Posts Tagged ‘Gabriel Kuhn’

What North Americans have to understand is that when you grew up in Europe in the 1970 and 80s, hockey didn’t mean the NHL. Not predominantly, at least. Sure, we knew of the NHL, and every now and again there’d be some 30-seconds footage on one of our sports’ programs (remember, this is before cable and satellite TV), and we also knew that the players there earned much more than our players did, and we knew that they claimed that they played the best hockey there was; but: that was all over there, some mythical hockey world of superstars and money and smaller rinks—while we had our own hockey over here: national federations that often enough struggled to keep a professional league going, European cups that nobody followed—and then what hockey to us Europeans was really all about: the World Championships! (Or, every four years, the Olympics, which for a while doubled as the World Championships). So, every April or May, once the national leagues were finished, it was hockey time in Europe for a good two weeks, and even folks who never watched s single puck netted during the winter would tune in to see, well, usually another triumph of the USSR. Between 1963 and 1990 the USSR won 22 out of possible 28 World Championships/Olympic titles. Not a bad record by pretty much anybody’s standards, I’d say. Way into the 1980s there were only eight teams in the Group A finals (there were Groups B, and C, and eventually D finals too, but no one ever paid attention to those, unless you happened to come from a country that didn’t have a good enough team to ever be in a Group A consisting of a mere eight nations—like Austria), and seven of them were basically always the same: besides the USSR, that meant Czechoslovakia, Sweden, Finland, Canada, the US, and West Germany (Canada making an exception in the early 70s when they didn’t play at all due to amateur/professional regulations). The eighth spot (that condemned a team to relegation to Group B) was filled, in rotation, by teams like Holland, Poland, Italy (all of which have meanwhile disappeared into hockey nothingness), or East Germany (which, well, has pretty much disappeared into nothingness altogether). At that time, not many Europeans played in the NHL yet. Like, the first Soviet player ever to play professional hockey in North America was Sergei Priakin who played a rather unadorned season for the Calgary Flames in 1988/89. This meant that when the World Championships rolled around, most of the European teams brought together the best players the respective nations had to sport—hence the excitement for the European hockey fan to watch the tournament. It was a different situation as far as the teams from Canada and the US were concerned: Along the lines of the infamous North American tendency to ignore whatever might be happening outside “the New World” (and of course following the logics of corporate ownership in sports), no NHL team would have ever considered releasing a player who was still engaged in NHL playoff battles for some insignificant “World Championships” (like, which world? over in Europe? you gotta be kidding!—should we be surprised that the Canada Cup was renamed the “World Cup of Hockey” in 1996?), especially when they were played in places with names as unpronounceable as Södertälje, Canazei, or Turku. (Sure, none of the players would have wanted to do that anyway. But it’s not their fault. They are only caught up in the machine.) So this meant that the Canadian and US-American teams usually consisted of NHL players from teams who hadn’t made the playoffs, and that the officials would leave a few spots on the roster open so they could register and fly in a couple of further stars on short notice should their teams lose a play-off series while the World Championships were already underway. Sometimes this meant that really big names did play at the Championships too Gretzky, Lemieux , Lindross: they all made an appearance at some point. (Even then the Russians couldn’t be beaten of course. Hmm, did that mean that the best hockey possibly wasn’t played in North America after all? No—the NHL cracks were just tired after a long season. Right! Like the European players hadn’t played any hockey in the winter prior to the tournament. But we don’t wanna get into petty arguments here.) Anyway, many, many things have changed since then: Due to cable and satellite TV, the ever-increasing number of Europeans drafted into the NHL (a process very much sped up by the collapse of the formerly “communist” Eastern European countries), and the glorious wonders (ya, right!) of free market dynamics, globalization, and neoliberalism, the NHL has become a global (well, hockey global) phenomenon; the World Championships Group A has expanded from 8 to 10 to 12 to 16 teams (more teams, more games, more money); and the Olympics separated from the World Championships, ‘cause since the US basketball “Dream Team”of the Barcelona Olympics (amateurism? are you kidding me? that’s so, like, 20th century!) made the NBA a worldwide trademark in 1992 (lucky the NBA still had Magic, and Bird, and Jordan then, and didn’t have to rely on “Dream Teams”coming in sixth at World Championships in their own country), the NHL figured that it too could make more money if the might of the NHL was to be presented to a worldwide audience and so it actually interrupted its season for the first time ever for the Olympics in Nagano in 1998 (where the Czech Republic still won the title— check this CNN report from the archives: “The Czech Republic’s hockey team took the swagger out of the Canadians and Americans in maybe the biggest surprise of the Nagano Games, snagging the Gold medal in a victory for the little guys.”The little guys? Jagr, Hasek, Straka, Rucinsky? Well. CNN logics, I suppose.). However, despite all these changes, one thing remains the same: the Hockey World Championships still don’t interest anybody in North America. (Actually, in regard to the righteous editor of this zine I will correct that: they don’t interest anybody in North America but the true hockey fan!) How this translates into the media coverage, for example, takes on really comical dimensions: Like, if you went on the Yahoo! Sports hockey site during the World Championships, the homepage would immaculately inform you about which games of the long cancelled NHL season would have been scheduled for today (face-off time included)—but in order to get any news on the World Championships you had to dig deep through the site’s hockey news links to eventually find a couple of game reports (proper standings, schedules, scoreboards? forget it!). So, in this sense I guess I was fortunate that, thanks to US Homeland Security protecting its nation spiritedly and dedicatedly, I was on a plane back to Europe much earlier this year than expected—just in time to catch the Group A Hockey World Championships that had returned to my native Austria after a ten year absence. And not only that: Apart from Vienna (Vienna always gets a slice of the cake, no matter what happens in Austria—it is a centralized autocratic country in that sense, no matter what they tell you), another town was blessed with the honor of hosting matches this time: Innsbruck, the Alpine metropolis (120.000 people – come on, that’s not bad! it’s in the mountains, man!) of Winter Olympics fame (1964 and—stepping in when the Colorado electorate voted down