Serie A shrinks to 8 teams

Serie A shrinks to 8 teams

18 Aug 2015Lucas Bradelj»
 

The Italian hockey movement is in a crisis and so is its top tier league. After Caldaro/Kaltern, Appiano/Eppan, Egna/Appiano and, as the biggest shocker, Milano Rossoblu withdrew from Serie A, only 8 teams will compete for the Italian championship title.

 
 
 
 
In order to understand the situation in Italy, we first need to go back in time a few years. Especially in the past 5 seasons, the Italian hockey league lost lots of interest among fans and potential sponsors. A situation, which got from bad to worse when, prior to the 2013/2014 season, record champion HC Bolzano decided to join international EBEL league. It was not the only traditional club to leave the league during that off-season, as also HC Alleghe withdrew from Serie A, continuing their path in Serie B

Despite 9 import players allowed per team, the attendance and level of play in ‘Elite A’, as the league was called during the 13/14 season, was far from being ‘elite’. A real second league competition, as had been Serie A2 for years, was also no more in existence, since the only five 2nd tier clubs remaining left to compete in Inter-National-League (INL), the 2nd tier Austrian league.

So this lead to a rather interesting situation: Amateur ‘Serie C U26’ was ‘promoted’ to become ‘Serie B’, filling the spot of the missing 2nd tier level (even though technically the 2nd league champion was awarded through a Final-4-tournament between the better seeded clubs in INL).

Time for change

After the 13/14 season elections were hold at the FISG (Federazione Italiana Sport del Ghiaccio), the Italian ice sports federation. After 17 years Giancarlo Bolognini resigned and Andrea Gios, former mayor of the city of Asiago, was elected as the new president of FISG. Gios promised change and did not wait long to introduce first massive changes.

In June of 2014 the federation announced that only 5 import players would be allowed per team and also set up stricter rules on the usage of dual-citizens. It was all part of initiating a culture change in Italian hockey, giving the homegrown talents a chance to be important pieces of the national squad. This would also allow clubs to reduce the costs of maintaining a team in Serie A.

A few weeks later though the newly-elected federation took a much more controversial decision, as no club would anymore be given the permission to participate in INL. While HC Merano had already announced to withdraw from INL before to play in Serie B due to financial reasons, the other four clubs had no real alternative than to participate in Serie A.

The reasoning behind this ban was simple: With quite some Italian teams affected by financial difficulties, the federation wanted to ensure a top Italian league with at least 8 teams. This decision was taken despite the Italian INL-clubs had signed a 3-year-contract with the INL just one year prior.

To make this forced promotion into Italy’s top tier league affordable, the number of import players was cut to 4, the same number as used in INL. In the end 12 clubs played in Serie A during the 14/15 season, which was, despite a clear difference in roster quality, an interesting championship.

The current situation

Now, one year later, 3 out of the 4 teams affected by this ban have decided not to play in Serie A anymore due to financial reasons. Only HG Gherdeina, a traditional power house of Italian hockey, has successfully managed to find the necessary funds in order to put together a team in the top tier Italian league in 2015/2016. The other 3 clubs will play in Serie B, a mainly amateur competition.

This makes you wonder whether the decision taken by the FISG was the right one. Looking back the federation should have probably looked for a compromise with the 4 effected clubs. It was well known that Appiano and Gherdeina were interested in playing in a reformed Serie A, whereas Egna wanted a chance to defend its title in INL and Kaltern did not nearly have the financial capabilities to put together a competitive team in Serie A.

Maybe giving the clubs an opportunity to find a solution beneficial to all parties involved would have been an alternative, since forcing clubs to play in Italy might not have been of help in ensuring the club’s willingness to cooperate. The situation could and probably should have been handled with more care by the federation.

All the federation’s fault?

It would though not be fair to put all the blame for the current mess entirely on the federation. It should also remain in the clubs’ best interest to take responsibilities for their national hockey program.

