Switzerland’s Mathias Seger holds the record for most top-level World Championship participations with 16. But if you also include lower divisions, you will find some legends in their own countries who did it even more often.
Bulgarian goaltender Konstantin Mihaylov will next week be honoured for his dedication, having played in 28 (!) World Championship tournaments in the lower divisions.
If you go a bit higher up, looking at nations who have split their time between the top-level Worlds and the Division I tournaments, you will find Hungary’s Viktor Szelig with 21 participations. Fellow Hungarian Krisztian Palkovics had 19 and Norway’s Tommy Jakobsen 18.
In Bratislava, Helfer is playing his 19th World Championship, including 10 in the top division and nine in Division I. He also represented Italy at the 2006 Olympic Winter Games on home ice in Turin.
It’s remarkable that the 38-year-old native of Bruneck in South Tyrol, where he captains local club team HC Pustertal, made it to the Italian roster again. Helfer is averaging 13:56 in ice time, fifth among Italian defencemen.
It has been a tough tournament for the Italians so far, but at least they scored their first goal in their 7-1 loss to Norway, and it was set up by Helfer. He talked with us about his last 19 years and the state of Italian ice hockey.
What was your first IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship like?
That was 2000 in St. Petersburg. [Coach] Adolf Insam took me to the World Championship. He knew me as he was also the U20 national team coach. He gave me the chance. Mark Demetz was also there. We were the youngest. I got a lot of ice time, but I remember there was a deciding game against Austria where I didn’t get a minute of ice time. I remember Alexei Yashin was the superstar at the tournament [although the Russians finished a disappointing 11th].
How was it to play that first time, coming from Italy to the big stage in Russia?
I tried to enjoy the moment, to look at what the older players do. At that time we had many older players, “Italos” [South Tyrolean slang for North American players of Italian heritage]. They really helped a lot. They didn’t come and say, “Hey boy, come and tie my skates!” They always helped and were always there for you. Players like Maurizio Mansi, Maurizio Chitaroni and Giuseppe Busillo. I later played with them in Milan. Today, I try to pass on my experience to the new generation and give something back. Italy has always had a great team spirit as a group, and it continues. That’s great for young players.
Here in Bratislava, the game against Austria could be a deciding game too.
We knew from the beginning that this could be a deciding game. We hoped to earn points beforehand too. But we started against the world champion [Sweden] and the silver medallist [Switzerland]. We couldn’t count on points against teams like that.
You’ve played against many stars in 19 years. Who was the most difficult?
I remember one play, in 2007 in Moscow. We lost 3-0 against Russia. Yevgeni Malkin had the puck, and I tried to follow him. He went behind the net, to the blue line and scored. It felt like for him it was just like going for a stroll.
What was your best World Championship?
In 2006 in Riga, we were trailing 3-0 in the deciding relegation round game [vs. Slovenia], and one-and-a-half minutes before the end we tied the game, which was enough for us to stay. And then personally, I will always remember the deciding game in Budapest [at the 2011 World Championship Division I Group A] against Hungary where I scored the game-winning goal in overtime to earn promotion. That was my most important goal. But the strongest teams during my era, I’d say, were in the beginning, around 2000 to 2003.
There were many. I played with guys like Egger, Strazzabosco, Borgatello, Zarrillo, Chitaroni, Busillo. I remember Busillo well, a big guy. He didn’t speak often, but when he said something it was fitting. It’s difficult to choose just one.
What were your best and worst experiences with national team coaches?
Adolf Insam I have to mention, because he opened the door to what came during these 20 years. I’m very thankful for that. Stefan Mair and Clayton Beddoes coached simple but effective ice hockey. You’re used to playing a full season with a coach, and Clayton manages to bring a team together within a week.
My worst experience was that I couldn’t play the 2014 World Championship in Minsk – otherwise this would be my 20th. I had a small thigh injury. There were three small ruptures. I was told I’m the most important player. That they needed me. And I wanted to come despite the injury. I’m old enough to say whether I’m able to play or not. In the end the coach decided against me. But I’m sure he did what was the best for the team. Sometimes you get the call, sometimes not.
