AMBRÌ, Switzerland – It’s getting colder and colder in the Leventina valley. Most people in Switzerland and the rest of Europe pass through this region thanks to the 16-kilometre Gotthard tunnel that links the German-speaking part of Switzerland with the Italian-speaking region of Ticino.
For most people it’s just an alpine transit route that links northern with southern Europe. Once leaving the tunnel by highway or train, few people notice the tiny villages of Ambrì and Piotta on the east side. Maybe some do, in the nights when the biggest building shines from the dark hillside. The landmark building is not a church, it’s an old ice hockey rink.
Soon the sun will be hidden behind the steep hillsides for two months. That’s where the village has its name from, the legend says. From ombra, shadow.
Despite the creeping cold, fans’ hearts have warmed up at the Valascia rink as Ambrì’s players of the team made a sharp turn from losers to heroes. Prior to 2013 the club missed the playoffs for seven straight years and had to battle for its place in the league in many relegation-rounds. But on 1st November, after a 4-3 victory in shootout against SC Bern, the club claimed first place in the National League A – for the first time in nine years.
Only a few times in the past did the club have as much success. In 1999 and 2000 it won two IIHF Continental Cup titles with victories over teams like Avangard Omsk, Ak Bars Kazan and against Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the European Super Cup. It called itself Europe’s best team but has actually never won the Swiss championship.
In the 1998/1999 season Ambrì came closest to the Swiss trophy by winning the regular season but it lost the final series to rivals HC Lugano of all clubs. The regional derby between these clubs is the most heated clash in Swiss hockey and mirrors a kind of class struggle. On one side the “farmers, mountaineers and leftists” from northern Ticino, on the other side the “townies, millionaires and bourgeoisie” from southern Ticino where palm trees adorn the lake shore and the team has had much more success thanks to decades-long backing of a billionaire.
Until the ‘90s Ambrì stayed with its leftist image and looked to the east for import players. Oleg Petrov, Pyotr Malkov and for a short period even Valeri Kamenski were some of the biggest stars, but this changed later with ice hockey becoming more international.
This leftist image is still symbolized with flags carrying portraits of South American revolutionary Che Guevara and Apache leader Geronimo but also fundraising campaigns of the fans not just for the club when it’s close to bankruptcy every few years but also for the poor in the world. The unusual portraits haven’t scared off players like Richard Park, a former American NHL forward of Korean descent who is currently one of the most recognizable international players in the Leventina valley.
5,846 fans have attended the games on average this season, more than ten times the number of inhabitants in the village and the biggest number in 20 years.
They celebrate homegrown heroes like captain Paolo Duca or Inti Pestoni who are the heart and soul of the club. But the town is quick to embrace players from further away. Often it’s players who had minor roles with big clubs or players discovered in the B-league hoping for a breakthrough.
In Ambrì they get the chance to shine and sometimes they do – this season more often than the years before. Quebecer Alexandre Giroux is the team’s scoring leader followed by Daniel Steiner, a gifted forward who has been at the verge of making the national team for ten years but has yet to play his first IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship. He uses his chance to convince hockey people of his offensive talent as do players like Alain Miéville, Marc Reichert and other players whose names might be unheard of outside of the country.
The hopes are high for the playoffs, as offensive-minded blueliner Maxime Noreau and forward Jason Williams have mostly been injured during the great start of the season and could give their team a boost later on.
The club is also in the fortunate situation that it has two goalies in great shape with Swiss-Canadian Nolan Schaefer and Sandro Zurkirchen, who joined during the off-season. Schaefer leads all starting goalkeepers with a 95.1% save percentage, while Zurkirchen is not far behind with 93.9%.
The builder of the recent success is Serge Pelletier. The Montreal-born coach masters Italian and has acquired Swiss citizenship after many years in the country. He coached Ambrì for three years making the playoffs every time but was replaced in 2005 because the club wanted more.
Ambrì has never reached the top-8 again since. Leventina became a valley of frustration for many years and the club chaired by one of Ticino’s most famous politicians, Filippo Lombardi, turned back to Pelletier. Since returning in 2012, Pelletier has been the coach and sports director. As a coach he released the team from its tactical corset and focuses on individual skills. After all, there’s no money around in one of the least prosperous regions of this well-off country to buy every player the coach would wish to have on his team.
Ambrì is only one of two clubs in the 12-team league coming from the alpine regions where Swiss hockey history once started. Several clubs have gone while clubs in the big cities have become stronger. Multiple-champion Arosa left the league at the end of the ‘80s to be replaced by SC Bern, now the best attended club in Europe. Another club from that canton, Chur, was replaced by Geneva-Servette about a decade ago and last spring Langnau – where the famous Emmental cheese with its holes comes from – was relegated and replaced by Lausanne.
HC Davos is the only other mountain club. But Davos is a well-off resort town with a bigger population. In Ambrì there are no five-star spa resorts, just a simple albergo, or guest house. There are no boutiques for the players’ wives, just a small grocery store and four restaurants.
The railway station was once shut down and the waiting room rebuilt to serve as the club’s office. After 15 years without a regular train stopping at the station the club managed to convince the Swiss railways to make regional trains stop there before and after the games. After all, HC Ambrì-Piotta is not only kind of a cultural treasure in Swiss hockey but also the biggest employer of the district.
