Milan’s big league aspirations

Rossoblù on track to become first western team in the KHL

28.10.2012
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Milano Rossoblù goalie Andrew Raycroft makes a save in a Serie A game against Cortina. In anticipation of joining the KHL, the Russian-based league’s logo is already on the jersey. Photo: Claudio Scaccini / hockeymilano.it

MILAN – The city is mostly famous for its fashion and design shows, historic buildings and two of the world’s biggest football teams. Next year Milan will also host a KHL team which will be the first one in Western Europe (if one still considers Bratislava as “east”).

IIHF.com met with Milano Rossoblù president Ico Migliore to learn more about this project. “The choice to have a team in Milan is logical,” says the club’s president.

With the Kontinental Hockey League’s ambition to gain ground in Western Europe, negotiations about having a team in Italy accelerated last year. An intent-partnership was formed and a KHL-entry strategy was defined.

At that time, Milano Rossoblù was still playing in the Serie A2, Italy’s second level league which made the KHL plan not just ambitious but also somewhat adventurous. The discrepancy in quality between Russian ice hockey and Italian is substantial to start with (15 positions in the IIHF World Ranking) and the gap between the KHL and the Italian second tier league probably astronomical.

At least the Rossoblù were promoted to the national top level, Serie A, last spring and they are currently seventh in the 10-team league. But the challenge is appealing to the people in charge:

“It’s a complicated but also exciting project,” Migliore explains. “It’s not just to get a team in the KHL but also to re-design hockey in Milano. In order to do this properly the whole structure should be in place, from juniors to the KHL team.”

The structure is one of the three pillars the project is based on. The other two are related to getting a secured budget in place and increasing visibility in terms of media coverage and rallying fan support. Milano Rossoblù averages 1,880 fans to their games and that’s around 800 more than the league average.

But if there’s one city where they know how to get a redesign done well, it’s Milan. Migliore unveils the structure he is anticipating putting in place.

“The plan is to keep a team in the Serie A and compete on two levels. One level is the Italian level in which we really want to improve in terms of quality, coaches, organization and fans. They all should rank amongst the best in Italy,” he says.

“Also youth hockey should see an improvement, all the way from the U8 to the U20. Vital for this is also to keep good contacts with other teams like HC Varese which would continue to function as a farm team.”

But the top level would of course be the KHL team. The Milan entry in the Italian Serie A is planned to be the farm team of the major league team in the KHL.

“This will give Italian players a new goal to play for. By having a three-layer system we would have a good plan in place to develop hockey and raise money for the future,” says Migliore.

The major challenge of course is financing. Setting up a KHL team requires vast different budgets than what a Serie A team has. Example: Earlier this season Slovak Lev Poprad had to go into bankruptcy just one year after their KHL debut and the team relocated to Prague.

Isn’t the Rossoblù president afraid of a similar scenario?

“Not at all,” replies Migliore. “What happened in Slovakia is a completely different scenario. They entered the league on a wrong foot and they came from a small city compared to Milan.”

“We will take it step by step: First Serie A2, then Serie A then KHL. Furthermore, I want to have a three-year budget assured when we start,” says Migliore. “We already have a budget for one year but in order to ensure that we can grow into a stable KHL team with a guaranteed brake-even, I want the money secured for at least three years in advance.”


Ico Migliore (third from left) welcomes KHL President Alexander Medvedev (first from left) in Milan. Photo: FISG Press Office

Migliore does not feel his team is being used as a marketing ploy. On the contrary.

“We’re the only team outside the KHL to be allowed to play with the league’s logo on our jerseys, for already the second year in a row,” he says while pointing towards the players on the ice.

“Our club is displayed prominently on their website and are mentioned in magazines. Milano Rossoblù is also frequently named to by league president Alexander Medvedev and other KHL board members.. On our end this is a project we take seriously too and not just something we gamble on. In the end this will be good for hockey in the whole of Italy.”

The project seems to be in good hands with Ico Migliore. Not only is he a former Milan player, but he also has international experience in representing his country at the Olympic games in Sarajevo 1984 and he captained his national team in various World Championships.

Outside hockey he has built up a successful career as an internationally awarded architect. Migliore was also selected to adorn the city of Turin for the 2006 Winter Olympics. It was the first time a complete city was decorated in Olympic design. Migliore therefore is not afraid to take on new big challenges.

