“I’ve played with back pain since last August. But I also felt my game wasn’t good this year and my teammates started to lose confidence in me. We have a really good goalie duo in Lucas Serna and Aritz Etxeberria at the club and I thought their time had now come,” said Alcaine on his decision to retire following the abrupt ending to the season with reigning Spanish champions Txuri-Urdin from Donostia-San Sebastian.
Having won eight league championships and two cup titles, Alcaine had been Spain’s number one netminder since the age of 17. His swansong for the Spanish national team was a 3-5 defeat against the Netherlands at the Olympic Qualification Preliminary Round 2 Group L played on home ice in Barcelona on 8 January this year.
The Jaca-born netminder had only been 19 when he caught the eye during the 2011 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B in Budapest, Hungary. With Spain emphatically outshot 8-60 in their opener against eventual tournament winners Italy, Alcaine´s dazzling display kept the score down to a narrow 0-2 reversal. Despite failing to stay in the division, Spain bowed out with their heads up high with a 3-2 overtime win against Korea with Alcaine recording 57 saves.
Luciano Basile, who back then combined duties as head coach of Spain and Briancon in France’s Ligue Magnus soon after rewarded Alcaine with a unique opportunity to prove himself in pro hockey.
“In Spain, you only think of becoming a professional when you are a child. As you are getting older you start thinking that there is no chance and that you have to study so you can get a job,” said Alcaine as he penned a one-year deal with Briancon in the summer of 2011.
His stint in France got off to a dream start with Alcaine spending two weeks practising with Jonathan Bernier, whose older brother Marc-Andre played for Briancon. Once the season got underway, Alcaine celebrated his arrival with a shutout on his debut.
“It was easier for me playing in France and I was never in big trouble during my games. In Spain you could have 6-7 breakaways per game with three players against the goalie. In France, teams got a system, players are professionals and we had a really good defence with forwards backchecking every single time. Practicing with top players six times a week and playing two games a week also increased my level a lot,” said Alcaine.
Despite lifting the League Cup and Alcaine winning the Revelation Player of the Year award by the French sports newspaper L’Equipe, the season was abruptly ended as Briancon fell at the first hurdle in the 2011/12 play-offs against Angers.
Any lingering disappointment from such an early exit, quickly vanished when Alcaine received an invitation for the 2012 Toronto Maple Leafs’ development camp. The 20-year-old arrived on the recommendation of Francois Allaire, the legendary goalie coach who honed Alcaine’s skills during summer camps in France. The 20-year-old from Jaca was still pinching himself as he jetted across the Atlantic to practise with the storied franchise.
“Leo Komarov was my roommate, Morgan Rielly and Connor Brown were also there. I will always remember the first game we played. I was on the ice as David Broll dropped the gloves and started fighting with a German guy just when the referee dropped the first puck of the scrimmage,” recalled Alcaine.
But barely a month after experiencing such a high in Toronto, Alcaine was back in Spanish hockey.
“I had been offered another year with Briancon. But knowing that I would go to Toronto for the camp I was an idiot thinking that I could get a team in North America. I told Briancon to wait but they had to make the team so then I had nothing. I got a little bit depressed and decided to go back to study and play here in Spain,” he said.
Alcaine completed his studies in dentistry upon his return to Spain. Despite winning domestic titles and being the undisputed first choice for Spain at World Championship level, hockey was once again just a pastime. But in the back of his mind, the dream of playing professional still had not quite faded.
“When I had been in Toronto, Komarov told me about his goaltending friend, Karri Ramo, who then was the President of a club in Finland. He told me he could get a try out in Finland and the Swedish second league. Almost every year I was also in contact with Anglet’s coach, Olivier Dimet. Anglet is close to San Sebastian and it would’ve been the best place to keep going with my dentistry studies. But in the end, these moves never happened.
“I didn’t have the sports career that I had dreamt about and this feeling will stay with me forever. Life guided me in another way and I worked as a dentist for three years while playing hockey. Now I’m doing a postgraduate program in Oral Surgery,” Alcaine said from his home in Donostia-San Sebastian in the Basque Country in the north.
Juan Munoz is a 29-year-old Spanish national team forward who knew Alcaine since their childhood days. Having experienced many highs and lows together out on the ice, Munoz picked out one favourite memory. Back in 2007, the European Youth Olympic Festival (EYOF) had rolled into their home town of Jaca in the Pyrenees mountains near the French border.
“One of the most memorable tournaments we've played together was the EYOF with the Spanish U17 national team. Against teams like Russia, Slovakia and Switzerland, Ander (Alcaine) played at a tremendous level, keeping us in games we had no business being in,” recalled Munoz.
Nine years later, Alcaine and Munoz were once again back in Jaca where it all once started. Hosting the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division II Group A, Spain came tantalisingly close to winning promotion. The Netherlands was on the ropes, before the Dutchmen rallied back from being two goals down to win in overtime. Spain had to settle for silver with Alcaine voted the top goalie of the tournament.
"Ander (Alcaine) symbolizes the leap in hockey quality our country has taken in the last decade. Against teams of a similar level, he was able to shut them down and win us the game. He also gave a huge boost of confidence to the team, pushing players to work harder and play at the level his goaltending deserved,” said Munoz in a glowing tribute.
Having announced an early retirement, Alcaine will be far from finished with hockey. He has vowed to continue coaching the next generation of goalies, with several suitors ready to try to fill the void left by the Spanish goalie legend.
“I think that Spain has really good goalies with Raul Barbo, Lucas Serna, Nacho Garcia and Bruno Gonzalez. Although there are no specific goalie coaches in Spain, the coaching staff has started to spend more time with the goalies as they now know the goalie is the most important player in a team in Spain,” said Alcaine.