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The Ticino derby hardly leaves anyone cold

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The Ticino derby hardly leaves anyone cold

25 years ago, the bitter enemies Ambri-Piotta and Lugano dueled in the play-off final. Now there will be a new edition in the pre-play-off.

In his self-image, Ambri is the hockey answer to the stubborn, impregnable Gallic village from the volumes of Asterix and Obelix – Ambri’s followers celebrated this analogy in a choreography at Valascia in 2013.

Karl Mathis / Keystone

Ambri-Piotta and Lugano are best enemies, their sizzling, legendary rivalry is one of the most attractive facets in Swiss ice hockey; The derby has long since become a place of pilgrimage for ice hockey connoisseurs from all over the world.

The play-in duel with two legs starting on Thursday offers the eternal underdog Ambri the next chance to defeat the wealthy, successful opponent when it really counts. Ambri has never managed this in seven play-off duels – Lugano is a kind of kryptonite for this club. Coach Luca Cereda doesn’t put too much emphasis on the choice when he says: “We want to make history.”

The Ticino derby has provided plenty of entertainment over the years. There were excesses of violence on the ice and in front of the gates of the stadiums, the Valascia and the Resega.

With a cattle dealer as president, Ambri risked a lot at the turn of the millennium – and almost lost everything

The “Battle of Ambri” from 1987 with 219 penalty minutes is unforgettable. And the most recent play-off duels were also tough. There was the “Finalissima” from 1999, in the middle of the Leventiner’s flying years; President Emilio Juri, a cattle dealer from Giubiasco who cheerfully quoted Goethe, spent so much money that in the years that followed, repeated fundraising was necessary to secure existence.

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Before the near-bankruptcy, the risky bet almost paid off in the title, but Ambri, the qualifying winner, lost 1:4 in the final. Maybe it was better that way – the lack of a title is now an essential part of the Ambri myth. This recently cracked after the club hired Alex Formenton twice, a Canadian striker who has to answer for sexual assault in his home country. The criticism was that Ambri had become an ordinary, contentless club with no values. Ambri will also play against this argument in the coming days. And seeks revenge for 2006.

At that time, Ambri had led 3-0 in the quarterfinals before Hnat Domenichelli, now sports director at HC Lugano, managed to put the puck on the post in front of the empty goal in Game 4. Lugano made history, shot the series and became champions for the last time to date. Ambri did not recover from this disgrace for years.

And it’s never been this close to winning a play-off series: in the 21st century, the club has only reached the play-off seven times, since 2000 (and a semi-final defeat against . . . Lugano). Ambri never made it past the quarterfinals again.

Ambri is going into this duel as an outsider, of course, but it would be foolish to underestimate this collective: Over the last seven years, coach Luca Cereda has regularly managed to emotionalize his team for big games to such an extent that Ambri is, on paper, overpowering opponents swept off the ice. Among other things, this was the key to the Spengler Cup triumph in 2022.

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Ambri’s sports director Paolo Duca says of the derby: “That’s the essence of sport.”

It’s Wednesday afternoon in Bern, one day before the start of the play-in. The top scorers are honored in the “Bierhübeli”; Paolo Duca, who chauffeured his Czech striker Michael Spacek here, sits in the audience. Duca, 42, is a child of Ambris, he has experienced many derby battles as a player. Today he says: “I was hoping that we would meet Lugano. These emotions, this rivalry, that is the essence of sport.”

Duca is not alone with this assessment: the tickets for the first game were sold out very quickly, the duel leaves hardly anyone in Ticino unmoved and has already divided families. Cereda speaks of “hockey holidays” that Ticino can look forward to.

The pressure is on HC Lugano, who missed direct play-off qualification due to the disappointing second half of the season. The team can count on several national players with Santeri Alatalo, Mirco Müller, Marco Müller and Calvin Thürkauf, who was voted the most valuable player of the season by the coaches and captains of the National League clubs.

The two games once again announced each other in a fiery manner. And even if it will feel to the loser’s supporters as if the world has just ended, that’s not true: the losing team will have another chance against the winner of the amazing series between champions Geneva/Servette and last year’s finalists Biel to earn a quarter-final date against the clear title favorites ZSC Lions.

Both would like to avoid this opponent if possible and would rather meet Gottéron. The Freiburgers, who consistently fail in the play-offs, should be warned: an excited derby winner is a dangerous opponent.

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