Ex-Ray Paul Baier eyes spot on Italy's Olympic team
Paul Baier has never been to Europe and doesn't speak a word of Italian.
But that won't stop the former South Carolina Stingrays defenseman from trying to earn a spot on the Italian national hockey team or a shot at playing in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
Baier went around the Stingrays' locker room saying good-bye to his teammates Tuesday morning, then jumped into his car and pointed it north toward Toronto for the two-day drive. It's the first step of a two-year journey that he hopes will eventually end up on the shores of the Black Sea in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains.
So, how does a kid who was born in New Jersey and grew up in Toronto become eligible for the Italian hockey team?
Well, it's much easier when your maternal grandfather is from Sicily.
"It takes a while to explain the whole situation," Baier said with a chuckle. "I guess people kind of scratch their heads when I tell them I'm going to try and play for Italy in the Olympics, but it is possible."
Baier's grandfather -- Angelo Golisano -- is a native of Sicily and under current Italian and IIHF (International Ice Hockey Federation) rules, a player can be two generations removed from the country's origin and still be eligible for the national team.
When Baier's mother -- Ambrosina Golisano -- received her Italian citizenship a couple of months ago, the issue became a moot point.
"I could have become eligible just with my grandfather, but since my mother got her passport, it's not even a big deal now," Baier said. "I've already started the process of applying for citizenship."
The final requirement for eligibility and the one that forced Baier's departure from the Lowcountry is a mandatory two-year playing period within the country's borders leading up to the Olympics. Baier is scheduled to make his debut early next week with Cortina SG, a team in Italy's top division in the Southern Alps.
"I'm cutting it pretty close because the Sochi Olympics start on Feb. 7, 2014, and my first game is like Feb. 3 or 4," Baier said. "You have to have those two consecutive years playing inside the country to be eligible for the national team."
Baier said he got the idea of trying out for the Italian Olympic team two years ago when he was playing for the Binghamton Senators in the American Hockey League. A Binghamton teammate, Kaspars Daugavins, played for Latvia in the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.
"I thought that was so cool, and obviously I knew about my grandfather, so I started to look into it," Baier said.
Baier said he had planned on playing in Italy at the beginning of the season, but couldn't turn down an offer to play in the AHL with Hershey.
"They're one of the best franchises in the league, so it was a no-brainer," Baier said.
Baier started to get calls from Italian teams before Christmas and still had conflicting emotions about leaving the Stingrays as late as Tuesday morning.
"Things have been awesome here. I've had such a great time," Baier said. "It was really tough to say good-bye to everyone. I didn't want to leave. If I didn't have to be in Italy for two years, I would have stayed until the end of the season."
There is no guarantee that Baier will make the Italian Olympic team.
"I don't know what kind of talent they've got in Italy," Baier said. "I've never seen a game. I talked with the national coach a few weeks ago. We'll see what happens."
Follow Andrew Miller on Twitter at @RaystheRoofBlog.