the state’s plans to finance the Olympics the IOC had awarded to Denver—1976), and, besides, the humble birthplace of these lines’ author. So, what else was there to to do than crash on old friends’ couches for a couple of weeks and try to sneak my way into the hockey stadium, right? The tournament’s facts are quickly told: The Czech Republic restored European pride by taking the title again from Canada who had won the Championships back-to-back in ’03 and ’04 (both times beating Sweden). The Czechs won the final in Vienna 3:0 (of course the final was played in Vienna—what did you think?). Russia took third place by beating Sweden 6:3. Slovakia, the US, Finland, and Switzerland (especially Switzerland) could still be content as quarter finalists. Latvia, Belarus, the Ukraine, and Kazakhstan performed within their capabilities and were ranked 9-12. Slovenia and Denmark were happy survivors in the fight against relegation on positions 13 and 14. And Germany and Austria – well, they better wouldn’t have shown up for the tournament in the first place (more about this below). Rick Nash was the top scorer with 9 goals, while Joe Thornton not only led the stats in both assists (10) and points (16), but was also decorated as the tournament’s MVP. Honors as best forward went to Viktor Kozlov, the best defenseman according to the directorate was Wade Redden. And Thomas Vokoun was proclaimed best goalie, even though the Belarusian Andrei Mezin led the stats with an impressive saving percentage of 97.14, and an even more impressive 1.01 goals against average. Belarus marked another impressive statistic: a 100% penalty killing. The Swede Samuel Pahlsson picked up the most penalties (28 minutes) while Russia led that ranking as a team—and if you wanna know more stats you can go to http://www.ihwc.net/english/. Overall, the tournament demonstrated some fantastic hockey, and everything that a tournament of this caliber needs: highlights (the Czech overtime victory over Sweden in the semis), suspense (the quarterfinal penalty shootouts between Russia and Finland or the Czech Republic and the US), drama (Jaromir Jagr’s injured finger), tension (the tournament’s administrators in Vienna had to take a fair amount of shit for sloppy organization—in Innsbruck I didn’t hear any of that, just to throw that in), and humor (one of the Eastern European coaches assessing the conditions of the ice at the Vienna rink by reporting that one of his players had broken a skate during the game “but fortunately was a good enough swimmer to make it back to the bench”). Needless to say, in the context of this modest article it is impossible to make all the trials and tribulations come alive that you live through at a collective social experience as tremendous as this 14-day hockey extravaganza (and joy—if you weren’t German or Austrian, that is); so in my function as the lucky and privileged Give ‘Em The Lumber’s exclusive correspondent to the Hockey World Championships 2005 I will content myself with listing the three single most important realizations forced upon the observer at the event: 1.Due to the NHL lock-out all star players were available to represent their respective countries at this year’s tournament—however, the US still didn’t even make the semis, and Canada did not score once in the final. What’s up, Europe! 2.The top teams’ level of play seems to become more and more evenly balanced: Out of the four semifinalists each one could have taken the title, and so could have at least three of the quarterfinalists (sorry, my Swiss neighbors, but this would just go too far…)—in the end it all came down to how things played out that particular day and to a touch of luck. 3.Hockey fans rule: During the course of the tournament Innsbruck hosted hockey fans from Sweden, Finland, Latvia, Slovenia, the Ukraine, and Denmark (Germans don’t count—they are always there). Having these folks in town was a real treat. All of them. Even though the special supporters’ award probably has to go to our Latvian friends—they were a lot of fun! And they well deserve hosting next year’s World Championships (May 6th to 21st—in case you’ve always wanted to make that trip to Europe and were just waiting for an excuse). Unfortunately, the article has to end on a sad note: The Austrian performance. The Austrian team managed to lose all their games except one, including defeats to teams considered “easy” opponents, such as Slovenia, or especially Denmark. The only point the Austrian team won was in a draw against Germany. Austria’s overall showing was atrocious. After their last games they got booed out of the arena. (Austrians are mean. But they aren’t that mean. There were reasons for the jeers.) The explanations for the disaster were the typical ones : injuries, bad coaching, bad attitude. As always, probably everything played together. In any case, it was embarrassing. But the players have to bear most of the burden themselves: Next year there will be no playing against no Niklas Kronwall or Zigmund Palffy; Austria’s hockey aces will battle it out with the teams from Lithuania or Croatia in the Group B tournament in Estonia. I’m sure Thomas Vanek or Thomas Pöck (both, especially Vanek, playing rather successfully for their AHL teams in Rochester and Hartford respectively) won’t be too excited to come across the Atlantic for an outing like that (they even seemed reluctant this year). Well, we’ll see. Maybe the Austrian team bounces right back into Group A, just as it did the last time it had been relegated in 1996. Which leads me to the three ironies I have to finish this article with: Irony 1: When Austria got relegated the last time, the World Championships were also held in the country itself. (So would I forgo another World Championship in my home country, so my country’s team can actually stay in Group A? Good question. I have to think about that.) Irony 2. By drawing with Germany, the Austrians took the Germans with them to ice hockey oblivion next year. (Okay, I admit that people not versed in soccer history might miss the irony here. All I can say is: Gijon 1982). Irony 3: My best friend from junior high school, Claus Dalpiaz, is a veteran goalkeeper for the Austrian team and was a member of every Austrian World Championships or Olympics squad since 1993. A couple of weeks before this year’s World Championships he got injured in a warm-up game against the Czech Republic and had to sit the tournament out on a groin injury (Bernd Brückler, a Wisconsin Badger, had to step in—rather unsuccessfully, as you would probably guess at this point). Claus not being the youngest anymore at 33, I was rather saddened by the news, given that it meant that he would miss out on what was probably his last chance to play in another World Championship in Austria itself. Now of course it looks like it was opportune that he got to hang at home with his family during the month of May rather than partaking in the Austrian hockey fiasco. Then again, with him between the posts things might have looked very different of course… In 2008 the Hockey World Championships will be hosted in North America for the first time in 46 years (Colorado Springs and Denver hosted the tournament in 1962): Halifax and Quebec are supposed to gather the world’s best. Will this change the North American’s perception of the event? Who knows? But I’m sure Give ‘Em The Lumberwill be there to tell you all about it!


