However, the 25th anniversary Continental Cup season is his first taste of this competition – and it seems to be capturing the imagination of the Angers Ducs. The French team is in Cardiff, looking to build on its success on home ice in the previous round, and Ritz is enjoying the atmosphere generated by the travelling fans.
“We are very lucky that we have that many fans following us here,” he said after the opening game against Cardiff Devils. “We have a sick rink back home, it’s brand new and there’s a great atmosphere. It’s pretty much full every night.
“But it was kind of a surprise when we were walking around the morning before the game and we saw our fans here. It’s pretty cool to have them there in the arena, it helps us feel at home in a different country.”
On the ice, the competition has gone up a level from the previous round, where Les Ducs overpowered opposition from Romania, Hungary and Croatia to advance to this weekend’s semi-final stage. Now, the standard is more in line with the Ligue Magnus.
“It’s much tighter between the teams,” Ritz said after Angers’ opening 1-3 loss to the Devils. “We’ll know more after we play the others, but it feels pretty close. The intensity, the way the teams skate, the way we played in the first game, it’s all pretty similar to the way we play at home.”
International rivalrySome might be surprised at a suggestion that the British and French leagues are at a similar level. For many years, the French national program was achieving results that Britain could only dream of. A decade at the top level of the World Championship, memorable victories over Russia and Canada, and a couple of quarter-final appearances in that time raised the profile for French hockey. Although GB ended France’s time in the elite in 2019, the countries have since swapped places again: France remains in the top division this season, while Britain is looking to book its return when it hosts Division IA in April.
In club hockey, though, things are a bit different – and that could be changing the balance between the national teams.
“The way the two leagues are working is way different,” Ritz said. “There are many imports in British hockey, like we saw tonight the Cardiff team has a lot of Canadian players. That makes the league pretty good.
“But I can’t say too much about the national team because we lost to them a few years ago and we got relegated. I think it’s been growing up and they have been making tough times to us. But France and UK is always a big rivalry in sport, it’s the same in hockey and Cardiff had a good team tonight.”
The next generationAs a regular player for Les Bleus at the World Championships, Ritz is likely to be involved in Tampere next May. However, for some of his younger team-mates, the pandemic has hampered their opportunities to gain international experience. Defender Kylian Fauvel, 20, missed out on the chance to play at a World Junior tournament while 23-year-old forward Teo Sarlieve was ready to graduate from the u20s, only to find international hockey largely suspended. Both are in Cardiff, along with another young forward Baptiste Couturier, to gain valuable experience of tournament play.
“It’s not really about the game, like I said, this is pretty close to the level of competition in the French League so that’s not such a bit thing,” Ritz said. “Its’ more about getting ready for those competitions. Here, we play three games in three days against teams we don’t know. It’s about knowing how to stay focused, how to approach those games and be good three nights in a row. That’s the kind of experience you need.
“Then there’s going to different countries, traveling and all those things. It’s easier when you’ve been doing that a lot and it gets easier the longer you’ve been playing the game.”
It also gets easier with players like Ritz and veteran defenceman Antonin Manavian in the locker room to share their know-how.
“Many of our players have been in different leagues, have been to World Championships and all those things,” Ritz added. “You can feel the experience in our team, and I think that helps the younger players.”
Right now, though, that experience needs to find a way to bounce back from an opening night loss. With the top two advancing to January’s final four, Angers still has every chance of progressing, but needs wins against Latvia’s Zemgale and Acroni Jesenice of Slovenia.