QUEBEC CITY – Even though Canada is the host nation for 2008, Italy might feel like it’s got home-ice advantage at this tournament too. As usual, the Azzurri roster is peppered with Italo-Canadians, with representation from Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario, and Quebec. So the Italians won’t simply hear cheers at the Colisée Pepsi for being underdogs as the 13th seed in the IIHF World Rankings. They’ll have family and friends on hand to support them against the Czechs, Danes, and Russians. And with a gritty if not super-speedy lineup, the Italians may find themselves able to dictate the pace of the game better than usual against high-flying, offensive-minded European teams. Last year’s 12th-place finish in Moscow was their best since 2001. Nobody is predicting a single-digit finish, which the team achieved each year between 1993 and 1997. But if they can stick to their system, they just might avoid being given the boot down to Division I.
Veteran Gunther Hell is a returnee from Moscow, having performed well for Serie A’Alleghe in the regular season before floundering in relegation round play. The question is whether he’ll be able to deliver the kind of virtuoso effort that, for instance, former NHLer Jason Muzzatti had last year versus the Russians, posting 30 saves in a 3-0 loss. (Muzzatti is now retired.) Thomas Tragust (Fassa), a 21-year-old who’s attended the Buffalo Sabres training camp, made two appearances in relief of Muzzatti at the 2006 tournament in Latvia. Montreal native Adam Russo could be a crowd favourite if he sees action, as the 24-year-old logged four workhorse seasons with the QMJHL’s Acadie-Bathurst Titan before making the leap to Italy.
This year’s blueline is very similar to last year’s, featuring decent size and limited mobility. Christian Borgatello was the offensive leader in Moscow with a goal and an assist, and the 26-year-old is coming off a championship-winning campaign with Bolzano--he had a goal and eight assists in a four-game finals sweep of Renon. Carter Trevisani, a native of Carlisle, Ontario, is a physical presence, racking up 89 PIM with Milano this year. Fellow Milano blueliner Michele Strazzabosco scored a miraculous late tying goal versus Slovenia in 2006 to save the Italians from relegation, and he’s Italy’s largest rearguard at 193 cm and 98 kg.
Nobody on this team can rival retired great Lucio Topatigh in his prime for sheer grit and scoring ability. However, some Canadian-born veterans will have to set the tone. Toronto’s Jason Cirone, who tallied 63 points with the IHL’s Flint Generals this season at age 37, is one of them. In 2007, the hard-working centre’s two goals versus Latvia, including the first 4-on-4 OT winner in IIHF World Championship history, propelled Italy into the Qualifying Round. Meanwhile, Mario Chitarroni, who hails from Cobalt, Ontario, is doing more than hanging on at age 40. The feisty former Sudbury Wolves ace and European league veteran totaled 20 goals and 27 assists in 44 appearances with Alleghe. At the more youthful end of the spectrum, QMJHL fans will remember Giulio Scandella from his early-millennium stints with the Halifax Mooseheads and Rouyn-Noranda Huskies. The 24-year-old Montreal-born forward had a career season in Serie A with Milano in 2007-08, tying for the team lead with 41 points. Work ethic won’t be an issue, but production could be, as the Italian forwards combined for just seven goals in Moscow 2007.
Head coach Michel (Mickey) Goulet shouldn’t be confused with the former Quebec Nordiques scoring star. But as a Sherbrooke native, the 60-year-old should be excited about leading his team in his home province. Goulet has helmed Team Italy since 2004, and helped the country return to the elite division starting in 2006. A believer in hard work, discipline, and attention to defensive detail, Goulet won’t be satisfied if Italy matches its performance as the Olympic host nation in Turin, where it went winless, losing three games and tying two. His assistant is former Alleghe coach Fabio Polloni. Montreal native Jim Corsi, who stunningly backstopped Italy to a 3-3 tie versus a Wayne Gretzky-led Canada at the 1982 IIHF World Championship in Finland, is the goalie coach.
Beating Denmark in the Preliminary Round will clearly be the priority, as that would likely secure advancement to the next round. But whether the Italians finish 12th, 14th or 16th could depend on the overall mindset and smarts they bring to each hockey game. At times, they tend to get involved in undisciplined play. For instance, former national team member Tony Iob was suspended for elbowing and off-ice fighting incidents in 2001 and 2006 respectively. Staying out of the penalty box and keeping the scores low will be vital for the Azzurri.