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Sweden seems like it would be every radical hockey fans dream. Here’s a country that has had an almost uninterrupted run of social democratic governments since the 1920s, is hailed as the epitome of the European welfare state, ranks consistently amongst the nations most generous with foreign aid, and is known as a bastion of such liberal achievements as gay/lesbian pastors and a
no-frills approach to public nudity.

And then there is its men’s hockey team. Traditionally one of the world’s very best, with eight World Championship titles and two Olympic gold medals to its record. It secured a historic first this year—winning the gold medal at the Olympics and at the World Championships during the same season.

One might conclude that, for a radical hockey fan, being in Sweden could be the next best thing to forcing the Blackhawks to change their name. Well ,things just ain’t what they seem.

I first became suspicious when it appeared impossible to locate any radical hockey fans to begin with. I had heard that there was an anarchist soccer tournament in Stockholm every year. So sure there’d be one for hockey, right? Far from it. I can get exactly one of the radical friends I have here to talk about hockey with at least a hint of interest—he moved to the country five years ago from Austria.Inquiries into radical hockey teams, fan clubs, or just any individual radical into the game, were met by little more than partly-bewildered, partly-contemptuous stares. Radical politics and what? Hockey? Get outta here!

When I told my Swedish girlfriend that I was gonna write an article on hockey in Sweden she told me to make sure not to write anything bad about Sweden—I outta feel free, however, to tear hockey into pieces. That just about sums it up, I guess.

