Normally, you wouldn’t expect to see a name like “Brian Ihnacak” on Italy’s World Championship roster. It’s been a long journey for this IIHF rookie.
“I decided to take a chance in Italy,” said the Canadian-born Ihnacak after Italy’s opening 3-0 loss to Norway. “I had zero expectations of what it was going to be like. To my surprise, it was actually pretty good. There are a lot of good hockey players there. A lot of NHLers and American League guys. It’s an opportunity I took. I played there for two and a half years. And here I am, wearing the blue.”
The 29-year-old is the son of former Toronto Maple Leafs forward Peter Ihnacak, who tallied 267 points in 417 NHL games between 1982-83 and 1989-90. That also makes him the nephew of Miroslav Ihnacak, who appeared in 56 NHL games with Toronto and Detroit. The Slovak brothers were born in Czechoslovakia, and defected from the then-Communist country three years apart.
Peter has been a European scout for the Leafs since 2005, while Miroslav coached in Slovakia for three years before making the jump to Poland last season.
“Without my dad, I would never have had the opportunity to get drafted in the NHL,” said Ihnacak, who was taken in the ninth round (254th overall) by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2004. “I’ve always thought I had the skill and talent to do it, but that only gets you so far. He showed me for quite some time the work ethic it would take to make it. When I was a kid, I was close. I had my chances. But curve balls come, and life takes you down different paths. But [Peter has] brought huge hockey knowledge and hockey influence my whole life. There’s no table talk unless it’s hockey. I don’t even think we’ve had another conversation aside from hockey with my uncle or dad! It’s what we always talk about. It’s ever-present.”
Peter suited up for Czechoslovakia at the 1982 Worlds, and might be able to offer some useful tips for Brian in this tournament.
Versus Norway, the gifted 186-cm, 83-kg centre played on a line with two fellow Italo-Canadian NCAA products, Asiago captain David Borrelli and Troja-Ljungby’s Vincent Rocco. Though held pointless, Ihnacak and Rocco nearly clicked on a nice 2-on-1 early in the third period.
“We had a couple of chances,” Ihnacak said. “We could have put in three or four goals with a little bit of luck. But it’s hard. We don’t play with each other at all, and haven’t ever, really. We got put together and we got some chemistry right off the bat. You put a couple of good players together and usually you can make something out of it.”
Ihnacak has tried to make the most of his opportunities. Born in Toronto, he spent four years at Brown University before getting pro contracts in Slovakia, the ECHL, and the Central Hockey League, as well as Italy.
Ihnacak is coming off his most productive pro season. He led the top Italian league, Elite.A, with 81 points in 36 games for Valpellice this season. He’s enjoyed this taste of success – as well as the taste of the pre-game meals in one of the world’s great culinary nations.
“It’s not traditional American Italian food. There’s no chicken parm. In fact, they’ve never even heard of chicken parm!” Ihnacak said with a laugh. “That is probably my favorite meal ever, sadly, and we never get it. But the food is good. Good chicken and pasta, the list goes on. They try to force down a glass of wine on you too, so the odd time you succumb to it.”
At the end of 2013-14, he joined the Malmo Redhawks for the Allsvenkan’s Kvalserien competition, and the team based in the host city for the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship fell just two points short of gaining promotion to the SHL.
Could he return to Sweden’s third-largest city next season?
“We’re deciding right now, kind of figuring things out. I’ve always had a dream of playing in the DEL. Germany has been my goal for quite some time. I think I can be a successful hockey player there. Here I am, just trying to show that I can do that. But you know what? Malmo is an unbelievable place, an unbelievable organization. It’s got a first-class rink, fans, training staff, managers and coaches. So if an opportunity like that comes up, you can never say no to it. We’ll take it one day at a time.”
For now, he’s focused on Italy’s next opponent. Sunday’s clash with France looms large, especially with Les Bleus coming off a confidence-building 3-2 shootout win over Canada to open the tournament.
“They’re fast, and they’ve got some great players,” Ihnacak said. “What’s funny is, reading some of the articles and the comments people back home [in Canada] make about Canada losing to France and how absurd that is, it’s a little bit ignorant in the sense that people don’t understand, in North America especially, that there are other leagues besides the NHL. The French have some amazing hockey players, as do the Norwegians. There are guys playing in the SHL, a lot of people that could be playing in the NHL that just happen to be playing over here for whatever circumstances.
“France happens to have a lot of those guys,” Ihnacak continued. “As you can see from that Canada game, they skate well, they move the puck well, they’re creative. They seem like they’re playing with nothing to lose, too. It’s going to mean another hard game.”