For the Italian sledge hockey team, ‘this one means more’

BEIJING — There are no medals for fifth place in the Paralympic sledge hockey tournament. But judging by the scenes of exultation and joy on the ice at China’s indoor National Stadium on Friday, the Italian national team will be fine without them.

The only commemoration the Italians needed was the memory of two of the most rewarding goals in team history and the prospect that they could help save the national sledge hockey program from the threat of extinction.

With his team trailing by one goal with just 12 seconds left in regulation time, Andrea Macri scored to stave off another demoralizing defeat and send the game into extra time. Macri then assisted Christoph DePaoli’s match-winner six minutes into the extra period as Italy beat the Czech Republic, 4-3, to secure fifth place and spark an emotional celebration that lasted until late at night.

“I hope in Italy there were kids watching it and saying, ‘Wow, I would love to play this game that people love so much,'” Macri said. more players.”

Macri spoke by phone from the Athletes’ Village in Beijing, while jubilant teammates sang in the background as they awaited a visit from an Italian embassy official here.

Four years ago in Pyeongchang, Italy finished fourth, so the team fell back a bit. Yet, as Macri said, “This one means more.”

There are several reasons for this, including the moment of spectacular victory for a country that has less than three dozen sledge hockey players in total. With the 2026 Paralympic Winter Games scheduled for Milano-Cortino in Italy, the Azzurri’s victory on Friday could give the national program a critical boost for the next Paralympic cycle, to raise awareness and recruit more players.

But for Italian players there is an underlying sense of pessimism about the future.

“We hope we can improve more over the next four years,” said Italian defender Gianluigi Rosa, who was playing in his fourth consecutive Paralympic Games. “But I really don’t know.”

It’s not easy being a para ice hockey player in Italy. The team is a bunch of amateurs, each of whom must submit 18 days of vacation requests from their regular job in order to compete in the Paralympic Games, and who struggle to find ice time in a country with little hockey tradition and only three usable rinks. .

The program hangs on to survive.

Macri said there are just 30 players in the whole country and just two club teams – down from three a year ago – and Italy face daunting odds against teams with resources and skills. much higher levels of commitment.

Another factor that made Friday’s win so special was that Italy’s road to the fifth-place playoff was daunting at times. The Italians were 1-2 in the group, with their only win coming against Slovakia, another team with little history or resources. Italy were then shut out by Korea, 4-0, in the round of 16.

Overall, he was outscored, 15-0 in his three losses, and 18-6 overall.

And none of those games were against the top tier of talented teams. Italy entered the tournament ranked seventh in the world out of 16, but games against the sport’s elite may be sobering.

“It’s amazing to play against the United States and Canada,” Macri said. “But if you’re an athlete and you step onto the ice and you already know you’re losing the game; first time, okay. Second time, OK, third time, OK. The fourth time you say, ‘Why am I playing? Why?'”

As a model of how to build a program and maintain it, Macri cites China, the team that took Italy out of the top four in just five years of existence. The fledgling Chinese para league already has eight teams and its national players train full time, three times a day.

Italians can only find ice time twice a week.

Russia and Korea inaugurated new programs before hosting the Paralympic Winter Games in Russia in 2014 and South Korea in 2018. Italy did the same in 2006 before the Turin Games, mainly behind the charismatic leadership of Andrea Chiarotti, one of the founding members of Italy Sledge Hockey in 2003.

Chiarotti died four years ago of a brain tumor and his loss has left a big void in the program.

“A big loss,” Rosa said. “He gave us inspiration. I still remember the words he said to us before the big games. But we must continue. In life, everything changes, and it’s a chance for something new.

According to Mirko Bianchi, Italy’s assistant coach, many countries with strong programs send scouts and players to hospitals to recruit people with disabilities to play, and many governments fund training. In Italy there is little money for that, Bianchi said, so it is up to the players to make hospital appearances to scout for talent.

“It’s not that easy to find new players,” Bianchi said. “We try to find people who may have had an accident and ask them to play. But it is difficult. In Italy we have football, basketball, volleyball and everyone wants to play these sports.

Social media is another avenue used to pique the interest of potential players. But current squad members would like to see the Italian Ice Sports Federation contribute more money for television and radio advertising.

“We would like to see more help,” Macri said, “but you know there’s not a lot of tradition for hockey in Italy.”

With the Games returning to Italy in four years, the Azzurri could have a chance to build on Friday’s victory by raising awareness and showing their federation they are ready to fight for every inch of ice and bounce back. after lopsided losses to achieve spectacular victories. .

“We are Italians,” Macri said. “We can play great hockey, but we can also play bad hockey. We are not professionals. We’re just people who have a passion for playing sledge hockey. »

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