There aren’t many names on the Italian roster that would resonate with followers of the KHL. Former Medvescak defenseman Tom Larkin represented the Azzurri in the past but is not in this year’s roster; long-serving defenseman Armin Helfer is renowned for his longevity in the game as he returns for his 19th World Championship at all levels.
But one name does stand out: Zanatta. Blue-liner Luca Zanatta is the son of Ivan, who was on the coaching staff at SKA in the early years of the KHL. One season as assistant coach in the KHL, another as head coach of the youth team then, finally, a spell behind the bench in the big league in 2010/11. Since then, he’s been involved with the coaching at Lev Prague, HC Sochi and, last season, Dinamo St. Petersburg, the VHL affiliate of Vityaz.
With Italy due to face Russia on Wednesday, Luca was happy to chat about playing a country that his family knows well. But he won’t be asking dad for advice ahead of the game.
“No, he already tried two years ago but it didn’t really go too well. I think this time I’m not going to listen to him,” he laughed. The last meeting between the two came in Cologne and ended in a 10-1 victory for Russia. Artemy Panarin, Vladislav Namestnikov and Sergei Andronov each scored twice in that one, Tommaso Traversa got the Italian goal.
After two heavy defeats in its opening games against Switzerland and Sweden, Tuesday’s meeting with Latvia was a more competitive 0-3 reverse for the Italians. And, although the Azzurri are still awaiting their first goal in Bratislava, Zanatta believes there is progress.
“We’re just trying to get over what’s happened, or to look at our mistakes and learn from our mistakes when we prepare for the next day,” he said. “I think we know our identity now and we can play to that. Against Russia, we’re up against one of the best teams in the world but we also know that our key games [in the relegation battle] are coming up after Russia so we gotta be ready for those.”
As for playing the Russians, Zanatta was honest about the chances of an upset.
“Do you believe in miracles?” he asked. “I could make you a list [of Russian players to watch out for]. They have so many top players, all of them really. They’ve been one of the best in the world since I wasn’t even born. They keep proving themselves at that world class level. I don’t have to tell you names like Ovehckin or Kovalchuk, Kucherov had a brilliant year in the NHL this year, Malkin, Kuznetsov, it’s just one after another. We just gotta be ready.
“No matter who you’re facing, you play to win. We know we’re playing Russia but that doesn’t make any difference. We can’t go out and just try not to look too bad. We have to do our best, no matter who we are playing against.”
Life for both promoted teams at this year’s championship has been difficult. Between them, Italy and Great Britain have played six games, scoring one goal between them and allowing 40. Zanatta explained that the challenge lies in coping with the fast pace of the top-level game and dealing with nations that bring years of elite experience to the ice.
“Most of it is just the sheer speed of it,” he said. “It’s how much less time you have to make a play, make a decision, to act and react. Some of the players here, they play in some of the best leagues in the world.
“Other countries, like Latvia, they are well established at this level. I can’t remember a time when they were down in the B group. They are used to it; they can build something behind it. For countries like Italy, going up and down, to adapt right away is hard. But I think Italy – and I’m sure GB as well – know what the key games are. OK, we hoped we could get something against Latvia but it didn’t go for us. We can’t cry about it, we just gotta look forward. Both countries have some big games coming up in the next week and we’re looking forward to that.”
Beyond this tournament, is it possible that Luca might follow his dad and come to Russia to further his career? The 27-year-old has another year on his contract in Switzerland and isn’t immediately planning a possible link-up with Ivan in the VHL.
“Who knows what the future can bring. I’m not closing any doors but [moving to Russia] would be tough,” he said. “I miss Italy if I’m honest and Russia would be a little bit different, the language would be a bit of an obstacle. Joking apart I’ve one more year in Switzerland and I’m not looking further than that.”