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Italian icon Topatigh says goodbye

by Bill Meltzer
Italian hockey legend Lucio Topatigh will bring an end to a 25-year career that has seen him play in 14 World Championships and four Olympics.
If Lucio Topatigh was a soccer player, his 25-year career would have been the stuff of legend throughout his homeland of Italy. Although hockey is well-established in Italy -- the country has been a member of the International Ice Hockey Federation since 1926 -- the sport lives deep in soccer’s shadow.  But within the Italian and global hockey communities, Topatigh’s name is synonymous with the sport in his country.

The 43-year-old right wing, who recently announced his retirement, has spent his entire career playing in his home country’s professional league and for the nazionale (national team). Hailing from the small town of Gallio in the northern province of Vicenza, Topatigh is known as “Il Falco di Gallio” (the Hawk of Gallio).

Throughout his storied career, Topatigh racked up an array of accolades that will be tough for his compatriots to match or surpass. This season, he passed the 1,000 club-team game mark, becoming the first Italian player to reach the milestone. The majority of his career has been spent with Asiago Hockey, interspersed with stints with HC Bolzano and the now-defunct HC Devils of Milan. 

His individual accomplishments include winning the Serie A rookie of the year award (1985-86) and league most valuable player honors. More important, Topatigh was a key member of seven teams that won the Italian championship (1987-88, 1989-90, 1993-94, 1995-96, 1996-97, 1997-98 and 2000-01) . His Asiago club also won the Coppa Italia tournament in 2001.

Internationally, Topatigh suited up for Team Italy in 10 IIHF World Championships and played in four Olympic Games (1992, 1994, 1998 and 2006).  Including junior and senior national team games, exhibitions and preseason tournaments, Topatigh’s career game count is actually more than 1,300.

Without question, the Torino games of 2006 were the most special to the player. Not only did Topatigh get to compete against world-class competition, including a host of current and former NHL players, he was able to experience the thrill of doing so on home ice.  For those two weeks, Italy was the center of the hockey world.

Inspirational leader

At the time of the 2006 Olympics, Topatigh, then 41, had not been a regular member of Team Italy in four years and had been working part-time at a bakery while continuing to play for Asiago.

But it wasn’t just for sentimental reasons that Team Italy coach Michel Goulet added him to the Olympic roster. The player exemplified the type of work ethic and commitment to the game that Goulet wanted to install throughout the national team.

“We have players on our team like (goaltender Jason) Muzzatti and Tony Tuzzolino who’ve played in the NHL and in Italy, but Lucio Topatigh is a leader and inspiration to all of the players who were born and developed in Italy,” Goulet explained to the media during the tournament.

In his best offensive season in the domestic league, Topatigh had 58 goals and 69 assists for an astounding 127 points in 45 games while playing for Asiago during the 1999-2000 season. He has compiled more than 500 career goals and 1,150 points in his career. In recent years, his production finally began to tail off.

Even more than his offensive ability, Topatigh is best known for his grit and conditioning. At 43, he still packs a well-toned 200 pounds on his 6-foot-1 frame. The player has always pointed to his off-ice preparations as the key to his longevity on the ice.

“I’ve always been very careful about my physique,” Topatigh said when announcing his retirement. “I checked my nutrition and this allowed me to reach these goals.”

Topatigh, who compiled over 2,000 career penalty minutes to go along with his offensive production, has always been an intense competitor. Hockey players have remarkable pain tolerance by nature, but Topatigh’s ability to withstand pain and continue playing at a high level is extraordinary.

Most famously, Topatigh suffered torn knee ligaments in the deciding game of the 2001 playoffs, but refused to come out despite being unable to bear much weight on his leg. In an ending fitting for Hollywood, he scored in a shootout.

"I remember the ligament tearing after seven minutes of the first period, but the will to win was so strong, I never really thought about the pain,” Topatigh said.

One dream unfulfilled

Asiago has always been the team closest to Topatigh’s heart. Among the seven Italian championships he won in his career, the 2000-01 crown was the only one that came as a member of Asiago. It was the lone Scudetto (national championship trophy) in the history of a club that was founded in 1935.

The Asiago clubs Topatigh played on in his final years were weak teams. This season, the team finished last in Serie A and went on to lose in the relegation round. But the club’s struggles of late and the fact he was a part-time player the last few years couldn’t put a damper on nearly 14 years of happy memories in Asiago.

Although he played his entire career in Italy, in his prime Topatigh attracted attention from North American pro clubs. In fact, after the 1993-94 season he was approached by the Chicago Wolves, then of the International Hockey League and now an American Hockey League club.

That year, Topatigh was coming off a season in which he racked up a combined 60 goals for the Milan Devils between the Italian league and the now-defunct Alpenliga, which also included clubs from Austria and Slovenia. He also scored three goals for Italy at the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer and tallied another four in six games at the World Championships.

“I spoke with coach Gene Ubriaco and was ready to go (to Chicago), but I had a signed contract with Milano,” Topatigh recalled.

Topatigh honored his contract with his Italian team rather than breaching it to jump to the IHL. By the time he was free to sign in North America, Topatigh was 30 and the interest from overseas had cooled. Today, he says his lone regret as a player was that he didn’t try to realize his “American dream” of working his way up to the NHL.

Between the Olympics, World Championships and the occasional NHLer and former top Euro league stars who’ve signed to play with Italian teams, Lucio Topatigh still got to experience the thrill of competing against the world’s best players.  Besides, even if he couldn’t play in the NHL, “settling” for being an icon among hockey players, coaches and fans in his homeland was a mighty satisfying consolation prize.

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