Growing up in Delta – before embarking on a junior and college hockey journey that included time with the Surrey Eagles – Anthony Bardaro dreamed, like many young players, of playing on the game’s biggest stages.
That he recently got to play on such a stage – the 2019 IIHF World Hockey Championships – was one thing. Getting to do so while also honouring his family’s heritage was quite another.
At the Slovakia-hosted world tournament, the 26-year-old Bardaro – who spent four seasons in the Western Hockey League and four more with the UBC Thunderbirds after his one year in South Surrey – played for Italy’s national team, suiting up for the country where both his father and grandparents were born.
“It has all been very surreal, starting with the honour of putting on that Team Italy jersey,” Bardaro told Peace Arch News this week via email, just a few hours after he was named player-of-the-game for his team in a 4-3 win over Austria.
“The world championships (have) been like nothing I have ever experienced.”
— IIHF (@IIHFHockey) May 20, 2019
The world championships began earlier this month – and wrap up this weekend with the gold-medal game – and feature national teams from all of hockey’s traditional powerhouses, including teams from Canada, the United States, Russia and Sweden that are chock full of National Hockey League players.
Though Bardaro was born and raised in Canada, his family has deep roots in Italy. His father was born there, but gave up his Italian passport when he married Bardaro’s mother. Bardaro’s grandparents on his mother’s side were born in Italy, too, and immigrated to Canada with their six sons after the Second World War.
Though the family adjusted to life in a new country, Bardaro said his grandparents always did their best to stay true to their heritage, passing it down through the generations.
“My entire family is Italian, and very proud to be,” said Bardaro, who played for the Eagles during the 2008/09 season, tallying 18 points in 26 games.
“My grandparents built a life in Canada while keeping their Italian traditions and culture alive. It’s a culture I was raised in and influenced by. So for me, getting the opportunity to wear that jersey and play for my country, it was an indescribable honour.”
This year was the first time that Italy was participating in the world championships’ top group – each year, two teams move up and down between the ‘A’ and ‘B’ tournaments – and Bardaro earned his shot with the national team after two strong seasons playing for Asiago HC, an Italian pro team in the Alps Hockey League.
This season, Bardaro led his team in scoring with 31 goals and 37 assists in just 41 games. Last year, his first pro season after leaving the UBC Thunderbirds, he was part of an Asiago team that won its first-ever Alps Hockey League title. Bardaro also took home league MVP honours.
While his play on the ice caught the eye of national-team brass, it wasn’t until he had completed his second full season in Italy that he, as a dual-passport holder, was eligible to suit up for the team.
At world championships, Italy found itself on the wrong end of a handful of lopsided scores – 8-0 against Sweden, and 10-0 against Russia, for example – but their May 21 shootout win over Austria was an important one, as it kept them high unless in the standings to avoid relegation to the ‘B’ tournament next spring.
Bardaro scored the first goal in that game.
“The competition is like nothing I have ever experienced,” he said.
“Sure, I’ve played against some amazing players over the years, but never full teams of NHL superstars and future hall-of-famers. It’s been an amazing experience to be on the ice with these guys and see how you match up.
“The biggest adjustment is definitely the pace of the game. However, as the tournament went on I think we all got a little more comfortable and started playing some really good hockey by the end. It was a great opportunity hockey-wise, and a really cool experience all around to battle with some of the world’s best players.”
Bardaro – who played with both the Spokane Chiefs and Prince Albert Raiders in the WHL – is far from the only player at the tournament to play for an ‘adopted’ country’s national team. In the do-or-die game against Austria, for example, the winning goal in the shootout was scored by Italian defenceman Sean McMonagle, who is originally from Oakville, Ont. And Great Britain – another first-time tournament participant that avoided relegation – was backstopped by former Vancouver Giants goaltender Jackson Whistle, who was born in Kelowna.
With the world championships now over, Bardaro will enjoy an offseason before returning to play overseas next year. So far, he said his pro career has been an enjoyable experience both on and off the ice.
“The league itself is pretty strong, (and) on top of the hockey, the lifestyle over here is amazing and not only do you get to play hockey for a living, you get to experience new and beautiful parts of the world as well,” he said.
Considering Italy will be back in the fold at worlds next spring, Bardaro said he “hopes to get the opportunity again” to take part.
“It’s definitely a tournament I will never forget.”