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Team Italy faces uphill climb to stay at top level

Wednesday, 08.26.2009 / 10:07 AM / Across the Pond

By Bill Meltzer - NHL.com Correspondent

The last time the Italian men's national hockey team entered the collective conscience of the international hockey world, it was facing Team Canada in the opening match of the 2006 Olympics in Turin. Team Italy put up a valiant fight and held close for the first half of the game, but ultimately lost, 7-2. The Italians went on to finish 11th in the 12-team tournament.

In the years since the Italians hosted the 2006 Olympics, the national team has faced numerous challenges. Although Italy still holds a respectable ranking (14th in the world) by the International Ice Hockey Federation, the fortunes of the national team have been in decline in recent years. Italy staved off relegation to Division I at the 2006 and 2007 IIHF World Championship, but were dropped to Division I after a 16th place finish in 2008.

Following the team's relegation, former NHL star Michel Goulet resigned as Team Italy's head coach after a five-year stint. He was replaced by veteran coach Rick Cornacchia, who signed a two-year contract.

The no-nonsense Cornacchia is no stranger to Italian hockey. Best known as Eric Lindros' coach during the his Ontario Hockey League career with the Oshawa Generals, Cornacchia also has played and coached in Italy. A defenseman during his playing days, he suited up for HC Alleghe (Series A) for two seasons in the mid-1970s (1974-75 to 1975-76) and returned to Italy coach the club in the 1990s.  When the opportunity to coach the national team presented itself, he couldn't say no.

"I wasn't even looking for this chance," Cornacchia told yorkregion.com. "It just presented itself. It's one of those things when you're not looking for something it just happens. When it presented itself, everything just went right and I said 'yes.' ”

Earlier this year, Cornacchia's squad earned its way back to the elite level World Championship tournament after capturing the gold medal at the 2009 IIHF World Championship Division I (Group B) in Poland. The Italians boasted a perfect 5-0-0 record in a field that included Poland, Ukraine, Great Britain, the Netherlands and a woefully overmatched Romania, which mustered only one goal in the entire tournament while giving up 38 goals).

Team Italy was led by veteran forward Roland Ramoser, defensemen Trevor Johnson and Michele Strazzabosco and goaltender Thomas Tragust. Ramoser, the captain of Italian Series A champion HC Bolzano Foxes, scored five goals in as many games and added three assists to lead the team in scoring. Johnson, who played in Italy for Asiago before departing in the offseason for the Kassel Huskies of Germany's DEL, tallied three goals and generated five assists. Strazzabosco, who had a preseason tryout with the Buffalo Sabres prior to the 2006-07 season, was the team's top all-round defender. Tragust posted three shutouts en route to a 0.50 goals-against average and .982 save percentage for the tournament.

The Italians' success in Poland notwithstanding, the national team may have hard time maintaining its place at the top level come next spring. Even by Division I standards, the Italians faced a mediocre field of competition at the 2009 World Championships. Only Ukraine presented a suitable challenge. When faced with tougher opposition in the qualification tournament for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, the Italians failed to impress. Team Italy handled Hungary (4-1) but were nipped by Ukraine (3-2) and defeated 4-1 by tournament winner Latvia.

Moving forward, Cornacchia and the Team Italy leadership will have to groom worthy replacements for the aging players who make up the Team Italy nucleus. Ramoser is about to celebrate his 37th birthday. Strazzabosco, who played for SG Cortina last season, will turn 34 during the season. Canadian left wing John Parco, a fixture on the national team since 2003 and a former Philadelphia Flyers prospect, is now 38.

The torch will have to be picked up soon by players such as 29-year-old center Stefan Zisser (2 goals, 5 points at the Division I Worlds),  27-year-old Canadian-born left winger Pat Iannone, and 27-year-old right winger Luca Ansoldi (1 goal, 6 points) who are still in the primes of their careers. Long-term successors have yet to emerge, and may well have to come from the ranks of passport players.

Meanwhile, many of the Team Italy names familiar to North American and international fans at the time of the 2006 Olympics have retired or otherwise moved on. Their ranks include former NHL goaltender Jason Muzzatti, forward Tony Tuzzolino and Italian hockey legend Lucio Topatigh.


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