Once you delve into the matter a little, you start to get the feeling that the role of hockey in Swedish society is to bring out the worst in the country’s otherwise benign and friendly folk. As one Stockholm paper put it last year in the aftermath of a scandal involving rape charges against three NHL and Tre Kronor players (see below): “While society as a whole has become more and more just, hockey keeps on living in its own world.”

A relentless macho culture is usually the first reason given. Last year’s scandal seemed only the tip of the iceberg. References to other players as “cunts” or “grannies” are as common in the locker room as sexist and homophobic jokes, standard rites of masculinity, and what would go as good old jock values in the States (Sounds familiar? True. But this is not North America. This is Sweden. That was the point.).

The low figures for female hockey players are staggering. In a country where women account for over 47% of the members of parliament (Sweden has led this statistic for a long time—it was only overtaken by Rwanda in 2003 who now claims a 48.8 percentage for women parliamentarians) and for about 30% of the registered soccer players (not to forget: soccer too is a traditionally very male-dominated sport), the percentage of registered female hockey players comes to barely five (Canada has over ten).

There are usually no all-female youth teams. The girls have to train with the boys. In terms of gender equality, this might have its good sides. However, taking into account the above described locker room scenario, it can also be rather discouraging—the numbers of girls and women playing hockey in Sweden would rather suggest the latter. Nonetheless—one might say against the odds—the Swedish women’s hockey team won the silver medal at this year’s Olympics in Torino. It was the first time a Women’s World Championship or Olympic final saw a team other than that of Canada or the US compete (Sweden had beaten the US in the semis). Quite an achievement. We can only hope it’ll boost women’s hockey in the land of lakes and forests and make the Sundins and Forsbergs choke on some of their snus! (Swedish snuff, that is).

The story behind the above mentioned “hockey scandal” goes as follows:

In February 2005, during the Sweden Hockey Games (now LG Hockey Games—part of an annual tournament series comprising Sweden, Finland, Russia, and the Czech Republic) three NHL-probed Swedish players (Kristian Huselius, Andreas Lilja and Henrik Tallinder) leave the team’s quarters for a night out and return to their hotel room with a young woman who they all have sex with. The woman files rape charges the next day. These are soon dropped for “lack of evidence.” The Swedish Hockey Association bans the three players from continuing to play for their Elitseries teams (they are all on leave from their locked-out NHL clubs) but allows them to play outside the country (they all finish the season in Switzerland). These days, all three of them are back in the NHL: Huselius with the Flames, Lilja with the Red Wings, and Tallinder with the Sabres.

The scandal did shake Sweden and the reputation of hockey a fair bit. However, soon everything appeared “back to normal”. And, indeed, judged by the Swedish Hockey Association’s handling of the matter, little improvement seems in sight. For its officials the issue seemed closed with forbidding the three players to finish their season in Sweden and banning them for some time from the Tre Kronor. Asked if he didn’t think that there was any connection between the players’ behavior and a more general attitude problem within Swedish hockey, Michael Englund, the association’s general secretary, is quoted as saying: “I have a really hard time seeing that. … There are no problems with sexism in Swedish hockey.” As of fall 2006, the players are back in Tre Kronor colors.

Enter the next political problem that Swedish hockey is facing—Whiteness.

Sweden has long been a fairly welcoming haven for refugees, migrant workers and those looking for a safer and more promising home than the one they’ve left behind.This is reflected in the country’s current demographics. Around 20% of Sweden’s population are first or second generation migrants. This shows in many aspects of Swedish society, also sports. For the last few years, the Swedish soccer team’s offense (one of the best in the world) has consisted of one player with a Cape Verdean father (Henrik Larsson) and a player of Bosnian and Croat descent (Zlatan Ibrahimovi?).

In hockey, blue eyes, blonde hair and names like Alfredsson and Lundqvist still rule supreme. There is no Grant Fuhr of Swedish hockey. Sure, there are prospects—a few players of ethnic minority background have been drafted in recent years by NHL teams: Yared Hagos by the Stars and Johnny Oduya by the Capitals in 2001, Dragan Umicevic by the Oilers in 2003. But none of their stars have really begun to shine.

Maybe the biggest hope came with this year’s draft: Daniel Rahimi, hailing from Sweden’s north (Umeå), was a third-round pick for the Canucks. He had a contract offered when he was eighteen. Rahimi’s dad is Iranian. Maybe he will go on to change the status of hockey within the country’s migrant youth. So far, soccer has their almost exclusive attention.

Not unrelated to the above is Sweden’s third main problem in regard to hockey: nationalism.

It might come as a surprise to some but soccer is a much bigger and more popular sport in Sweden than hockey is. It is played and followed by many more and always has been. However, the country has without doubt been much more successful in hockey. Coming in second at the 1958 and third at the 1994 Men’s World Cup, and second at the 2003 Women’s World Cup, are Sweden’s biggest successes as far as soccer goes—compare this to the hockey records quoted above.