Is it your goal to play a 20th World Championship tournament? Or will this be your last?
I will play with my club, but I’m not sure about the national team, whether I will continue, whether I will come into consideration. I must be in a state to be able to help my team, so that it makes sense. If the coach just takes me as a favour so I get to 20, then it’s better not to take me.
What are the differences between playing in Italy and here?
It’s quite different when you come from the Alps Hockey League and play here. We just had four, five practices as a team before the start. We had an exhibition game against France. There we already noticed that we have to play at another speed.
What changes have you witnessed over the last 20 years in ice hockey?
The game has become faster, that’s for sure. What’s negative from Italy’s perspective is that we stalled at the same level, while other nations improved step by step. In the past we were on par with Norway or Austria, and Denmark was behind us. Countries like these, not to mention France or Switzerland, have overtaken us.
What would you consider your nicest World Championship city?
Moscow. With the Kremlin, Red Square and everything. That was impressive.
What do you tell the young players?
Don’t practise too hard but practise smart. It doesn’t help when you can pull 150 kilos but don’t play well. You shouldn’t take everything too seriously. In Bruneck we took things too seriously sometimes. We need to win a championship to loosen up. You need to enjoy hockey. If you come to a World Championship and during two weeks have the chance to play against the best in the world, you have to enjoy it and not put too much pressure on yourself.
Italy also hosted a top-level World Championship, most recently in 1994. How did you experience it as a teenage player in Italy?
As junior players we got tickets for one game. That was Italy against Austria in Bolzano, and Italy won 3-1. We were there with the whole team with our jerseys, and next to us was a junior team from Meran.
The atmosphere is still great, that’s a strength. In aspects like skating and skill we can’t compare with the top nations. What keeps us up is the team spirit and passion we have. We try to improve and be more professional. For example, in Bruneck the president used to be sort of a handyman for everything. Nowadays there’s a sport director and a fitness coach. Things are improving step by step. But players are still often on their own also for summer training.
Are you working beside playing ice hockey?
Yes, as a youth coach. My son plays U9 and I’m a youth coach there in Bruneck. My nephew also plays U13. I’m at the rink from morning till evening. That’s also why I hope that the new arena in Bruneck will be built. The old rink is cold and partly open. In the morning, only part of the team practises because some players have a day job. In the afternoon the practices with the youth teams begin, and in the evening we practice with the senior team.
In general, Italy as a country is the priority for us and not the region. It’s kind of a problem too that from a geographic standpoint, Italy is a big country, but south of Milan there’s nothing hockey-wise. We should have tried to bring hockey to other cities like Bologna or Rome. You know, maybe tomorrow the new Sidney Crosby or Ovechkin will be born in Naples, but we’ll never know since they don’t know what ice hockey is.
On the other hand, now we have 17 South Tyrolians. In the past, it was 17 Italian-Canadians and Italian-Americans. The federation tries to develop the local players. Now we don’t have to depend on so many naturalized players as in the past.
Before returning to Bruneck you played club hockey abroad. What were your best memories?
Innsbruck was unforgettable. It was my first club abroad and I met my wife, who’s from that area. I enjoyed my years in Switzerland too. We were right next to Lake Constance when I played for Thurgau. During that time, I was once invited to play at the Spengler Cup in Davos. That was very special too.
Do you have special anecdotes from 19 World Championship tournaments? Maybe some can be told now.
No, I can’t make these public (laughs). OK, here’s one. I was held with two guns at an airport somewhere in Eastern Europe, I don’t remember where exactly, it was for a European Ice Hockey Challenge tournament I think. We had to save money with our luggage, so I had a skate-sharpening machine in my hand luggage. A small one, mind you, not as big as the ones here. It was locked up with a chain that we weren’t able to open, and they didn’t know what it was. And we couldn’t explain it to them because nobody spoke English, not to mention German or Italian. That wasn’t a very comfortable situation. Luckily I survived (laughs).