Another page in the fairy-tale that is the Swiss club Ambri-Piotta was written on New Year’s Eve 2022 when the ‘Bianco-blu’ hoisted their first ever Spengler Cup. After winning their three qualifying games, they toppled the tough Sparta Prague 3-2 after a penalty shootout in a thrilling final in front of a sold-out crowd of nearly 7,000.
The victory produced tears of joy from the passionate fans from the tiny villages of Ambri and Piotta as the prestigious trophy was their team’s first major success since their iconic season of 1999-2000 when Larry Huras’s side carried off the Continental Cup and the European Super Cup.
Apart from these, Ambri-Piotta does not exactly have a cabinet stuffed with important trophies – just one Swiss Cup, a second Continental Cup and a runner-up place in Switzerland’s elite National League A. But it does boast one of the most colourful histories in Europe, a charmed existence against the odds, and a wide base of fervent fans.
Hockey Club Ambri-Piotta (HCAP), its full name, was founded almost 90 years ago in September 1937 in the cold Leventina valley near the entrance to the Gotthard Tunnel, an area with a lot of fog and short hours of daylight, a place “where the sun don’t shine” as Slapshot might have put it.
The story goes that a hockey club was the idea of the local farmers, lumberjacks and hunters, tough guys who wanted an activity to fill the long, dark days of winter. The team made it into the top Swiss league after World War 2 and since 1985 has played there continuously.
Why is this remarkable? Because the populations of Ambri and the neighbouring village of Piotta in the canton of Ticino total barely 500. Their first covered arena, the revered Valascia, was open at both ends, warmed only by the exuberance of the fans - the Gioventu Bianco-blu (the White-Blue Youth), named after the team’s colours. They crammed into the 6,500-capacity arena, most of them standing as there were only 2,000 seats.
Ticino, in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, has a history of radicalism, which helps to account for the flags of the revolutionary Che Guevara and the Apache leader Geronimo waving next to the fans in their head-dresses and leather jackets in the Curva Sud, the Kop of the Valascia.
Founded in 1988, the fan club combines politics and the creative choreography of the Italian “Ultras”, the die-hard soccer fans who fire up Italian stadiums with witty chants, colourful banners and inexhaustible enthusiasm. The celebrations after an Ambri victory are a sight to behold with the Italian song of the mountains “La Montanara”, adopted as the fans’ anthem, echoing around the arena.
Veteran Swiss hockey journalist, Klaus Zaugg, described the scene: “There is no greater joy for eyes and ears in the world of hockey – and that includes the NHL.”
Ambri-Piotta’s fiercest rival - also in Ticino - is in Lugano, a prosperous financial centre of 60,000 on Lake Lugano, some 80 kilometres (50 miles) south of Ambri. Games between the two teams (“the millionaires versus the farmers”) attract huge media interest around the canton.
The club can’t claim any big name players. Apart from a few top Russians, the best known is Canadian Dale McCourt, a first round draft pick of the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings in 1977. It’s the club’s unique reputation more than the money that attracts players from abroad.
Around ten years ago, the Swiss National League decided to phase out the older arenas, like the 1959-built Valascia. This did not go down well with the traditionalists of the Gioventu Bianco-blu, of course, but the majority of fans rather liked the idea of modern sanitation, safe seating and decent catering. And there was the small matter of the old barn being in the path of a potential avalanche!
After much agonising and fund-raising (51 million Swiss francs, £45 million sterling, was needed), construction of the new, fully covered arena, the Nuova Valascia or Gottardo Arena, began in 2019. The architect-designed building, which kept the seated/standing ratio with 4,000 standing out of the 6,775 capacity, was completed in time for the 2021-22 season.
The team’s importance to the local economy persuaded Ticino to provide much of the funding. A banking consortium matched the 14 million SF contributed by the club’s own funds and the donations received from all over Switzerland where the team can count on 20 supporters’ clubs.
The old barn may have gone but the passion for the Bianco-blu endures.
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