“Europe has changed and it should make us think differently about hockey too,” he explains. ”It’s two-way hockey now. One way is domestic and the other is international, cross-border. With revenue from international hockey you can finance the development of local, domestic hockey.

“That’s the most important part. Surviving solely on revenues from the Serie A is too weak a basis in today’s hockey. We need the money which a KHL team is able to generate via sponsoring, media and merchandise. The same scenario unfolded in football with the Champions League. In the beginning no one thought it’d have any chance of survival and now it’s the biggest league in the world.”

Migliore is not the person to sit back and relax, nor does he want to be dependent on local sponsors to just squeeze out an affordable Serie A budget.

“If you really want to take steps forward you need to have a vision. It’s impossible to survive with just having one rich sponsor. You need to have a strong brand that can be marketed.

“Distances have also changed figuratively. I can be in Moscow in two hours whereas a bus trip to Brunico for a league game would take me three hours. Flight tickets are also almost as affordable as bus tickets. We have three airports in or around Milan and we have a city that has the capacity to host a KHL team. All that makes the choice for Milan logical.”

Talks with a major sponsor are nearing completion and it is about to be announced in the near future. Having secured that signature means that the team management can start looking ahead towards next season’s roster. Being a team based in the EU, Milano Rossoblù can have an unlimited number of EU players on its roster with only non EU-members, i.e. Swiss players and/or North Americans being counted as imports.

This means that any Russian player would ironically be considered as “foreigner” while playing in their own league, albeit in a Milano Rossoblù jersey.

The interview is briefly interrupted when loud roars can be heard from the arena bowl. The Milan players just hit the ice in the small Agorà arena for the Serie A game against Pustertal Bruneck and the local fans show their vocal support.

“We won’t be playing our games here,” Migliore assures. “The KHL demands arenas of a capacity of at least 6,000 seats and this one has just 4,000. We’re currently in talks with the Forum, where the 1994 IIHF World Championship was held but we’re also exploring options elsewhere.”

“We’ve got a very good working relationship with Turin where they have two Olympic arenas and we plan to play several games there,” he says, already looking ahead to next season. “We’re certainly not glued to Milan as this project is to be considered as something good for the whole of Italian hockey.”

“I don’t see a problem attracting fans to our games next season. For this I don’t just count on the people living in or near Milan. We want to share this project with the rest of Italy and open up a window of opportunity to them to watch high quality hockey that is normally not available to them. We would like to reach out to France and Switzerland as well.”

Asked how he foresees the future in about 20 years from now, the former Italian national team captain is optimistic. “There will be at least three KHL teams in Italy or whatever the name of the league is by then. The vast majority of the games are televised and a lot of fans come to watch the games. I see hockey becoming a major sport in Europe as more people will realise what a great game it is.”

We end the interview and take our seats to watch the game. A hard working Milan side ends up on the wrong end, losing 5-4 despite the continuous vocal support of the “Curva Milano” behind one of the goals. The level is still a far cry away from the KHL, but Milan – or was it Rome? – was not built in one day.

Like with many other “crazy” projects, the people behind it were initially not taken seriously. But all those who succeeded had one thing in common – a vision. Ico Migliore seems to be adamant to pursue his.

Notebook:
  • Although Milan might not be primarily known for its ice hockey, the city hosted the first ever indoor rink in Europe. The Palazzo del Ghiaccio was built in 1923 and was used for the 1924 Winter Olympics in Chamonix, France. That year, the first Milan-based ice hockey team used the arena.
  • After having dominated Italian hockey in the 1920s and ‘30s, Milan has had several successful spells that lead to numerous championships in the 1950s, early ‘90s and most recently five consecutive titles between 2002 and 2006.
  • A move to the Russian league won’t be the first time Milan searches for opposition outside its borders. During the 1999/2000 season the Milano Vipers played in the French league.
  • After the Vipers declared bankruptcy back in 2009, a new organization HC Milano Rossoblù was created. The new team started in the second league and consists now of young Italian players and some Slovenians. They won the Serie A2 playoffs last season to gain promotion to the Serie A.
  • Most eye-catching names on this season’s roster are former NHL goaltender Andrew Raycroft, long-time Italian national team players Luca Ansoldi, Diego Iori and Andreas Lutz as well as Tommaso Migliore, son of Ico.
JOERI LOONEN

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