BRIANÇON, France – Ander Alcaine became the first Spanish-trained player to appear as a professional player in another league when he minded the net of Briançon Diables Rouges.
Alcaine immediately became the starting goalkeeper for the “Red Devils”. The team is coached by Canadian Luciano Basile, who was also Alcaine’s coach with the Spanish national team.
Alcaine was born in 1991 in Jaca, a city of 13,000 close to the Pyrenees Mountains that separate Spain from France.
The city in the Aragon region is one of several places ice hockey can be played in Spain, or where you can call the sport even popular. The local team, CH Jaca, has brought many championship trophies to the Pyrenees.
One of the city’s hockey products is Alcaine. Contacting him by e-mail, I noticed his address. It says Ander Hasek. Asked about it, the player laughs.
“When I was a kid, all the parents of my teammates started calling me Hasek because in this moment, Dominik Hasek was the best goalkeeper in the NHL”, he said. “When I created the account I was young.”
IIHF.com’s Martin Merk talked to Alcaine after the end of the season with his club team Briançon Diables Rouges and prior to the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division II Group A in Reykjavik, Iceland, where Spain aims to win gold and get back to Division I for a second stint after 2011.
How did you get in contact with ice hockey and why didn’t you choose a sport that’s more popular in Spain such as football?
When I was 5, my parents asked me which sport I want to play. They wanted me to do sports and I chose ice hockey because in my city it was more popular than football and it was a special sport for me and I really liked it.
Why did you decide to become a goaltender?
I went to a hockey practice and I really loved it and I decided to start playing. When I started I saw the board of the coach with a lot of drawing. He was Russian and I could hardly understand him. I liked the game, but not the tactics on the board. And we didn't have a goalkeeper, and the coach asked me, so I tried and I liked it.
How is it for a player to play in Spain, and to develop to a player who can make his living out of playing hockey?
Until last year I always studied and played. I played in Jaca until I was 16, when I decided to move to Barcelona to study because they gave me the chance to be the first goalie on the senior team and I decided to go. It is difficult to develop a lot if you have to work or study at the same time, but I think that it is the similar story in other countries.
How is it in the Spanish senior league? Do most players work or study at the same time? Or are there players who can make enough money from playing their sport?
There are six teams and all players study or work at the same time. In Spain, there aren't so many practices per week. Until the last year, I only practiced three times per week (Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday) and on Saturday we had a game. We practiced at 22:30 the three days, because if you are not professional, you have to study or work during the day and the night is the only time you can get all the players for practice. In Spain you can get some money if you play, but it depends on the team and it’s not enough to be professional.
What are your most memorable experiences with the senior and junior national teams you have played?
I will always remember some games with the team, for example the last year when the men’s national team played in Division I for the first time with a game against Italy. Everybody was thinking that we would lose by more than ten goals, and the final score was 2-0 for them. Some years ago we beat Hungary in U18, in Estonia, and they were promoted and we were in 5th position. Or when we were promoted to Division I in 2010 in Mexico.
From my side it was also a highlight to be named best goalkeeper of the tournament. I got the trophy five times and it made me really happy and encouraged me to keep working hard, and to think that I would get the chance to play in a country that’s better in hockey.
Where there any special places you won’t forget during your trips?
Some years ago we were playing in China with the U18 team. It was really good, and Mexico with the senior team two years ago, when we were promoted to Division I. China and Mexico were the most special World Championships I have ever been.
How was it for you last year in Division I to be the goalie of an underdog team? How was it to play against these opponents, and to play Hungary in their arena?
It was amazing. But I am not really happy with my success there. I played well the first game against Italy and the last against Korea. Against the Netherlands and Hungary, I couldn't help the team to get a good result. It was a really strange tournament for me, but I understood that it was a higher level than we were used to, and these kind of things can happen. I received a lot of shots per game and I got a percentage higher than 90%, which is always my personal goal. But I think I could play much better and help the team more.
