By – IIHF.com
After starting this initiative at the start of the 2014/15 season, Italy has won promotion back to the top division after a second-place finish at the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A in Katowice, Poland.
“We are such a close group of guys. We have a lot of fun when we are in national team camps and when we go to tournaments. To fight for each other is the most important thing on the ice. We can get a lot of energy out of this,” says national team captain Anton Bernard, who has been through the changes and has played in two top-level World Championships in 2012 and 2014.
For the Bolzano native, whose brother Andreas is one of the national team goalies, the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Cologne and Paris could be the sixth consecutive World Championship tournament including Division I.
“We have a young team but it is still a process. We struggle to score goals but we have good goaltending. We just need to be more patient,” he continues.
With the national team concentrating on home-grown talent there is an influx of younger players as well as new players who are happy to play for their home nation. “We are a pretty young team, we have players now that want to be here and want to earn a spot on the team,” says Tommaso Traversa. “To me it doesn’t matter where they are from, whether they were born in Italy or not, as long as they know the identity that we have. They play for the team and the jersey that they are wearing. This is how it was last year. We gave everything no matter what and we got promoted.“
This is process and a lot has happened in the past two seasons under coach Stefan Mair. Not only was the ice hockey community surprised by this but so were the players.
“It was a surprise for us that we made it to the top division especially after we had lost to both Austria and Slovenia. We didn’t think we could still make it. We had some help from other teams towards the end,” Bernard remembers the tournament last spring in Katowice.
However, it looks like they embrace the underdog role that they have been cast in according to the team captain.
“We will be going to the World Championships with an underdog mentality and we know there is a lot of work still to do,” Bernard says. “We still have a camp in February and probably a long one before the World Championship begins. There are lot of new guys who will be playing in the top division for the first time and they’ll be very excited. We are still the underdogs for sure.”
The youth movement looks to be here to stay. Coach Mair again used a rather young roster during the international break in November at the Euro Ice Hockey Challenge in Budapest.
“There are some young players that will get a real chance heading into the World Championship,” he says and expects a mix of young players and some with experience in the top division. Bernard is a player that Mair can expect to be a leader both on and off the ice.
“There are some responsibilities that come with being the captain. You just need to step up with some of the other guys. In the past we have always had older players with international experience. They are not here anymore so it is now up to us to step up and move on,” the 27-year-old says.
It will be interesting to see how Italy will perform at the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship as the underdog. Italy has played in the top division without interruption between 1992 and 2002 and from 2006 until 2008. Since 2008 the national team was relegated each time it played including 2010, 2012 and 2014. But don’t be surprised if they pull off a couple of upsets.
In the preliminary round the squadra azzurra will play in Cologne in a group with Russia, the United States, Sweden, Slovakia, host Germany, Latvia and Denmark.