This leads to a situation where one sport might very well be the nation’s most popular—yet another is much more ingrained in its identity and notions of pride.

Before a Soccer World Cup game against Germany or Italy, Swedes have to diplomatically talk about “chances we might have against these teams;” before meeting the same countries at a Hockey World Championships, Swedes can sneer at them. And they often enough do, even when it comes to far more serious opposition: the arrogance of the Swedish press before this year’s Olympic final against Finland was preposterous enough to make headlines all around Europe.

Furthermore, the complications of symbolism aren’t on Sweden’s side either. The Swedish national hockey team is known as the Tre Kronor, the “Three Crowns.” These have served as an iconic representation of the Swedish nation for centuries. Their origins are unclear. Yet one theory holds that the crowns refer back to a time when Sweden dreamt of uniting the monarchies of Sweden, Norway and Denmark—under Swedish rule of course. True or not, the story unsurprisingly does not go down so well with the country’s Scandinavian neighbors.

Expected to live up to general notions of open-mindedness and cosmopolitanism in their everyday lives, certain Swedes seem to look for outlets in which vulgar nationalistic sentiments can appear somewhat acceptable. Hockey offers one of the best excuses the country has to lend. Of course this does not make the game look pretty. What a bummer.

When radical sports fans desperately look for a straw to hold onto in order to justify their liking of a game that seems beset by redneck idiocy and bigotry, the joker is usually always class culture. In this case, we would be claiming that—after and despite all—hockey is an integral part of the Swedish peasantry and working class, and that it is hence still somewhere, somehow valuable and respectable. If we were very bold, we would claim that criticizing it would be an expression of middle and upper class elitism.

Leaving the question aside whether the supposedly low-class character of any social arena (sports or other) could ever justify sexism, racial homogeneity, or nationalistic swagger, the argument has empirical weaknesses too.

As far as peasant culture is concerned, there is simply very little ground to it. There’s never been an idyllic time of Disney-like quality when little Svens or Björns took their sticks near the arctic circle to play a game of hockey on frozen ponds with reindeer watching (The winters are too dark to play games of hockey near the arctic circle to begin with—you’d need a fluorescent puck or something). The development of hockey in Sweden has always been predominantly urban. In fact, in its beginnings, hockey was very much centered in and around Stockholm. (It took until 1957 for a non-Stockholm team to take a national title.)
There is much more depth to the part of the argument that claims hockey as a working class sport. The game’s development was indeed very much tied to the country’s industrial development. Almost all the hockey centers that emerged outside of Stockholm were based in industrial towns: like in Gävle (where the GIK took that 1957 title) or in the northern coastal cities of Örnsköldsvik, Skellefteå or Luleå. (The small town of Leksand in Dalarna might be the most prominent exception to this rule. But Dalarna too was once—due to heavy mining—one of the most industrialized regions in Sweden.)

The generally close relation of hockey and industrialization/urbanization is also the most probable reason why—compared to Sweden and Finland—the historically mainly agricultural Norway has not developed a big hockey culture (Just in case you ever wondered). Anyhow, today the ties between working class culture and hockey have become somewhat complicated in Sweden too.

For one, hockey can not be as easily defined in terms of class anymore as it used to be. These days, it is not the working class alone that provides the talent. The main reason is simply an economic one. In the course of ever increasing educational regulations, tightened control of public space and technological development, playing hockey has become very expensive. Access to rinks is harder to come by than many would think, and raising the money for today’s equipment does pose challenges for lower-income families. One has to be a very dedicated working class parent to send one’s kid to a hockey club—let alone two or more.

An even bigger problem for the working class character of hockey is its commercial co-optation by the middle and upper classes. Even if a lot of hockey players and spectators still have a strong working class background, the game is ruled and exploited by a capitalist bourgeoisie. Luckily, no angry quarrels between millionaire owners and millionaire players have left the Swedish hockey fan (and non-millionaire player) without a season, but of course the sport is run by corporations here as well. This threatens to destroy a lot of its working class character the same way that similar developments have already destroyed a lot of the working class character of soccer in many places (Concerning the latter, see for example the AAP Collective’s Anarchist Football Manual available through AK Press—Okay. There is a vested interest in this reference. I am part of that collective. I still think it’s worth checking out the manual though if you have an interest in radical perspectives on sports.)