To play against Hungary in their full rink was the most emotional game in my career. I don't remember how many people were there, but I can say there were many [8,479]. For a team like us that has never played before a big crowd it was a really good experience.
What do you expect from the upcoming 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division II Group A in Reykjavik?
I would like to go back to Division I. We know it is a difficult task, but I think we are able to do it. It is the first goal. I think it’s difficult for every team, because a World Championship is not like a regular season where you play 50 games and the best team normally finishes in first position. In such a championship there are only five games and everything can happen. I don't remember any championship I have been that was without surprises.
How were the contacts to Briançon established? Why did you end up landing with the Diables Rouges?
Luciano Basile, the coach of Briançon, was the Spanish national team coach the last championship. After the championship he asked me if I wanted to come here and I accepted without doubt. If you are a Spanish hockey player you don't have that many opportunities to leave the country. I had one and took it.
Tell us a bit about your life in France. How did you cope with the French language? And do you still study?
Briançon is a small city in the mountains, more or less like Jaca, where you don't have a lot of things to do except hockey. I will study now when I arrive in Barcelona. I am studying to be a dentist in the future. But this year I can only do some subjects because I didn't have the time this year because I was playing in Briançon and I study in Barcelona's University.
I started to speak French with my teammates as soon as I learned, and day by day my French improved, but it’s still not good. I missed my friends, my family while I was away, but now I have all the summer to stay with them.
How was the season with Briançon for the team, and for you? What were your special moments in the Ligue Magnus?
The best moment of the season was without doubt when we won the League Cup in Méribel. It was amazing to come to a pro league and to get a trophy in your first year. I was the youngest goalie to win a trophy in the last ten years in France. In the 80-year-old history of the team, they only won two titles in the top level in France. The French Cup in 2009-2010 and the League Cup last December. Briançon had played in the League Cup finals five times in the last years, and they always lost. It was really good for the coach, who lost there before five times and for some players who played those finals.
It was a really good season for us. We won the League Cup and we finished in fourth position in the regular season. The only disappointment was that we were eliminated by Angers in the quarter-finals after everybody had thought we could play in the semi-finals or even in the final.
Are you happy with your performance in France? And what does it mean for you to become a #1 goalie in this league as a Spaniard?
Yes, I am really happy with my first pro season. We won the League Cup and I was named the Revelation Player of the Year. It’s a trophy like rookie of the year for which the sports paper L’Equipe asks many journalists to vote and I came first. I think I learned a lot. I had good and bad moments – more good than bad ones – but I think I learn about my mistakes and every season I will be better by improving from my mistakes.
Since the beginning of the season I had been completely integrated in the team. My first game was a pre-season game against Grenoble, and I had my first shutout of the season. We won 4-0 and people started to think that I could play here, no matter whether I was Spanish. The last summer I was not sure that I could play at this level, coming from Spain, but step by step I began to believe in it and finally everything went well.
What are your future plans? Will you stay in Briançon?
We will see. I want to continue playing professional hockey, that’s for sure. I don't know yet what to do next season, but we will see where I will play. I came to France to test myself. I want to see until which level I can play. I would like to play at the best level I can and continue to enjoy playing. But I know I am Spanish, I’m 20 years old. I have played only one year of pro hockey and I have a lot of things to learn.
Now as you did the step, have you also talked to other Spanish players about moving to a stronger league? Could you imagine anybody else to move?
Some young players asked me about my experience. But the problem in Spain is there is no typical hockey culture and the parents of the guys don’t think that you can be a professional hockey player if you’re Spanish, because that kind of lifestyle has never existed in Spain. When I decided to go to Briançon, my parents told me the same – that I have to study, that I will never get money from playing hockey and I need to study to live. That’s the problem.
I think there are really good players in Spain, young players with a lot of talent, but they will never go out of Spain to play because of this mentality. And when you get older and don't practise like in other countries where families encourage them to continue, although you have the same talent than players of countries, the gap of competitiveness widens.