VIENNA/BOLZANO – Italy’s most successful club, 19-time national champion Bolzano Foxes, got the green light from all sides to leave the Italian league and join the Austria-based EBEL after years of campaigning for the right to do so.
The move was not without controversy. Bolzano, or Bozen as it is called by the majority German-speaking population of the region, is the capital of South Tyrol. The province once belonged to Austria but became part of Italy during World War I as the country’s northernmost region. Many Italian hockey clubs come from that area and many top Italian players are developed in this important hockey region.
With the controversial past, the Bolzano Foxes’ wish to move to Austria wasn’t seen with too much goodwill by the authorities for political symbolism and by the other clubs because the Italian Serie A loses one of its most attractive teams. Former attempts to move to EBEL were rejected in the past but this time the Foxes saw the proverbial white smoke over the federation’s headquarters in Milan.
Or as the Bolzano Foxes wrote on the website after the successful negotiations: the day goes down in history of ice hockey in Bolzano and Italy.
“The Italian Ice Sports Federation has decided to accept the request from Bolzano,” the federation’s President Giancarlo Bolognini said. “This step could boost the Italian hockey program that is struggling with several problems, also due to the difficult moment in the crisis of the country. It is time to revive our ice hockey movement.”
The news came out a few weeks after the Italian Ice Sports Federation agreed to allow five clubs that were part of the semi-professional Serie A2 to join the INL, a multi-national league that now includes second-tier teams from Austria, Italy as well as the best clubs from Slovenia behind EBEL’s Olimpija Ljubljana.
After the approval from the Italian hockey bodies on 26 June, the EBEL clubs unanimously admitted the Bolzano Foxes to their league on 8 July.
The EBEL is now back at 12 clubs after Croatia’s Medvescak Zagreb left for the Russian-based Kontinental Hockey League. With Bolzano, EBEL has found a good replacement that was welcomed with open arms, especially from the Austrian teams due to the strong cultural links.
“Bolzano is welcome from all sides. The goal is to integrate the South Tyroleans long-term in our league without straining them economically,” said EBEL President Karl Safron. “Bolzano has great tradition. Especially the games against teams from the south of Austria have always had the character of derbies.”
The Bolzano Foxes play at an arena called Eiswelle with a capacity of 7,200 that was built before the 1994 IIHF World Championship in Italy. That was also the year when the most famous player donned the Bolzano jersey. Jaromir Jagr played six games for the club during the labour conflict in the NHL in 1994.
The EBEL now includes eight clubs from Austria (Dornbirn, Graz, Innsbruck, Klagenfurt, Linz, Salzburg, Vienna, Villach), one from Slovenia (Olimpija Ljubljana), one from Hungary (Fehervar) and one from the Czech Republic (Znojmo).
“We have been interested in joining the EBEL for a long time and we are looking forward to playing in the EBEL and see our participation as a huge opportunity,” said Bolzano Foxes GM Dieter Knoll. “We have now to adjust several things. It will be a big challenge from the sports and logistical side. But we won’t be the punching bag of the league. Our goal is to reach the quarter-finals.”
The league also published the schedule after Bolzano’s addition. The Foxes start with what they already promote as the “Tyrolean Derby” on the website as they will play their first game on the road in Innsbruck, the capital of the Austrian state of Tyrol, on 8 September.