PARIS (Reuters) - The centenary of South Tyrol becoming part of Italy marks the sixth year since Bolzano’s ice hockey club joined the Austrian League — a move that could have been deemed a divisive statement but has proved an undoubted success for the team. Since 1919, the Alpine province, home to the Bolzano Foxes, has often been in political turmoil, subjected to forced Italianisation under the regime of Benito Mussolini and a target for terrorism in the 1960s and 1970s.
The region, that was once part of the Austrian empire, has been left with many linguistically-segregated institutions, but one of the few unaffected by this environment is the Foxes.
Since the Foxes joined the multinational Austrian ‘Erste Bank’ league in the 2013-14 season, fans have been flocking into their Palaonda ice rink, allowing the multicultural club to escape possible bankruptcy.
“Everything in South Tyrol is political, but not hockey,” Daniele Rielli, maker of the documentary ‘Hockeytown’ on the Bolzano Foxes told Reuters.
In South Tyrol, German is the most widely-spoken language ahead of Italian and Ladin. All languages, however, are welcome at the Foxes.
“We are the only team in South Tyrol with fans from these three ethnic groups,” said club CEO Dieter Knoll, who added that politics has no place at the club.
Born and bred in Bolzano, the capital of South Tyrol, Rielli believes that leaving Italy’s Serie A league, where they won a record 19 titles, saved the club.
They won the Austrian title in their first season in 2014 and again four years later.
“The team is a melting pot of German-speaking and Italian-speaking players and players coming from the U.S. and Canada with Italian heritage,” Rielli explained.
“They have better opponents now and if they had not joined this league they would have gone bankrupt, like Milan or Varese.”
The Palaonda, which has a capacity of 7,200, is now sold out for this season’s playoffs in a league that has a strong Austro-Hungarian feel.
It features eight teams from Austria, one from the Czech Republic, one from Croatia, one from Hungary and one from Italy — all countries that had territory within the Austro-Hungarian empire.
“The league was always international,” Anton Bernard, the captain of the Bolzano Foxes, told Reuters.
Joining a league in Austria, where ice hockey is a popular sport, helped the Foxes become more competitive.
“We established ourselves as contenders right away when we won the title in our first year,” said Bernard.
“The fan base has become bigger, sponsors are coming and kids start playing hockey.
“The local paper covers hockey with at least one page every day. We have more media exposure.”
Knoll said the move has also seen fans return in large numbers.
“When we were playing in Serie A we had about 800 fans at the rink for the playoffs, now we have 7,000 for the playoffs and 3,000 during the regular season,” he said.
Emanuela Silvi, one of the club’s hardcore fans or ‘ultras’ who has been going to the Palaonda since she was 15 years old, said that everything has changed since the club joined the Erste Bank.
“Before, for the away games, we would be a maximum of 50 traveling. Now when the playoffs start, we’re about 300 fans on the road,” she told Reuters.
Another major change is that fan violence has been eradicated.
“The difference is that other teams (in the Erste Bank) don’t have hooligans,” says Rielli.
“You don’t have these kinds of fights in Austria.”
The focus is now fully on the rink, where Bolzano have improved, reaching the last 16 of the Champions League in the 2018-19 edition, while the Italian national team are also reaping rewards.
“Playing against better teams definitely makes the national team better as all Italian players at the club play for Italy,” said Marco Insam, one of the team’s Italian players.
The immediate future of the club has been secured by the move to the Erste Bank, but things also look brighter in the long term.
“You can see that the young kids are now coming to play hockey, the club has even started a youth program,” said Bernard.
Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Toby Davis