Clara joins big boys at 16
by Martin Merk|23 MAY 2021
Towering 16-year-old goaltender Damian Clara writes history with Italy as youngest goaltender at an IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship.
photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
When the Italian men’s national team registered Damian Clara as one of its three goaltenders at the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship, the 16-year-old became the youngest goaltender in history of the event to appear on a roster and the youngest player in modern history.

Only two players were younger at their first World Championship – and that was over 80 years ago.

Hungarian forward Sandor Miklos was only 15 years and 338 days old at his debut at the 1931 Worlds in in Krynica, Poland. His team lost that game 4-1 to Czechoslovakia, but the Hungarian goal was scored by the youngest player on ice. French forward Serge Renault was 16 years and 95 days old when he played first time at the 1937 Worlds in London, Great Britain.

When Italy started the tournament, Clara was 16 years and 128 days old but he’s realistic enough to know that he travelled to Riga as emergency goalie and is under normal circumstances not foreseen to play already at this age.

Bad luck for others was luck for the teenager from Bruneck in the South Tyrol region in northeastern Italy. The most famous goaltender of the blue team, Andreas Bernard, suffered a COVID-19 infection during a camp and was ruled out for the Worlds. Jake Smith was also not able to travel for the start of the event.

“I expected to be just one week at the camp and then join summer training in Salzburg. I also just took two sticks with me, that was not the best idea,” he said with a smile. “Some more sticks have been ordered.

“It’s incredible that I’m here. The organization here is first-class and an experience at another level.”

Clara stands out during warm-ups of the Italian team not only as the youngest player, he’s also the tallest of his team at 195 cm (6'5'') despite just being 16. When he was 14 he left home to move to Austria where he plays at the Red Bull Hockey Academy and goes to school. Coming from a German-speaking community in Italy made the adjustment easy.

“I live and train at the Red Bull facilities where we have everything we need and those who speak German go to a school optimized for athletes with focus on sports and all the materials available online,” he said. From his home he mainly misses his family and the South Tyrolean cuisine.

These days he’s further north than expected and sees the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship from another perspective. During a pre-tournament game against France he was even at the bench as the backup.

“I’ve been watching the Worlds every year and was cheering for the team,” he said. “It was a great feeling to put on the jersey for the first time even if it was just as a backup. Two years ago I was watching on TV, now I’m part of the team.”

It was a big jump for him having little international experience with the Italian national team program. His only previous tournament had been the Kufstein Cup with the U15 national team against Austria, Hungary and Slovenia.

If Clara played a game in Riga, he would write more history, but he’s down to earth and fully aware of his role. “The coach said I should push and show that I want to play and then it will be what it will be. But my current position is number 3,” said Clara. Justin Fazio was in the net for the first game, Davide Fadani was backup – for both of them it’s also their first-time participation.

While not expected to play, Clara can learn more during practice. “The practices are well prepared in a way that all goaltenders get enough practice time. And as youngest player it’s also rather my task to collect pucks and move the net,” he said. 

As special the circumstances of Clara’s appointment were, they're equally special in Riga with measures in place to have a safe tournament during the times of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s special with so many rules and restrictions. Of course everybody would love to go out and see the city but the rules are in place to be accepted and we have to make the best out of it,” Clara said and is prepared to spend a lot of time in his hotel room. “I took my game console with me, watch series and focus on the school.”

And when he’s at the arena he cherishes the moment of being part of the senior team and watching his squadra azzurra compete against the best nations in the world. Their next opponent is Norway today.