The Winter Olympics in Albertville, France, are four months away, but Gene Ubriaco already is getting prepared.
Ubriaco, coach of the Italian Olympic hockey team and former head coach of the Baltimore Skipjacks and Pittsburgh Penguins, left Baltimore yesterday for Italy to begin readying his team for the Olympics.
Italy will be competing in the A Group (medal division) of the Olympics for the first time. The Italians' first game in the 1992 Olympics will be against the United States on Feb. 8.
"This is a very exciting time for me," said Ubriaco, whose team trained in Canada this summer, including playing two games -- both losses -- against the Soviet team competing in the Canada Cup.
"The challenge of going to the Olympics is a great thrill for meThey say that sometimes good things come from adversity. Just two years ago, I was fired from my job as head coach of the jTC Penguins. I was down for a while, but, if I hadn't been fired, I would have never gotten the opportunity to coach in the Olympics.
"Last year and this year have been two very rewarding years for me. We [Italy] won the World B championship last year, and then early this year my U.S. team won the silver medal in the World Deaf Olympics. I couldn't be more pleased with the opportunities I've received."
Ubriaco, who has 30 candidates for the 23 spots on the Italian team, said his time on this trip to Italy will be spent mainly in scouting the players he plans to use in the Olympics.
"The Italian leagues are in full swing right now," said Ubriacowhose Olympics job grew out of clinics he conducted in Italy. "I'll go around to the different teams where my players are playing and see how they are doing. I want them to stay in top shape and keep up the high level of play I expect from my players. I plan to come home [Baltimore] for Thanksgiving and return to Italy in December."
Ubriaco said he is confident his team will do well in the Olympics.
"If we can catch a couple of the top teams, like Canada or Team USA, on an off day, we can do well," he said. "We have some very talented players on our team who compare very favorably with the other teams in the A group."
The Italian team will be made up of 13 to 15 players from North America and 10 native Italians.
"Every player has to be of Italian heritage and have an Italian passport to play for the Olympic team. Some of my North American players have been playing in Italy for nine years or more, and others are just out of Junior A hockey in Canada," Ubriaco said.
Ubriaco said his team will be strong in goal with Roberto Romano, who played for the Skipjacks and Penguins before going to Italy about five years ago; Pat Micheletti, who is a native of Minneapolis and played in the Minnesota North Stars organization; Mike Zanier, who played in the Edmonton Oilers system and has played in Italy for seven years; and David Delfino, from Lowell (Mass.) College, who won all seven games in the World B championships for Italy.
"I don't know if Romano can even make our team," said Ubriaco, "because the other guys have been so strong in the pipes."
Bob Mano, who played for the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs in the NHL; Mike Mastrullo, who played for the Atlanta Flames; and Bob Opperauch, who played in the Western Canadian Junior League, anchor the defense.
"Mano is our defensive leader," said Ubriaco. "He's been in Italy for nine years and is a solid NHL-type player."
Up front, the Italians are led by centers Gates Orlando, who played for the Buffalo Sabres and Rochester Americans; Joe Foglietta, from the Quebec Junior League; and Sandy Pelligrino, also from the Quebec Juniors.
"We have a great mix of veterans and kids on the way up," said Ubriaco. "I think we have excellent potential."
Ubriaco said that hockey started in Italy 50 years ago, mostly in the mountain ski resorts north of Milan and was played almost exclusively there until about 20 years ago.
"In the last 10 years, hockey in Italy has grown in leaps anbounds," said Ubriaco. "There were 4,000 playing the game in the late 1970s, and now there are 9,000 involved, and most of these are youngsters learning the game. We [he and his national team] are giving clinics for the kids and for the coaches. We had more than 400 coaches at our last clinic.
"What Italian hockey needs to give it a big shot in the arm is for bigger cities, like Rome, Florence and Bologna, to get involved. A medal by our Olympic team next February would also do a lot of help promote the sport in the Italy."