LUGANO, Switzerland – Hnat Domenichelli brings international flair to the Olympics. While his name is of Italian-Ukrainian descent, Domenichelli won World Junior gold with Canada and will represent Switzerland at the Olympics 14 years later.
Domenichelli left North America with 267 NHL games under his belt and a high-scoring season in the AHL to play in Switzerland for Ambrì-Piotta, Basel, Zurich and now his second year for HC Lugano.
After playing in the Italian-speaking region of Ticino for almost seven years and marrying a Swiss woman, Domenichelli got his Swiss passport last year. While Lugano is struggling in the league, Domenichelli has had some success. With 25 goals and 30 assists in 44 games he’s in the hunt for the scoring title.
But winning the scoring title isn’t his aim. The reason he moved to a top club is to win the Swiss championship. This season, ha also has a second goal, to surprise the world with Switzerland at the Olympics.
IIHF.com talked to the Edmonton native three weeks before the Olympic men’s ice hockey tournament opens with the USA-Switzerland game.
How is it going in Lugano right now? The club has just fired the coach.
Yes, that’s hockey. A team like Lugano has big goals. Obviously they're not satisfied and felt time for a change. It’s not a funny situation for anybody, but it is what it is and we have to keep going.
What was the reason Lugano lost five in a row?
I think we’re at a point where we are getting close to the end of the season and every game is important. The difference between winning and losing is very close. There were some games we lost which we could have won with one goal here, one goal there, but it didn’t happen. It’s tough to explain, but we have to get ready for the next game.
While your team is losing, you’re the scoring leader of the Swiss league. Is that a special situation for you?
No. I’ve played enough years in Switzerland and the interest is on the success of the team. Hopefully we can get back.
When you came to Switzerland in 2003, did you imagine that you would stay for so long, get married and play for its national team?
Nobody knows where life is going to take you. Things changed and that’s what you call life. I’m here today and I enjoy how things have gone. I started for one year, then a year turned into two etc.
How would you describe to somebody from Canada hockey in Ticino?
Hockey in Ticino – there’s a lot of passion. There’s a lot of emotion in the game. When the teams are winning, it’s a very positive emotion, and when the team is losing, there’s a lot of negativity. This is the biggest difference from Canada where I think people are more reserved. The fans here live with each game a lot more.
You are quite international, growing up in Canada with an Italian name and a given name that doesn’t look Canadian.
I grew up like a normal Canadian. The name has been carried down two generations from my great-grandfather. And my mother is Ukrainian, so Hnat is the Ukrainian forename for Harry. Because my father is of Italian descent and I have an Italian family name, they also wanted some Ukrainian heritage in the name and named me Hnat. My mother’s family had a friend who had this name.
Do you remember your last IIHF tournament, when you played for Canada in the 1996 World Juniors?
Sure, we won the gold medal. Any time you win, you remember winning with the group of players. It was a great experience. We played in Boston and we beat Sweden in the final. You always remember such moments.
Fourteen years later you will play at the Olympics. What do you think about the event in Vancouver?
It’s going to be a great event. Not only for me, but for hockey. And it’s even in Canada. It’s going to be the pinnacle event of the Olympics. It will be a great experience and we have to give our best and go.
How do you feel to play with Switzerland against Canada in the Preliminary Round?
I have no problem. It’s something that has changed over my life. It’s a hockey game and I represent Switzerland and they’re going to play. I’ve talked to Hockey Canada over the past few years and they had no problem with my decision. They understood my situation and wish me all the best.
When did you make this decision?
Over the summer. I talked with head coach Ralph Krueger last April and in summer I thought about it and then decided that I’d go for it.
Many people think that the Swiss have a problem to score goals on the international stage. Do you agree with this statement?
I disagree. The Swiss don’t have a problem to score goals. The Swiss team chooses to play a defensive strategy because they feel it’s the best opportunity to win games against big countries. When you choose to play a defensive system, you accept that you’re not going to score a lot of goals. We’re trying to get into games that are 1-1, 0-0. We could try to go out and score goals against Canada and play very aggressive, and we would score three or four goals, but we would lose every time, we would give up seven, eight, nine goals. So this is a strategy of Ralph Krueger to give Switzerland a chance to compete against the best countries in the world. He made this decision a long time ago in 1997 when Switzerland was 15th in the world standings and now they’re seventh. So, people can feel it like a problem when we don’t score many goals, but you should not look at it like that. If you want to compete against big countries, you have to accept to have this strategy.
When you played your first games with the national team in November, did you have any special feelings?
No, in your first tournament you don’t have many expectations. I just wanted to go and learn the system and then in the second camp in Slovakia to improve. Then in February I try to improve again. For sure it takes a lot of time to get integrated into a new system and culture.
With the different system you have also a different role. Do you feel comfortable with?
Yes, I have a really positive experience so far. I play really high-level hockey against other countries. We’re all there to help Switzerland win. It’s been fun.
Are you surprised that you’re the only Swiss-Canadian on the 23-man roster?
A little bit I am. I thought that Ryan [Gardner] and Paul [Di Pietro] gave good contributions to the program, but I don’t make those decisions. Obviously, Ralph [Krueger] has to find his team that plays the best right now. So every player has different times in their careers with ups and downs, so obviously Ralph thinks at this exact moment, that’s the team to go.
Did you already think about your international career after the Olympics? Like the 2010 World Championship?
If I feel good and I’m healthy, I don’t see why I can’t play. But I haven’t gone to the Olympics, I haven’t finished the season in Lugano. Maybe in an Olympic year it’s a lot of hockey. I have to see how I feel in April. When you talk about an Olympic year and all the national team games and the club team games, you could play over 100 games in a season. I’ll make that decision when the time comes.
What do you think can the Swiss reach in Vancouver?
We want to get ourselves in a situation where we will be able to compete in the playoffs. Compared to the World Championship there’s not a lot of pressure at the beginning. It would be great to win a medal, what would be a great experience. That’s the dream you have to have. If I don’t believe, if the team doesn’t believe in that, who else is going to believe in us? Many people say we don’t have a chance, but we’re going to give our best and we don’t feel too much pressure.