As a proof of hockey’s commercial co-optation, Sweden’s Olympic victory this year was marred by one of those ultimate uglinesses of the corporization of sports: a sponsorship controversy. The Swedish Olympic Committee has its sponsors, and so does the Swedish Hockey Association. These sponsors do not match. When the Tre Kronor arrived in Sweden from the Games to an overwhelming reception at Stockholm’s Medborgarplats, they were still under auspices of the Swedish Olympic Committee – yet they were sporting the Hockey Association’s sponsors’ logos. The Olympic Committee was to endure so much pressure from their own sponsors that it publicly had to consider stripping the team of its medals (which of course never happened). Working class sport? Give me a break.

So, what does all this mean other than that we should have supported the perennial European underdog Finland in the Olympic final and the bohemian Czechs in that of the World Championships? Not much really. Other than maybe finding someone else to root for at the next tournament.

Despite the absence of almost all their NHL and AHL players (well, there are just about a handful), Austria came out on top of their 2006 Division I tournament in Lithuania with straight wins and will be back in the main group next year. So the author of these lines has his ticket. Others? Why not root for the Ukraine? Orange Revolution and all. (Even makes a good name for a hockey team.)
Speaking of Austria and World Championships, here comes one of my favorite memories as far as Swedish hockey is concerned: After years and years in what was then the Group B of Hockey World Championships, Austria qualified for a group A tournament in Germany in 1993. Their first game was against Sweden. Everyone expected a blow-out. It didn’t happen. Sweden won all but 1-0 from a first-period goal. The main reason for Sweden’s low scoring was that my best buddy from junior high, Claus Dalpiaz, was goaltending for Austria. He was voted Austria’s MVP after the final siren. I was very proud. (If you’ve read Give ‘em the Lumber 1 you’ve already heard about Claus. Sorry, but I refuse to talk or write about hockey without mentioning him.)

Finally, I did come across an encouraging aspect of Swedish hockey culture. Hockey is very popular with parts of Sweden’s lesbian community (Then again, so is singing schlager. But let’s leave that aside for a moment). An insider source tells about HBO-worthy relationship dramas and promiscuity between lesbian hockey aces in Sweden’s women’s leagues. I considered pursuing this lead for a while. However, given North American stereotypes—I was worried that stories about Swedish hockey-playing girls hooking up with each other might fuel ill-conceived male fantasies much rather than doing the lesbian community any good—I dropped the idea.

In the end, I feel I have to resort to what often is the last means for the radical sports fan to save the day: the realization—sometimes we have to contend ourselves with the fact that it is not possible to turn a simple pleasure into something noble—upon which we might be able to allow ourselves to focus on the joy we derive from watching (for example) an exciting game of hockey and its display of dazzling skill: that swift move, that no-look pass, that flick of a wrist. Once it is this we are talking about, then go no further than Sweden. It’s all here. In quite the best way the world has to offer. Especially this year.

-Gabriel Kuhn


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My contribution to Give ‘Em the Lumber #2 was the account of an unsuccessful search for radical hockey culture in what was supposed to be perfect terrain for such an endeavor:  Sweden. Luckily, the European possibilities for an overlap of slapshots and righteous politics do not end in Malmö.

Enter Ticino, the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland—the multilingual Alpine nation that proves that recognizing more than one of its spoken languages as “official”  does not inevitably lead to a country’s demise, contrary to what a lot of Anglos in the US still wanna make you believe (even though in this case the demise might be an even better thing than in that of Switzerland—but I digress…). Ticino is no historical stranger to radical politics. Mikhail Bakunin lived here in the early 1870s (the “Villa Baronata,” possibly his most famous domicile, still exists in Minusio), and in the early 1900s the community of Monte Verità, near Ascona, developed fame for its free-spiritedness, vegetarianism, and nudity. Amongst the frequent visitors were German anarchist Erich Mühsam, the Dadaists Emmy and Hugo Ball, the writer Hermann Hesse, and the painter Paul Klee. (The Monte Verità still exists as well—in the form of a luxury resort).
Today, it would be difficult to present Ticino as a hotbed of revolutionary activity. Its politics are moderate at best (with the Lega dei Ticinesi, the local rightwingers, wielding significant influence), its biggest town, Lugano, is Switzerland’s third most important banking center (and this says a lot in a nation whose riches largely rely on banking), and its valleys, mountains, and shores are overrun by affluent German tourists in both summer and winter. Nonetheless, this is where our radical hockey story begins.

