Friday, November 21, 2014

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Italian Hockey

This week is hockey week on Here We Go Again and we went straight to the source to answer your most-asked questions about Italian ice hockey:

First of all, what made you decide to leave the American leagues and head for Europe?
I had played four years in North America and didn't love it - I didn't have the greatest professional experience there. Then, in 2011, I was presented with an opportunity that would allow the two of us to live in Italy for seven months, play half as many games [American leagues play 80 game seasons and the Italian league plays 42 game seasons] and always be home. When I spoke with the coach on the phone before I signed, he told me that I would be able to sleep in my own bed every night. In the AHL and ECHL we would often be on road trips for two or three weeks at a time which is exhausting. It seemed like a good opportunity and I was ready for a change, so we took it. Then we got here and once I started playing and feeling out the league, I realized what a great situation it was for me professionally so we stayed. When I said yes to Italy originally, I didn't realize that the situation would turn out as well as it did.

How is the Italian league different from leagues back home? What's the biggest difference?
In Italy all the teams play on Olympic-sized ice which makes for a different type of game. It means the game is more spread out [Olympic rinks are larger] and it allows for different types of play. There's not as much body contact, for example.
In North America, and in a few other European leagues, they play a four line system [meaning that there are four lines of play with three forwards and two defensemen]. In Italy, we play three lines. That means that players play more. So by the end of the game, the play is often slower since everyone is so tired; it's physically impossible to keep your speed up when you're playing that much.
Technically, fighting is not allowed in the league. But it falls into the same gray area as every other rule in Italy. Fighting is supposed to result in a game suspension but I've witnessed several fights and those involved got roughing penalties every time, never a game suspension.

The biggest difference though, is that North America works on a feeder system. The NHL is the top league and below that there is the AHL and ECHL. Each NHL team is associated with minor league teams and gets players sent up to them from these teams. It's difficult because you can get lost in the system. There are a lot of players and a lot of different agendas. There's the agenda of the NHL team and they often tell the minor league coaches who to play and where; there's the agenda of whatever minor league team you're playing on - sometimes that agenda is winning and doing well within that league, but sometimes their hands are tied by what's coming down to them from the NHL - what players they have to play, what lines they have to be on - then there's the agenda of the coach and then there's the agenda of the individual players. If you aren't a constant NHL player in North America, you're always competing with your teammates for open spots in a better league or on a better line. Each player has to look out for himself and that can often be detrimental to a team - when the players aren't working together, but are working individually to showcase their own skills.
The Italian league is different because for an import, there are no tiers. The tiers here are within the youth hockey program [under 8, under 10, under 12, etc. up to under 20]. So the players here come up through the tier in their own town and once they're old enough to play in the league, if they're good enough, they do.
In any case, it makes the team feel more like a unit. You don't have to look out for yourself, you have to look out for your team.

Does living abroad, in a foreign country, affect your job or your play?
No, almost the opposite. When I stepped away from North American pro hockey, I realized that the Italian league felt more comfortable to me. It could be because of my style of play - I'm not 6'4, 220 pounds - the open space [on the larger rink] helps my game. I almost immediately felt more comfortable in this setting.

How do you talk to the refs?!
It depends if they've made the correct call or not. If they have, I actually try to compliment them in Italian; if they haven't, I swear at them in English. [The Italian refs are famous for making odd calls while missing actual penalties and are completely used to being screamed at by angry Italians.]

Is the level of play comparable to what you find in North America?
In Italy the top lines are made up of players who didn't make it to [or in] the NHL but wanted to continue their careers, see the world, have a different experience or try something new. But the other part of the team is made up of mostly local players who have never played juniors, college, etc. because they've grown up in their own feeder system which isn't comparable to the USHL junior league in the US or the OHL and BCHL junior leagues in Canada.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about hockey in Italy?
That it's not good. I remember right after I signed with Cortina; that summer before we left I didn't train as hard as I normally do. My training and workout program wasn't as rigorous as it had been in the past when I was preparing to play in the AHL because I had my own impressions about the Italian league and what I'd find there. But when I got to Cortina, it was completely different than I had anticipated: a) It turned out that I hadn't trained enough! And b) the level of play throughout the league was higher than I had expected. There are some players in the league who have played over 200 NHL games.
And yes, there is hockey in Italy.

What's the most frustrating part of your job?
When you play hockey, a lot of what you do is up to the coach. He decides where to play you, how you should play, what he needs you to do. This is especially difficult with new coaches [in four years in Italy, Ryan has had three different coaches] because if they don't see what you can do right away, it can be difficult to shake that first impression or get back on track. You really have to be opportunistic though. In hockey, most players are at least given an opportunity - you just have to act on it.

And the most rewarding?
It gives us a chance to see the world while playing the game that I love most.

And speaking of, what do you love most about hockey?
I love that hockey is a combination of so many different things: athleticism, stamina, thought - you have to have knowledge of the other team; what players are effective - or not - and who is going to make the next move and what that move will be. Yes, it's a game but there's so much more to hockey than going out on the ice and scoring goals or fighting.

And there you have it! If anyone has other questions, please feel free to leave a comment! We also did a frequently asked hockey questions post on Wednesday. And also on Wednesday, my column in the Steamboat Today talked about what hockey means to me.