a church, like in the other villages; it’s the ice rink, the mythic Valascia that holds 7,000 people.

When entering the village after leaving the highway, you’ll see the former military airfield. When the team plays, it is used as a parking lot, making Ambri-Piotta – Piotta is the neighbouring village – the probably only hockey club with its own airfield. And they even have their own train station. The blue sign “Ambri-Piotta” is still hanging there, even though the Swiss railways gave up the station in 1995. Serving the villages of the Leventina valley with a regional train was not economic. The waiting room was made the office of HC Ambri-Piotta in 1997.

While the railway station was abandoned due to business trends, the hockey club is still alive and well. Founded in 1937, it is the most traditional club of the Italian-speaking area in Switzerland. Farmers, cattle dealers, lumberjacks, hunters and butchers from the valley came together to play ice hockey in the cold valley. A well-fitting activity for the tough guys in the long and dark winters. Like in Northern Scandinavia, the sun is unseen during two months in winter due to the steep hillsides. It’s said that the name of the village comes from ombra, the Italian word for shadow. Ambri-Piotta appeared in the highest Swiss league in the ‘50s for the first time and has continuously been playing in the National League A since 1985. Hockey brings the village out of its shadow.

You might ask why thousands of hockey fans stream to a little village for games. Indeed, HC Ambri-Piotta doesn’t correspond to the urban trends in hockey. Switzerland has seen three of its five biggest cities promoted from the B-league since 2002. But Basel and Lausanne managed to stay just for a few seasons, only Geneva was successful. And through it all, HC Ambri-Piotta survived the urban danger.

The club is popular in half of the canton of Ticino, especially the northern part. The hockey fans are split between Ambri-Piotta and the less traditional but more successful archrival HC Lugano, in the South close to Italy, where palm trees adorn the shore of the Lago di Lugano. Ambri’s fan area also spans the other side of the Gotthard Mountain, to the German-speaking canton of Uri. And because the club has cult status, it has fans in the rest of the country. Being kind of a tiny Asterix village against the powerhouses of the league fascinates people up all over the nation.

Coming to the Valascia by car, the same old guide will lead you to the airfield if you don’t have access to drive to the stadium area, which is half the village. Walking up, the smell of the same food as years ago goes through the air. Sausages, hotdogs, hamburgers, not high-priced convenience food like in new arenas. No pasta, no pizza, which you can eat in one of the two restaurants in Ambri. But there’s marroni, roasted chestnuts – the specialty of Valascia’s outdoor food stands. Outside, inside, it doesn’t matter as the stands behind the goals are open for fresh air.

On the other side of the main entrance, there’s the Curva Sud, the standing room of the die-hard fans. They’re known to be politically left. So being an Ambri, and not a Lugano fan, is not only a geographical question in Ticino, it’s also a philosophical one. Many flags are waved, having the emblem of the club but also symbolic figures like South American revolutionary Che Guevara or Apache leader Geronimo. When games end with a win, they sing their hymn, La Montanara, the song of the mountains.

The Swiss National League decided recently to make an effort to phase out the older arenas in the nation. It must be like a strike at the heart of every Ambri fan. Too unreal, not to be in the worshipped Valascia, but to be supporting the team in a modern arena, without “natural air conditioning”, with food stands in the arena, luring more women into the arena by having enough toilets and room temperature as in contemporary facilities. It must sound imaginary for somebody who’s used to attend games in the Valascia, which hasn’t changed so much since getting a roof in 1979.

Of course, there are projects to build a new arena. But there were projects ten years ago as well.

Just like the fans, also the sponsors are mostly from Ticino and Uri. Thanks to networking, the income from sponsors was raised in the last years. That was not always the case.

In 1999, Ambri-Piotta made it to the final series for the first time and missed its first-ever championship, losing to archrival Lugano. Ambri-Piotta also won two IIHF Continental Cups (1999, 2000) and the 1999 European Super Cup in this era by beating teams like Ak Bars Kazan, Avangard Omsk and Metallurg Magnitogorsk. The success was running the club into huge debts. 2.2 million Swiss francs (€1.3m) were collected by a fund-raising campaign of the 24 fan clubs. Money was collected from all over the country and was donated from foreign sympathisers.

It’s rumoured that even Geo Mantegazza, the billionaire who’s financing HC Lugano, donated a bigger amount to HC Ambri-Piotta. Of course, nobody in Ticino wanted to miss the derbies between those clubs, between the rich and the poor, between the bourgeoisie and the lefties, between the North and the South, the townsfolk and the mountain people, between those who are called millionaires and farmers by their respective rivals. The derbies fill all newspapers, radio and TV transmissions in Ticino, and they belong to the few games shown live in free TV.

Nowadays, the team is not only composed of locals, although eight players are from Ticino. There’s no dynasty anymore like the Celio family, which had 13 players on the team. Captain Nicola Celio is the last remaining player after his cousin Manuele retired and is coaching a junior national team. There were also ten Juris playing for Ambri and another one was president of the club.

The main focus is not on the domestic players, which are usually of average level in Ambri as there’s no money for Swiss top shots. The four allowed imports have high expectations and get up to 30 minutes of ice time each game. Dale McCourt, Valeri Kamensky, Petr Malkov, Igor Chibirev, Peter Jaks, Oleg Petrov, Paul Di Pietro, Hnat Domenichelli and Jean-Guy Trudel belong to the greatest players of the age of professional hockey in Ambri. Most of them got better offers from other clubs after some successful years and new stars had to be found, mostly from the AHL. Like Erik Westrum. He was not only the best scorer of HC Ambri-Piotta last season, but in the whole league. In 57 games he notched 36 goals and 45 assists, and was consequently lured by NHL clubs, even with one-way offers. He didn’t opt out of his contract in the tiny Swiss village.

Of course, most players who come from other regions or countries don’t live in Ambri itself, even not in the Leventina valley but 50 kilometres to the south in Bellinzona, the capital of Ticino in the middle of the canton. Like Westrum, who enjoyed his time nearby in Monte Carasso.

“I like the small town that I live in and I like playing up there too. It’s a great hockey tradition that has been built past along and it’s great to be a part of and help to build a winning tradition,” the American forward says. “We’re treated very well by the organisation and Ambri has one of the best following. Wherever we play, we have a good group of fans supporting us, that’s also one of the reasons to come back.

“I decided to turn the offers down, that’s the commitment to Ambri. It’s a matter of enjoyment of playing for Ambri. Also the quality of life and the time for my family is good in Switzerland. I think we have the chance to surprise some people next year and hopefully make the playoffs.”

After HC Ambri-Piotta missed the playoffs twice in a row, they hope to make it this time with a new coach, John Harrington, who was part of the 1980 U.S. Olympic team that won the ‘miracle on ice’ gold. He has been a successful college coach since 1984. Like Westrum, he’s from Minnesota. “We’ve spoken a couple of times,” says Westrum, who also played with Harrington’s son Chris at the AHL’s Toronto Marlies prior to joining Ambri-Piotta in 2007.

“Last year was a learning experience for me and some other guys,” he describes his first season in Europe, creating a drive for more in that tiny, passionate hockey village.

MARTIN MERK

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