The set-up is well-known: David vs. Goliath, the underdog vs. the champion, the Irish vs. the English—whichever way you want it. The opponents in this case are, on the one hand, the HC Lugano, the banking city’s hockey club pride, one of the most successful in the history of Swiss hockey, and these days without doubt one of its richest (mainly thanks to the investments of controversial businessman Geo Mantegazza). And on the other hand, the HC Ambri-Piotta, a hockey club tucked away in the Leventina valley whose stadium’s capacity of 7000 becomes somewhat baffling once we consider that the hamlets of Ambri and Piotta (part of the municipality of Quinto) combine for a mere total of a couple of hundred inhabitants. (Unsurprisingly, the hockey club goes as the hamlets’ biggest employer and their economic backbone.) Contrary to the Lugano club, the HC Ambri-Piotta is one of the most unsuccessful clubs in the history of Switzerland’s first hockey league (compare one runner-up achievement in 1999 to seven Lugano championships in the last 20 years) and definitely one of its poorest. Which, combined with its remote location, quaint setting, miniscule hometown and remarkable perseverance (the club’s foundation goes back to 1937, even outdating the Lugano city rival by a few years), provides the charm that makes the club so attractive for the hockey fan with a political edge who wants to feel good about the team he or she supports.
As a result, the HC Ambri-Piotta has attracted left-leaning hockey fans all over Switzerland, and beyond, since the 1980s. This is at least partly the reason why it has one of Europe’s widest-spread hockey supporters’ networks. In Switzerland alone there are about 40 Ambri-Piotta fan clubs, and only a fraction of those are in Ticino itself; the others have their homes in Zurich, Lucerne or Fribourg. Not all of these fan clubs are political, but a fair number of them are. The most notorious—sort of a vanguard amongst the political Ambri fans—is the Gioventù Biancoblu, the “white-blue youth,” named after the team’s colors.
Founded in 1988, the Gioventù Biancoblu created an intriguing hockey fan culture by combining two elements that are not exactly common hockey fan culture features: radical politics and the choreographic creativity of the Italian “Ultras,”—the die-hard soccer fans who get stadiums all along the boot fired up with witty chants, colorful banners, Bengal lights, and inexhaustible enthusiasm. As a consequence, the Curva Sud (the “South Bend”), where the Gioventù Biancoblu gather during the team’s home games in the famed Valascia, has earned itself a reputation as one of the hottest spots to be for any passionate hockey fan in Europe, beyond all political allegiances or alpine romanticisms. Klaus Zaugg, legendary Swiss hockey journalist, is on record stating: “There is no greater joy for eyes and ears in the world of hockey—and that includes the NHL.”

Every season’s highlights are the duels with arch-rival Lugano. The atmosphere in Ambri-Piotta’s home arena then reaches its peak. There seems to be some understanding amongst dedicated European hockey fans that you have to make the trip to the Ticino derby in the Valascia at least once in your life. The jubilations after an Ambri victory are a sight to behold and La Montanara, the Italian mountain carol adopted as the Ambri fans’ anthem and sung after every victory, rings from the stands at its most impressive. (The song also lends its name to the club’s own magazine.) Needless to say, the grief after a loss can reach according depths. Any hockey fan (or any fan of any sport, for that matter) will sympathize with the Ambri-Piotta supporters’ shock and desperation when their team lost the 2006 best-of-seven quarter finals series of the Swiss championships to Lugano by 3-4 after a 3-0 lead, only to see Lugano go on to win the title.
A quick word about the Valascia itself: The arena is without doubt an essential part of the Ambri folklore. Situated at 3000 ft. above sea-level and open at both ends, it is not only known for freezing temperatures juxtaposing against the fires in the stands, but also for anything but state-of-the-art facilities. As a Swiss-German fan once remarked after a visit to the grounds: “Ambri-Piotta is not a rich club. The stadium makes that quite obvious. There is hardly any space, sanitary facilities are old, and there are queues everywhere. “This does indeed sound like everyone used to low-income housing would feel right at home…” The fact that the Valascia can still hold 7000 people owes itself to the arena only providing 2000 seats—the rest is standing room only, adding to the Ultra football grounds appeal. As the ambitious online Bernt’s Hockeyarena Guide suggests: “Only a few places in European hockey can become as intimidating as the Valascia.” Finally, the stadium is reportedly the only home arena used by any professional Swiss hockey club that is actually owned by the club itself. Independence ain’t bad. However, in these days of complete out-of-control development there are plans to overhaul the Valascia and turn it into something more “modern.”  We’ll see whether the righteous sections of the fans will be able to resist this evil move.

