For Italy’s Sled Hockey Team, ‘This One Means More’

BEIJING — There are no medals for fifth place in the Paralympic sled hockey tournament. But judging by the scenes of exultation and joy on the ice at China’s National Indoor Stadium on Friday, the Italian national team will cope just fine without them.

The only commemoration the Italians needed was the memory of two of the most gratifying goals in the team’s history, and the prospect that they can help save the nation’s sled hockey program from the threat of extinction.

With his team trailing by a goal with only 12 seconds remaining in regulation, Andrea Marci scored to stave off another demoralizing loss and send the game into overtime. Macri then assisted on Christoph DePaoli’s game winner six minutes into the extra period as Italy beat the Czech Republic, 4-3, to secure a fifth-place finish and unleash a stirring celebration that lasted deep into the night.

“I hope in Italy there were some kids watching it, who say, ‘Wow, I would like to play that game that people love so much,” Macri said. “Because we desperately need more players.”

Macri spoke by phone from the athletes’ village in Beijing, as his jubilant teammates sang in the background while awaiting a visit from an official at the Italian embassy here.

Four years ago, in Pyeongchang, Italy finished fourth, so the team slid backward a bit. Still, as Macri said, “This one means more.”

There are many reasons for that, including the timing of the dramatic win for a country that has fewer than three dozen sled hockey players, total. With the 2026 Winter Paralympic Games scheduled for Milano-Cortino in Italy, the Azzurri’s win Friday could give the national program a critical boost going into the next Paralympic cycle, to raise awareness and recruit more players.

But for the Italian players, there is an underlying sense of pessimism about the future.

“We are hoping in the next four years we can grow more,” said Italian defenseman Gianluigi Rosa, who was playing in his fourth consecutive Paralympics. “But I really do not know.”

It is not easy to be a para ice hockey player in Italy. The team is a band of amateurs, each of whom must submit 18 days of vacation requests at their regular jobs in order to participate in the Paralympics, and who struggle to find ice time in a country with little hockey tradition and only three usable ice rinks.

The program clings to survive.

Macri said there were only 30 players in the entire country, and just two club teams — down from three a year ago — and Italy faces daunting odds against teams with vastly superior resources and levels of commitment.

Another factor that made Friday’s win so special was that Italy’s path to the fifth-place playoff game was dispiriting at times. The Italians were 1-2 in group play, with their only win coming against Slovakia, another team with scant history or resources. Italy was then shut out by Korea, 4-0, in the knockout stage.

Over all, it was outscored, 15-0, in its three losses, and 18-6 overall.

And none of those games were against the top tier of talented teams. Italy went into the tournament ranked seventh out of 16 in the world, but games against the elites of the sport can be sobering.

“It is amazing to play against the U.S. and Canada,” Macri said. “But if you are an athlete and you enter on the ice and you already know that you lose the game; first time, OK. Second time, OK, third time, OK. The fourth time you say, ‘But, why am I playing? Why?’”

As a model for how to build a program and sustain it, Macri points to China, the team that muscled Italy out of the top four in only five years in existence. China’s fledgling para league has eight teams already and its national players train full time, three times a day.

The Italians can only find ice time twice a week.

Russia and Korea inaugurated new programs before hosting the Winter Paralympics in Russia in 2014 and South Korea in 2018. Italy did the same in 2006 ahead of the Games in Turin, mostly behind the charismatic leadership of Andrea Chiarotti, one of the founding members of Italian sled hockey in 2003.

Chiarotti died four years ago of a brain tumor and his loss has left a large void in the program.

“A big loss,” Rosa said. “He gave us inspiration. I still remember the words he gave us before big games. But we have to go on. In life everything changes, and it is a chance for something new.”

According to Mirko Bianchi, Italy’s assistant coach, many countries with strong programs send scouts and players into hospitals to recruit people with disabilities to play, and many governments provide financing for training. In Italy, there is little money for that, Bianchi said, so it is left to the players to make appearances at hospitals to uncover talent.

“It’s not so easy finding new players,” Bianchi said. “We try to find people who maybe had an accident and ask them to play. But it’s hard. In Italy, we have soccer, basketball, volleyball, and everyone wants to play those sports.”

Social media is another avenue used to pique the interest of potential players. But members of the current team would like to see the Italian ice sports federation contribute more money for television and radio advertising.

“We would love to see more help,” Macri said, “but you know, there is not much tradition for hockey in Italy.”

With the Games back in Italy in four years, the Azzurri could have a chance to build off Friday’s victory by increasing awareness and showing their federation that they are willing to fight for every inch of ice, and bounce back from lopsided losses to score dramatic wins.

“We are Italian,” Macri said. “We can play really good hockey, but we can also play awful hockey. We are not professionals. We are just people who have a passion to play sled hockey.”