The love for ice hockey hasn’t spread all over Italy yet but thanks to the passion of hockey towns in the alpine north of the country Italy has always been a country that can’t be overlooked in international hockey.
Italy was recently demoted back to the World Championship Division I Group A after finishing in last place in its group in the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Minsk, Belarus. One of their bright spots over the last few years has been native Italian Andreas Bernard, who currently plays for SaiPa Lappeenranta in the Finnish top league.
Bernard hails from the region of South Tyrol where he plays in his city of birth Bolzano, Neumarkt and Kaltern. Starting in 2009/10, Bernard moved to Finland and began playing in the SaiPa organization. He worked his way up from the U20 team at the beginning to now playing with the top men's team in the Finnish city of Lappeenranta. His team had an excellent 2013/14 season, but failed to capture the SM-liiga championship, losing in the semi-finals to eventual champion Karpat Oulu in five games and finishing fourth. SaiPa qualified for the new Champions Hockey League with Bernard on the roster for another year.
IIHF.com asked Andreas Bernard some questions.
How did you start playing hockey and at what age?
I had my first skating lessons when I was four or five years old with my older brother Anton. My dad made, on his wedding day, a deal with his friends that all of his children if they are boys have to play ice hockey, so said and done. All three started to play and my mom played in the women's league. So basically we are a hockey family.
What made you become a goalie?
One day at the beginning of the season when I was eight or nine years old, I went to the rink for practice and the coach came to the locker room and asked if somebody wants to be goalie for the season because we didn't have one, so I volunteered right away.
How would you describe your playing style?
I'm a butterfly goalie, but I like to mix it up with old school sometimes.
What are your goals in hockey?
My goal for my career is to succeed and play at the highest level possible, and I think everybody's dream is to play in the NHL so that would be the ultimate goal.
What have been some of the best moments of your career so far?
One of the best moments was my first shootout in the Finnish league against Ari Sulander in my third top-division appearance. And also my first game for the men's national team. But also last year in the Finnish 2nd league [with Jukurit Mikkeli] where we managed to win the championship.
Do you see Italian hockey on the rise right now?
Well Italy is and will always be a football country, but this year with Bolzano winning the Austrian league it was a good sign that they try to compete with other top countries from Europe. In Italy the major problem is the junior section. They have to do something about it. In other countries, they put 16- to 17-year-old kids on the first line in the top leagues. That's the best way to grow as a player and right now in Italy that's a big problem. But they try to fix it every year and I do really hope that they find a solution to finally get a first native Italian in the NHL. I really think that we can make our way through the next Olympic Qualification and be part of a big event such as the Olympics.
How has playing in the Finnish league helped you in your progression as a goaltender?
The first year when I played for the SaiPa U20 Junior team helped me a lot because we didn't have such a great team so I had almost 30 shots a game and I played very much that season, so I think that helped me a lot to grow as a goalie. Plus I got to practise every morning with the men's team so that was a big bonus for me and I learned a lot from the older goalies and worked a lot with the goalie coaches there.
Did you know at a young age that you were talented at this sport?
Well I was lucky because when I started playing as a goalie, I had a goalie coach right away (Dusan Sidor). He helped me very much and we were on the ice almost every day. So I have to thank him for that, and after a while I started to like it and just kept on going to where I am now.
What does Italy need to do to keep growing the sport of hockey?
The first big step was Bolzano, they managed to get out of the Italian league and are competing at a higher international level, and I really hope that Italy is managing to work on the junior level. For example make one team with the best players and compete on an international level, one place where they can go to school and practise at the same time.
What are your hockey plans for next season and going forward?
I still have a contract with SaiPa, so I want to get as many games as I can get with them and be successful with my team.
NHL team: Pittsburgh Penguins
Childhood idol: Patrick Roy
Video game: Mario Kart
TV show: Californication
Pump-up song: AC DC, Iron Maiden (Rock in Rio)
Activity away from the rink: Biking, tennis, hanging out with friends