Turin 2006 veteran returns
by Martin Merk|07 OCT 2021
Former Olympian Valentina Bettarini stages her comeback with the national team and hopes to be part of the Olympic Winter Games again.
photo: Paolo Basso
When Italy opens the Olympic Pre-Qualification Round 2 Group G against Spain, good memories will come back to Valentina Bettarini.

The 31-year-old defender is not only one of the most experienced players on the Italian team, she’s also a veteran of the 2006 Olympic Winter Games that were held on home ice in Turin.

Back at that time the Palaghiaccio Olimpico was built in Torre Pellice, about 50 kilometres southwest from the city centre of Turin and was home to the Italian women’s national team in their preparation for the Olympics.

“We did the final preparations here before we moved to the actual rink,” Bettarini remembers.

Ranked 17th in the world both at that time and today, the Italians came in as underdogs. They didn’t win games but despite that Bettarini has only fond memories from being part of the Olympics.

“It was a blast from Day 1 until the end. Even now, it doesn’t feel like it was 15 years ago, it feels like it was yesterday,” she looks back. “One of the best memories that gives me goosebumps is when almost 9,000 people came to watch our game against Canada and even though we were losing 16-0 they stood up and sang the Italian national anthem during the last minutes of the game. We lost to the best players in the world.”

Italy only scored one goal in three games during the preliminary round but Bettarini remembers it well as she had an assist to give Italy the lead in the 5-1 loss to Russia during a 5-on-3 power play.

“I remember the play, it started in the D zone and I gave an assist. I gave the puck to Maria Leitner and she gave it to Sabina Florian, who scored the 1-0 goal against Russia. We were leading 1-0 against Russia, which was amazing and a big surprise for everyone,” Bettarini says 15 years later.
Valentina Bettarini played the 2006 Olympics on home ice as a 15-year-old and is the last active player still with the Italian women’s national team.
photo: Europhoto
Not only being on the ice was a once-in-a-lifetime experience she would love to repeat next winter.

“It was just great walking around in the Olympic village with all the top athletes, the role models you look up to and all the sudden you’re eating meals with them and live the daily life with them and see that they’re just humans like us. And once when we stepped out onto the ice we turned into the role models the crowd looks up to and cheers to,” she says and remembers how she was looking forward to seeing the stars of that time such as Hayley Wickenheyser, Julie Chu and Maria Rooth.

To the players of the Chinese women’s team who will in a few months be in a similar situation, she says: “Just go out there and have fun and enjoy the ice time, the home crowd, the support you’ll get. Go out there and play your own hockey and have fun.”

Italy itself will be back in the hosting role in 2026 when the Olympic ice hockey tournaments will be hosted in Milan. But that’s still a long time away.

To make the Olympics a twice-in-a-lifetime experience for Bettarini in the upcoming winter, the Italians need to win the tournament and then overcome three higher-ranked opponents in the final round next month.

“We’re very excited. We are ready as a group. Every month we had a week of camp. We’ve been waiting for this moment for a year or two since the postponement. We hope to have some support on the stands too,” she says.

Bettarini has been around for a while. When she played at the 2006 Olympics, she was just 15 and had made her national team debut one year earlier.

A player of her hometown Bolzano Eagles, she later also played three years in Germany and seven in Austria. “My home team in Bolzano was in the end my favourite place to play but I had great experiences with every team I played with. In the end home called me and I came back. Our female team plays and practices where I first started skating and playing with the boys, so it’s something special,” she says.

After the break due to the pandemic, the blue team comes with a couple of new faces and a new coaching staff. And with Bettarini giving a comeback in the national team jersey.

“I’m very excited and honoured to represent my country after five years of not being able to put the national team jersey on,” she says.

“As a team we’re going into these games with a mindset of respecting every opponent we play against. We never qualified for the Olympics, so it would be a new milestone for Italian hockey if we could do that. We have to believe in ourselves first and if we do so and play our hockey in this round we can win and then upset some other teams in the next round. But our focus is on these games. Our goal is definitely the Olympics and we want to be there.”

Italy enters this group as favourite and will have to overcome Spain, Chinese Taipei and Kazakhstan to advance to the Final Olympic Qualification. In November higher-ranked opposition will await the tournament winner in one of the groups in the Czech Republic, Germany or Sweden to battle for the tickets to Beijing 2022.