The old-school Valascia ice rink is the landmark building of the 500-soul village of Ambrì. Photo: 360.hikr.org
Compared to other clubs in the league there’s not much Ambrì has to lure players to sign with the club and fans to freeze at the old rink. Only sympathy. But that’s something the club has to a high extent.
Whoever comes to the Valascia rink wants to see honest hockey and hard-fighting players with no fanciness needed. Like in the old days when Ambrì players were farmers, butchers, lumberjacks or herders.
That has of course changed although fans of archrival Lugano like to remind their counterparts of their rurality by calling them contadini – farmers.
At Valascia there are few super stars. The only thing that counts is hard team work. And sometimes like these days the club shows that hockey is a team sport and success can’t be bought. That’s what makes the players, the club and its fans proud – when the team succeeds against all odds while rich clubs such as Bern, Lugano or Zug struggle heavily.
It’s moments like the recent 1-0 victory over Lugano or the shootout win over Bern that makes it special to be a supporter of the club that sometimes seems to be the biggest underdog of all professional hockey leagues one could imagine. And Ambrì has many supporters with fan clubs also outside of Ticino and many fans travelling to the cult site from the German-speaking part of the country.
The fans appreciate the team and what the players do for the region that has no other figurehead than its hockey club. They infect the team with their passion although it can be burdensome when the performance is amiss. Case in point: once the current coach’s predecessor saw a suitcase with his name written all over it being thrown onto the ice shortly before he was eventually released. And that’s one of the wittier stories during the yesteryears of frustration.
But that’s tempi passati.
During the last derby against Lugano, Ambrì fans had one of their great choreographies depicting the Swiss map with a small Gaul village and two fans in Asterix and Obelix costumes climbing at the plexi glass of the Curva Sud, the standing-room area of the passionate die-hard supporters.
It depicts an often-used anecdote about the club being compared with the Asterix comic where the last Gaul village successfully withstands the conquest of Caesar’s mighty Romain Empire thanks to its brave people and a secret, magic potion that makes them invincibly strong. Whatever this potion is, Pelletier seems to be the druid who has found it.
However, not too long time ago during the years of struggle many people asked whether the end of HC Ambrì-Piotta was approaching.
Hockey has changed in Switzerland. The times when players were amateurs chasing the puck after calling it a day in their regular profession have long been gone. Salaries have risen in the last 20 years. Many clubs managed to increase sponsoring money and to build new arenas or refurbish old ones to find new sources of income.
In Ambrì, however, the clock seems to have stood still. Going to an Ambrì match is like a journey through time to watch hockey in an old-school arena that’s partly open and hasn’t changed much since getting a roof in 1979.
The Valascia ice rink has as much cult status in Switzerland as the club. Here fans don’t have to fear that their beer will become warm – rather that the hot dog will be cold before it’s eaten. Marroni, roasted chestnuts, are anyway the more local specialty that helps keeping hands heated for a while.
Extending the Valascia rink at the current location hasn’t been approved by the regional authorities due to the danger of avalanches at the hillside where it is currently perched. Therefore the club and the community plan a new arena not far away at a hangar of Ambrì’s disused military airfield that serves as a parking lot on game days. Because the club will move away from the avalanche-endangered area it will be eligible for federal funds for such projects. The club has until 2018 for a new, more contemporary project. After that the league will not license clubs with old infrastructure.
The club welcomes the pressure and even voted for the regulations because it’s hard to generate money in a 500-soul village with harsh winter conditions being omnipresent in an arena with little amenities for sponsors. Expenditures of roughly €10 million each year need to be covered somehow, preferably without regular fundraising or capital increase campaigns to cover losses.
In this aspect Ambrì is like the bumblebee that doesn’t look like it’s supposed to fly – but currently it’s flying high and resists any logic. The mere existence of this club in the top Swiss league is a miracle both sport and business-wise. It can be compared to seeing Slovenia at the Olympics in Sochi despite having just 148 senior players and only one professional club team.
Both cases show that sometimes miracles happen and hard work and enthusiasm can pay off – especially in a sport that’s more of a team sport than many others.
After losing in Kloten the day after climbing to first place, Ambrì fell down to second place before the November international break. But even this placing is much better than its own fans might have expected, and it’s six positions better than archrival Lugano’s placing.
In ten homes games Ambrì had seven wins. That’s when La Montanara, the Song of the Mountains, can be heard at the end of the game. There are few moments in hockey worldwide that are more goosebump-causing than hearing what has become Ambrì’s winning anthem soulfully sung out by thousands of fans at Valascia. And this season one can hear it more often. If the players’ or spectators’ blood runs cold in these moments it’s definitely not just because of the temperatures.
Now Ambrì sympathizers all around the country hope that the great start of the season will bear fruits when it comes to making the playoffs and succeeding in the post-season like in the good old days.
“Il Ticino e biancoblù!” the Ambrì fans chant. For once they’re right. This season white and blue are the colours in Ticino hockey and few people in Switzerland bear a grudge against the unique mountain club for its recent success.