Appiano, Egna and Caldaro are three small nearby towns in the region of South Tyrol, though did not find an agreement to work together in order to put a Serie A team on the ice. It is this parochial thinking which is also a reason why Italy never achieves to put a real step forward in their hockey program. One problem of Italian hockey is that most clubs are situated in smaller towns and this gives clubs only a small market to gain fans and sponsors. This is an issue which also the clubs could help solving by improving their cooperation.

There for sure are rivalries between the 3 clubs and getting together a fair deal might not be easy, but like a good old saying says: Where there's a will, there's a way. It remains a pity that neither Appiano, who started a Cinderella story last season almost knocking out Asiago in the quarter finals, or Egna, who have built a great junior program and have one of the best facilities in the country, will not be represented in Serie A.

Rethinking their responsibilities towards the national hockey program might might also be a consideration for champion HC Asiago and the Valpellice Bulldogs. The ongoing complains about former players of Valpellice for not getting paid might not be beneficial to the league’s reputation. Asiago being late in providing the necessary bank guarantee for the upcoming season is also not a great sign, regardless of the explained circumstances by the club.

Milano’s KHL dreams facing reality

The 4th team to leave the league is Milano Rossoblu, the last of many teams from Milano to have gone extinct from the map of top level hockey clubs based in Milano. Born in 2009 after the collapse of the Milano Vipers, the club after some years spent in Serie A2, the 2nd league at the time, came back to the top league in 2012.

During the 2014/2015 season, the club was finally again among the contenders for the Italian championship title, reaching the final of ‘Coppa Italia’ and qualifying for the playoff semifinals. It was also the club with the by far highest attendance in Serie A, as their fans created an electric atmosphere in every single home game in PalaAgorà.

Not only because of that atmosphere the absence of this club will not go unnoticed, but also because it was the only club situated in a major Italian city. This leaves Brunico, home of HC Pustertal, as the biggest town represented in Serie A with a population of 16,000 people. Considering that Milano’s opponents in Serie B will be teams from Varese (80,000), Como (85,000) or Merano (40,000), it also gives the indication that something has went terribly wrong in Italian hockey in the past two decades.

Milano’s official statement regarding their relegation to Serie B might also seem like a huge contradiction, which makes the fans doubt the credibilty of the club. In this announcement the clubs admits to not have the necessary financial capabilties to play in a semi-pro Serie A, but at the same time mentions a possible future in the Kontinental Hockey Leaugue. Negotiations about a possible Rossoblu-team in the KHL have been ongoing for quite some years, but with no clear results as of now, already starting with the lack of an arena which meets the KHL-criterias.

What’s next?

To put it in a nutshell: No doubt, Italian hockey is in a crisis and it is not easy for clubs to survive, also considering the overall economic situation in Italy. FISG took some important first steps guiding into the right direction, but made some mistakes too. The feraion needs to find a way to put a three-league-system in place again, which allows every club to play on the level which fits them best. The current Serie B model includes a huge disparity in budget and quality and cannot be a long-term-solution.

To achieve this though one important aspect is not present at the moment, which is a key factor and has lacked in previous years: Cooperation. Italian hockey can only survive and maybe even take the next step if the federation, clubs and all parties involved realize the need of working together. There are lots of problems to be solved, of whom many have not been mentioned in this article, but the foundation for it has to be cooperation. If this is not being realized, the future does not look bright for Italian hockey.




Serie A 2015/2016

·  HC Asiago

·  Fassa Falcons

·  HC Gherdeina

·  SG Cortina

·  HC Pustertal/Val Pusteria

·  Rittner Buam

·  HC Valpellice Bulldogs

·  WSV Vipiteno/Sterzing Broncos


Serie B 2015/2016 (no official confirmation on all the participants yet)

·  Alleghe

·  Auer/Ora

·  Chiavenna

·  Como

·  Feltre

·  Fiemme

·  Kaltern/Caldaro

·  Milano Rossoblu

·  Merano

·  Neumarkt/Egna

·  Pergine

·  HC Pustertal/Val Pusteria Junior

·  Rittner Buam U20

·  Varese

·  Vinschgau/Val Venosta



Foto: Roberta Strazzabosco / hockeytime.net


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