Speaking of the righteous sections of the fans: No one really knows when, why and how the Che Guevara and Geronimo flags first appeared in the Valascia next to the kaffiyahs, mohawks, and studded leather jackets obligatory for any alternative Western crowd. These days, however, the flags—especially that of Geronimo who beats the nowadays ever-present Che hands down in originality—have become a trademark of the Ambri-Piotta fan appearance.
Sure, serious students of historical materialism or the revolutionary possibilities of syndicalist councils in the 21st century might speak of the Ambri fan crowds, somewhat patronizingly, in the words of a Swiss comrade, as “the dope-smoking left,” but the Gioventù Biancoblu is more than just style and talk. Over the years, its members have raised funds for war refugees, staged events against French nuclear testing in the Pacific, collaborated with aid organizations like African Smile, helped equip Ticino Special Olympics contingents, and organized protests in the Valascia against the US-led invasion of Iraq. Furthermore, they are usually represented with a squad at the Mondiali Antirazzisti, the “Antiracist Soccer World Cup,” held every year in northern Italy, and have been a determined voice in domestic political debates, most recently taking a strong stand against increased state surveillance for the sake of “domestic security” (why should Switzerland make a difference?), not least because such surveillance also impinges significantly on the freedom of sports fans, who—mostly due to the “unruly” mobs they truly or allegedly form—have been deemed a potential risk to those in power for a long time. In Switzerland, individual Ambri-Piotta fans were struck with nationwide stadium bans as early as the 1990s for Ultra antics deemed unacceptable by the authorities.

It ought to be mentioned, too, that besides the political work, the Gioventù Biancoblu does also excel in supporting its club. In 1999, when the HC Ambri-Piotta went through a severe financial crisis, the “GBB” spearheaded a fan campaign that raised 2.5 Million Swiss Francs and was to a large degree responsible for the club securing its first league license and continuing to hold a professional hockey squad. If any of the readers of this article familiar with European soccer fan culture are reminded at this point of the FC St. Pauli phenomenon, this is hardly surprising. The parallels are indeed striking. (For those not in the know: The FC St. Pauli is a pretty shitty soccer club out of Hamburg’s harbor/red light district who got adopted by local squatters in the 1980s as “their” club and has since had a tremendously successful career as a radical global darling.) Arguably, if the popularity ratings of soccer and hockey were reversed, it might be Ambri-Piotta shirts that could be seen at Critical Mass Rides in the Bay Area, not those of St. Pauli.

However, the parallels do not end with the glory only. Also the mundane reality is the same. While radical elements have a strong influence on the fan culture of both clubs, a majority of their fans is apolitical, and some even dislike the left-wing presence on the stands (there are, for example, Ambri-Piotta fan clubs that loudly campaign for a “de-politization” of the Valascia). In any case, the radicalness ends where the official club structures begin. As there is nothing that distinguishes the administration of the FC St. Pauli from that of any average German soccer club, there is nothing that distinguishes the administration of the HC Ambri-Piotta from that of any average Swiss hockey club. And if we wanted to drive the nail even deeper into the wounds of those who thought they had discovered a virtuous hockey world where the anti-colonial resilience of Asterix’ Gallic village meets the mythical appeal of the noble Italian mountain bandit, we could point out that the origins of the much loved and hyped La Montanara lie in the Trentino, a region in the Italian Alps that, apart from its mountainous beauty, is best known for its devout Catholicism, stubborn patriarchy, and proud attachment to the most conservative traditions.
Then again, what is the point in always focusing on the negative? Thomas Bäumle, current goalkeeper for Ambri-Piotta, and—as once St. Pauli goalkeeper Volker Ippig (is there a pattern here?)—the truest representative of the Ambri-Piotta spirit on the ice, has once explained his dislike of the HC Lugano by calling the club “the home of the worst capitalists.” How much do we yearn for any professional athlete in the US to ever say anything even remotely as heartening? There we already get excited when a Dennis Rodman comes sporting a fresh hairdo alongside custom tattoos and luxury parlor piercings.
While spending time in Lausanne earlier this summer I got talking hockey to one of the local squatters (not just any squatter—this was a squatter who had moved there from Canada—know what I’m sayin’?) who complained that the city’s team had been relegated to Switzerland’s second league. The complaints weren’t based on issues of local pride—the problem was that this meant that Ambri-Piotta wouldn’t come around for games anymore. My point is: The creation of a mountain hamlets’ hockey club to be loved by the radical fan while waving flags of an unyielding Geronimo is not only in full swing, it is working too. And it is up to us to keep it that way.
Nonetheless, the article has to end on a disappointing note. Even during his years with Western Austria’s former European club champion VEU Feldkirch (which has meanwhile lost its professional team due to hazardous financial enterprises—a common feature in Austrian sports), located a mere couple of hundred miles from the Leventina valley, my friend Claus never got to play a game against Ambri-Piotta. I’m sure he played against Lugano, though, in some European club competition. What injustice.

-Gabriel Kuhn

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