Places: Nizhny Novgorod
Herewith we begin a new series at this blog! We’ll be taking a look at the history and current state of hockey in various places across the landscape of Russia (and neighbouring countries), more or less chosen at random, and we start off today with a post about the city of Nizhny Novgorod. These “Places” pieces will be published on an irregular sort of basis, intermingled with other sorts of posts.
Roughly 400 kilometres east of Moscow, roughly halfway between the Russia’s capital and the city of Kazan, we find Nizhny Novgorod. Founded in the 13th-century to take guard the confluence of the Oka and Volga rivers, Nizhny Novgorod is now the fifth-largest city in Russia, with about 1.25 million inhabitants. And, while the city’s hockey teams have never been among the giants of the game (at least on the men’s side, as we shall see), Nizhny Novgorod’s hockey history is far from undistinguished. How so? Read on!
Nizhny Novgorod’s first hockey team was Torpedo, founded on December 25th, 1946, when the city was known as Gorky (named after the famous locally-born author Maxim — the name change stood between 1932 and 1990). The club, which was made up of workers at a local car factory, joined the second division of the national championship the following season. It would later be joined by other lower-division contestants, with names like Dynamo Gorky and Polet Gorky turning up in the records over the years. However, Torpedo remained, and remains, the city’s biggest team. After ascending to the top division of the Soviet Championship early in the 1950s, the club established itself as a solid competitor. A star player soon emerged in the person of forward Robert Sakharovsky, who led the USSR in goals in the 1959-60 season with 36, eight more than his team-mate Igor Shichkov in second place. Even better was to come the following season, when Torpedo finished second overall, becoming the first non-Moscow-based team to finish in the top three. That in fact remained the high-water mark for teams from outside the capital until 1988, when Dinamo Riga matched it with a silver medal finish of their own.
Sakharovsky was superb, but the lynchpin of the 1950s-60s Torpedo teams was in goal, in the person of Viktor Sergeyevich Konovalenko. Konovalenko, a local kid, arrived on the scene in 1956, and played 16 seasons in the Soviet Championship, earning Player of the Year honours in the USSR in 1969-70. He was also the first choice in goal for the national team for a solid decade, winning gold at the Olympics in 1964 and 1968 to go along with six World Championship titles. Remarkably, in fact almost uniquely, Konovalenko played for the Soviet national team without ever joining one of the big Moscow clubs; his entire career was spent in his hometown with Torpedo.
Through the 1970s, 1980s, and on into the post-Soviet and KHL periods, Torpedo generally maintained their status as a respectable provincial team — never a real threat to win a title, but capable of beating anybody on their day. To be sure, there were a couple of rough seasons in there, and the team spent three straight years, from 2004 to 2007, mired in the second division before earning promotion back to the top flight. 2014-15 finds them, at this particular time, fighting with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, Vityaz Moscow Oblast, and the surprising HK Sochi for playoff position in the KHL’s West Conference (Slovan Bratislava, too, might yet involve themselves in that conversation). The club’s junior squad, Chaika Nizhny Novgorod, is currently ensconced in second place out of ten in the MHL’s Volga Division, and should make the post-season easily.
Torpedo may never have lifted a national championship trophy (they have two second division titles to their name), but that is certainly not a problem that besets Nizhny Novgorod’s other top-flight hockey team. SKIF Nizhny Novgorod, which moved to the city from Moscow in 2006-07, is one of the undisputed powers of the women’s game in Russia. In the eight seasons in Nizhny Novgorod, SKIF have won three championships, including the most recent one, and finished second the other five times – an enviable record indeed! The team’s big weapon at the moment is Olga Sosina, a 22-year-old from Tatarstan who won the Russian Women’s Hockey League award as Forward of the Year in 2013-14.
We’ll close here with a quick word about arenas. Torpedo and SKIF currently play their home games at the 5600-seat Trade Union Sports Palace on Gagarina Prospekt. That building, the region’s first indoor rink, opened in 1965, and recently underwent significant renovation and enlargement, re-opening in 2007. Chaika, meanwhile, play their hockey at the Viktor Konovalenko Sports Palace, a slightly smaller facility that opened in 1967 (it seats 4200). The Konovalenko Arena, besides obviously being named for Nizhny Novgorod’s most famous hockey son, also played host to Torpedo while the Trade Union Arena was getting its makeover. There have been advanced discussions about building a brand-new arena, but ground has not been broken on it as far as I know.