The volunteer dream team
by Liz MONTROY|01 FEB 2024
photo: © International Ice Hockey Federation

For Andreas Zelger, growing up in Auer, in Italy’s South Tyrol region, the local outdoor rink was a Zelger family affair. Built in the 1970s, the rink was managed by his father Helmut, his mother Rosa taking care of the cafeteria, laundry, tickets and cleaning.

Zelger and his family lived next to the rink, and helped build up a community that, years later, would enthusiastically put up their hands to support the 2024 IIHF U18 Women’s World Championship Division I Group A, hosted in nearby Egna. This story is one about how generations of passionate people have devoted their lives to local community hockey.

“When I met Andreas on the Zoom meeting, I thought, this man is something different,” said Viesturs Koziols, IIHF Council member and chairperson of the tournament. “When we landed we saw the atmosphere, the passion, the smiling faces, bright eyes, and the willingness to step in. Every single request was met right away and there were smiling people always available. Everything was perfect.”

Led by Zelger as Director of the Organizing Committee, the tournament was held from 6-12 January 2024, and saw Japan earn promotion and hosts Italy come second. Games were contested at Wurtharena Sportarena Unterland in Egna (also known as Neumarkt), which is located south of Bolzano and is home to a population of 5,000. The next town over, that Zelger grew up in, Auer (also known as Ora), is even smaller. Despite being from a small community, Zelger’s 45 volunteers were passionate, and went above and beyond.

“One thing that really describes our approach to this World Championship is not that we had to do it, we wanted to do it,” said Zelger. “We really sat down and said, okay, what can we do to promote our area, to show a little bit to the world what we are doing here in our small community. And also, what can we do as an experience, to widen up our hockey perspective.

“That was the approach, we wanted [the World Championship] and we really wanted to do it good, because that’s a little bit our mentality. It’s all on a volunteer basis here and we are a really hockey mad community, even if we’re so small.”

Many of the volunteers, who all came from surrounding small towns and villages, were already involved in hockey and had been childhood teammates with Zelger, who also played for Italy’s U18 and U20 teams. Remembering his experiences as a young player, Zelger aimed to emulate those for the teams at the World Championship: “We wanted to give them something to remember, not only hockey-wise, but about the whole environment here.”

Amongst the volunteers was a fire department manager, a farmer, a craftsman, a driver—and while most already live and breathe ice hockey, for some, this was their introduction to the community, such was the case with a local taekwondo coach.

“I did not even know her before the championship, she contacted me basically asking me if she can participate,” said Zelger. “She was with us the whole week being a driver and this is a perfect example; she’s now in our community, she’s participating in our local hockey program. This is how hockey is able to create connections, new friendships. This is also great because it’s not only always about sport.”

Zelger and Koziols both commented on the eagerness of the volunteers and their willingness to help with anything at any time. His volunteer drivers, for instance, had no hesitation helping with airport pick-ups at odd hours after flight changes. “People stood up, right away, ‘Yes I’ll go’,” said Zelger. "This support really stood out.”

“One thing that means really a lot to me personally is how many volunteers applied to participate at the event and the passion with which they participated,” said Zelger, who said that this group of dedicated individuals is indicative of the tight knit, passionate hockey community in Egna and Auer. “When you put so much passion into something and you see that the people around share this passion with you, that’s really something that means a lot.”

It doesn’t end there, or with this World Championship. Hockey is healthy in Egna and Auer, with a team in the top men’s league (Cavaliers Hockey Unterland), a team in Italy’s women’s league (HC Lakers), and a strong youth program of over 200 kids. Zelger is volunteer manager of the Cavaliers, and his son plays on an Auer kids team.

”Everything we do is on purpose. We’re always thinking about developing hockey, having a future for all these kids here, building a community.”

From the Zelger run outdoor rink in Auer to the World Championships in Egna to the promising future for kids in the region, a strong passion for hockey and the community it creates continues to be passed on, from generation to generation.