MANNHEIM – Much like the ongoing popularity of spaghetti and pizza, little has changed for Team Italy since its last appearance at the IIHF World Championship in 2008. There, the Azzurri got sent down to Division I after dropping two straight Relegation Round games versus France.
Apart from the retirement of veteran Italo-Canadian forwards like Mario Chitarroni and Jason Cirone, the core players from that '08 team are still in place. They dominated with five consecutive victories in 2009 Division I play, posting a 26-4 goal differential to punch their tickets to Germany.
Yet while the Italians usually demonstrate heart and grit against elite competition, their skill level may or may not be high enough to keep them alive this year. Italy's highest World Championship finish in the new millennium has been 12th place (2000, 2001, 2007), and it's currently 15th in the IIHF World Ranking. The Roman Empire will be in tough against the Group B barbarians from Canada, Switzerland, and Latvia.
This nation used to rely on dazzling netminding performances from Italo-Canadian ex-NHLers like Jason Muzzatti and Mike Rosati. Nowadays, though, the selection of goalies is not quite as imposing.
Thomas Tragust scored brownie points with the Italian Ice Sports Federation with his tournament-leading 98.2 save percentage and 0.50 GAA in Division I play last year. The 23-year-old, who played one game at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, is coming off 44 appearances with ESV Kaufbeuren of the German second league this season.
Adam Russo, a 27-year-old Montrealer who currently plays for the IHL's Port Huron Icehawks, was waived so that he could join Italy for this tournament. On an interesting side note, Russo co-holds the QMJHL record for most shutouts in a single season (seven) with a better-known name of Italian heritage: 2010 Olympic gold medalist Roberto Luongo of the Vancouver Canucks.
National team veteran Günther Hell, 31, struggled in his '08 World Championship stint, posting a 4.96 GAA and 83.8 save percentage in five games. However, he remains an option.
Plenty of familiar standbys populate the Italian blueline. The 188-cm, 91-kg Armin Helfer, often regarded as the top defenceman in Serie A, is back for his seventh IIHF World Championship tour of duty. Helfer, who added 27 points in 35 games this year for Bruneck at age 29, was remarkably invited to join HC Davos for the Swiss host team's run to the 2009 Spengler Cup final.
Another player to watch is HC Asiago stalwart Michele Strazzabosco, who earned an Italian championship this season with a finals sweep of Ritten Sport. Strazzabosco, 34, was once invited to try out for the Buffalo Sabres, and is noted for scoring a late tying goal against Slovenia in 2006 that saved Italy from relegation.
Lacking Ferrari-like speed, the Italian defence will struggle to contain Canada's swift-skating young forwards. Grinding it out without taking penalties is slightly more realistic against the Swiss and Latvians.
The Italians got just 11 goals in five games at the 2008 World Championship, and there's little reason to believe they'll fare much better here against the big boys.
Captain Roland Ramoser never met Julius Caesar personally, but he's been playing for the Azzurri so long that somehow it wouldn't be surprising. The 37-year-old power forward from Bolzano made his World Championship debut when Italy hosted in 1994, and while he's no longer the force of nature that used to dominate Serie A, he stepped up big-time in Division I last year with a tournament-high eight points in five games.
Otherwise, Italo-Canadians will be counted on to contribute offensively. Former Philadelphia Flyers draft pick John Parco is nearing the end of the road at age 38, but remains an effective playmaking centre, potting eight goals and 27 assists with Asiago in 2009-10. Pat Iannone, who hails from Fruitvale, British Columbia (the hometown of Barret Jackman and Adam Deadmarsh), came fourth in Serie A goal-scoring this year with 28 tallies.
The Mickey Goulet era ended in 2008 when the longtime Italian bench boss resigned following the national team's relegation in Canada. The new coach is Rick Cornacchia, perhaps best-known for handling the Oshawa Generals when Eric Lindros was tearing up Canadian major junior hockey in the early 1990s. The Toronto native, who played in Italy in the 1970s, emphasizes physical conditioning and sticking to a solid defensive system. Cornacchia's ability to provide motivation and focus for the Italians in their pressure-packed return to the top division will go a long way toward determining success or failure in Germany 2010.
Without taking anything away from solid mid-20s players like Nicola Fontanive and Max Oberrauch, it's a fact that the Italians still have a hard time developing homegrown talent, and that limits their chances of climbing the international hockey ladder. As Cornacchia observed in a recent interview: “Italian forwards for the most part are not put in a position of responsibility on their teams. It is not reasonable to ask players to score goals at the international level when they are checkers on their club team.”
More than most European teams, the Italians have to play hard, and they have to play physically, or they're guaranteed a short stay at this level. One positive sign: you never want to read too much into exhibition results, but earning a 3-3 tie with KHL-stacked Russia in front of supportive Bolzano fans on April 24 can't have hurt this squad's confidence. Still, the Italians will likely finish somewhere between 12th and 16th place, and team play (or the lack thereof) will be the key.