The first thing you need to know about the city of Khabarovsk is that it is way, waaaaay, out East. The city lies more than 8,000 kilometres east of Moscow by road, in fact, in the VLAT time zone (Vladivostok time, or GMT +10) and just a short distance from the Russian border with China. Until the arrival of local rivals Admiral Vladivostok, a mere 750 kilometres to the south, in 2013, local KHL team HC Amur’s shortest road trip involved a 5,000 kilometre, four time zone, jaunt to Novokuznetsk. And yet, despite the city’s remoteness from the big centres of the Russian hockey world, Khabarovsk has nonetheless contributed some very interesting pieces to the history of the sport in that country.
Khabarovsk lies on the Amur River, the world’s 10th-longest, where it is joined by the smaller Ussury River. The region, traditional homeland of the Jurchen and Nanai peoples, was long a possession of the Chinese Qing Empire, until it was handed over to Russia through an 1858 treaty. Khabarovsk was founded soon after, and named for Yerofey Khabarov, who had led the first Russian exploration of the area in the 17th-century. For most of its history, it has been a military and industrial centre, and an important station on the Trans-Siberian Railway.
Up until the mid-1960s, hockey in Khabarovsk was almost entirely a local affair, with a number of small clubs playing for the city championship. Then, in 1966, the local army club joined the Soviet Championship’s Class B league, essentially the fourth tier of hockey in the country, under the name SKA Khabarovsk. That team, which changed its name to “Amur” in the mid-1990s, enjoyed modest success in the lower divisions, before finally making its way to the top flight at the turn of the century. Geography has certainly left its mark on the club; in the early ’00s, the team’s reserve squad, Golden Amur Khabarovsk, spent a season in the Asia League, facing competition from South Korea, China, and Japan.
Amur’s time in the KHL has not been particularly glorious, with the high water mark being their one and only qualification for the Gagarin Cup playoffs, in 2011-12 under Finnish coach Hannu Jortikka. A series of financial crises have come and gone, although Amur have so far survived them, and 2014-15 looks like ending with the team from Khabarovsk sitting towards the bottom of the table. There has even been some dire talk of the team dropping to the VHL, Russia’s second tier league, for the 2015-16 season. Nonetheless, the team enjoys solid support in the city, with the 7100-seat Platinum Arena sold out more often than not in recent years (it must be noted, however, that this season has seen a bit of drop-off in attendance numbers).
While the local team may not have brought much in the way of hockey glory to the city, there have been a acouple of very notable hockey names to come out of Khabarovsk. The earliest example of this was actually not a Khabarovskian at all, but he learned his hockey there. Nikolai Sologubov was born in Moscow, but ended up in Khabarovsk as a rehabilitation posting after being seriously wounded in the Great Patriotic War. Skating was part of his physical therapy, and he soon proved to be quite good at it. Hockey, as well, came easily to him, and he managed to attract the attention of the Central Red Army club back in Moscow. Beginning in 1949, he played 15 seasons on defense for CSKA, and was part of the Soviet national team that won the country’s first Olympic gold medal in 1956. He was very much a Paul Coffey sort of defenseman, with a knack for rushing the puck and putting up scoring numbers that would be the envy of a lot of forwards. In a 2013 interview, former team-mate Viktor Shuvalov rated Sologubov as one of the two best Soviet defensemen of all time, alongside Vyacheslav Fetisov.
Sologubov was also a bit of a maverick (the anecdotes about him warrant their own post, and will get one eventually), and that ties in very nicely with the other superstar player to come from Khabarovsk. Alexander Gennadevich Mogilny came up through the youth ranks with the local army team, before getting the call from Central Red Army in 1986, at the age of 17. His skill in the attack was undeniably all-world; he posted 18 points in only seven games for the USSR at the 1987-88 World Junior Championship. However, he was also very young and a long way from home, and he was not overly fond of the strict discipline of the Red Army team. After being suspended and stripped of some state honours for fighting during a Soviet league game, Mogilny had had enough, and he defected to the West and to the Buffalo Sabres at the end of the 1989 World Championship in Sweden.
Mogilny’s NHL career was spectacular, as he scored 1032 points in 990 regular season games with several different teams, impressive numbers considering that a good chunk of those games were played during the low-scoring, “dead puck” era of North American hockey. His best year came with the Sabres in 1992-93, when he scored 76 goals and 127 points (those 76 markers are tied for the 5th-best single-season performance in NHL history). After his retirement after the 2005-06, he returned to his hometown and worked as a consultant with Amur Khabarovsk. And he is still deeply involved in hockey in the Far East of Russia, although somewhat ironically he is now the President of Amur’s local rivals HC Admiral, down the road in Vladivostok.
Sologubov and Mogilny are without doubt the two big names to come out of Khabarovsk, but there are a few others worthy of a mention as well. Amur’s current captain, veteran forward Dmitry Tarasov, to give just one example. Another is 20-year-old NHL prospect Mikhail Grigorenko. Like his fellow-Khabarovskian Mogilny, Grigorenko is a high-scoring, skilled forward, and appropriately enough he is currently employed in the Buffalo Sabres organization. And we should definitely give a nod to Anna Prugova, a Khabarovsk native who is one of the first-choice goalies on the Russian women’s national team.
We will close here on a minor but somewhat heart-warming note. While Amur Khabarovsk’s on-ice performance has not ever been the stuff of legend, the team did manage to earn itself an interesting honour this season. During the 2014 off-season, the team completely redeveloped its uniforms, going with a darker shade of blue, and a new, tigrish, logo (there are, in fact, still wild tigers in the area of Khabarovsk). And that logo was recently voted the best new logo of the season, of any team in any sport, by the readers of sportslogos.net. Good fun, to see the little team from Outer Manchuria getting some recognition on this side of the pond!