Canadiens star forward Max Pacioretty is headed to Switzerland, having signed to play for coach Kevin Constantine’s Ambri-Piotta squad in the Swiss A League, that country’s elite circuit. The story below, appearing in Monday’s Montreal Gazette, was held until 6 am ET for online publication by agreement with Pacioretty. His new club made its announcement on their website in both Italian and German at the same time.
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 supporter 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.«
I drove through there not three weeks ago. Ambri-Piota have a huge following all over Switzerland. I saw many flags on houses and in stores. Oleg Petrov played there for three years. The St Pauli reference seems fair, although I don't know if they as political as St Pauli fans are.
The area is beautiful . Palm trees in Switzerland....enough said