Italy finished the Final Olympic Qualification Group D in the position it was originally seeded: third. The bigger surprises were the gutsy performances against the favourites, including an overtime win against Germany for Tom Pokel’s new team.
In January, the Italian Ice Sports Federation made a unusual move for a national team, replacing coach Rick Cornacchia in the midst of the season due to the team’s poor showing in exhibition games back in autumn.
For the national team it meant a new start with a new coach right before the Olympic Qualification event in Bietigheim-Bissingen, Germany.
With Pokel, who doubles as the new Italian national team coach and the club coach in Alleghe, the Italians didn’t exactly work a miracle, but they performed promising results.
In their first game against eventual tournament winner Austria, the Italians outshot their neighbours 38-22 but lost the game 3-2. After a 2-0 first-period lead for Austria the Italian comeback attempt fell short.
“Small things made a big difference,” was Pokel’s conclusion after the game.
Against tournament favourites Germany the Italians kept up well in the beginning and had the better start with a power-play goal. Germany dominated the rest of the game and tied it at one, but eventually it was Italian forward Nathan di Casmirro who scored the goal for the 2-1 overtime victory.
“Germany controlled the game with the puck more than we would have liked. But we had a solid team effort from everybody. It was a real team unit with players sacrificing for each other,” Pokel said about Italy’s first victory over Germany in an official competition since the 2001 World Championship.
“It was solid defensive-zone coverage. We were opportunistic. We took advantage of the opportunities we had. I’m proud of our players and of Italian hockey to have won the game against Germany.”
Germany’s head coach Pat Cortina knows Italian hockey well. He coached the team between 2000 and 2003.
“That’s how Italy wins at the international level. They play really good defensively, they wait for counter chances, they get great goaltending,” Cortina said. “The Italians were really strong in front of the net and didn’t allow rebounds.”
Although the overtime success wasn’t enough for the team to stay in the race to Sochi, the Italians continued with a 4-1 win against underdog Netherlands and finished the tournament with a respectable five points in three games.
But Pokel doesn’t want his team to just play well defensively and wait for breakaway opportunities. In the next important tournament, the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A in Budapest, Hungary, the Italians are aiming for a quick return to the top division. And what it needs to get there are victories against lower-ranked teams.
Kazakhstan, which was also relegated at the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Helsinki and Stockholm, along with host Hungary, Japan, Great Britain and Korea will be the other challengers that battle for the top-two spots to earn promotion to the 2014 Worlds in Belarus. And Pokel is positive that a brighter future is in store for the team that already earned promotion in 2009 and 2011, but was relegated straight away in 2010 and 2012.
“It’s a new character, a new heart and a new identity for our hockey team that hasn’t been seen for a while and I’m very proud to be part of it,” Pokel said.
“One of the points we wanted to concentrate on is to be stronger, tougher and hungrier in front of our own net protecting our goaltender and winning the rebounds and I think that’s the key right there in the game.”
If you ask the players, it’s more than just words from a new coach.
“Normally we played very defensively but this coach gives us great offensive liberty and encourages us to forecheck with two forwards and to play offensively and aggressively,” said Armin Helfer, who has played in every World Championship for Italy since 2000 – eight in the Top Division, five at Division I level.
“He’s a great guy. He prepares us very well and knows what to tell us also individually. He knows the strengths of the players very well,” he said about Pokel. “It’s a pity we didn’t make it because of the Austria game but we beat Germany and left the tournament with our heads held high.”
In less than two months’ time the team will convene again for another attempt to join the top-16 hockey nations of the world.
“We’re on the right path and soon we’ll go to the World Championship [Division I] in Budapest where we aim for earning promotion,” Helfer said.
“We can go there with much optimism but it will be difficult. We have to go day by day and play well in Budapest.”
Helfer has fond memories of the Laszlo Papp Sportarena in the Hungarian capital. Two years ago in front of almost 9,000 mostly Hungarian fans, it was his point shot in overtime that sent Italy to a 4-3 win over the hosts and to the Top Division in 2012.
“Maybe it will happen again,” the 32-year-old defenceman said with a smile.