Weekly Russian Hockey News Notes: August 16th, 2015

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Spartak Moscow celebrate their 2-0 victory over Dynamo Moscow at the Mayor’s Cup of Moscow last week. (Image Source)

Only eight days until the opening of the 2015-16 KHL season, and there was a fair bit going on this past week!  Read on, for more legal troubles at Dinamo Minsk, exciting schedule-release news, and a recap of some pre-season action on the ice.  Other notes included, and we’ll chat briefly about a dog!

Last week, we discussed briefly the on-going debate over Belarusan players in the KHL, and whether they should be counted as foreigners when playing for Russian teams.  Last season, guys from Belarus counted as Russian (i.e. they did not take up one of their team’s five foreign player slots), but there had been heavy rumours that such would no longer be the case.  So it was something of a surprise this week when the KHL announced not only that Belarusans would continue to avoid foreign player status, but that players from Kazakhstan, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan will also be “domestic” for the coming season.  For Armenian and Kyrgyz players, it’s academic — there are none in the KHL at the moment, although both countries are IIHF members.  However, there are significant numbers of both Belarusan and Kazakh KHLers, so this is a significant deal, and likely a good one from the point of view of KHL clubs.

So why was this decision made?  Very simply, it occurred because of the labour laws of the Eurasian Economic Union, which allows people from the four countries to work in Russia without restriction (and vice versa).

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Berazhkou in happier times. (Image Source)

There was also big off-ice news in Minsk this week, and unfortunately it was not of the pleasant kind.  A couple of weeks ago, we noted the arrest of Dinamo Minsk General Director Maxim Subbotkin on corruption-related charges and his subsequent replacement, both at Dinamo and on the Board of the KHL, by team General Manager Vladimir Berazhkou.  Well, fast forward to this week, and now it’s Berazhkou being arrested, on charges of having embezzled 45 million rubles from the team.  Some serious questions remain about what happened (and about whether Berazhkou is actually guilty), but it’s a big blow for the hockey club.

Now, it does appear that these are Belarusan rubles referred to here, and 45 million of those converts to only about $2800 (in Russian rubles, it would be about $700,000, and a tip of the hat to @AlliSib  on Twitter for pointing this out to me).  Nonetheless, the arrest of two of Dinamo’s top executives in the space of a month has caused some to worry that the team might not be able to begin the KHL season.  So far, all appears well on that front, as Dinamo were in Riga today, taking on that city’s Dinamo in the Latvian Railways Cup.  For now, Berazhkou will be replaced by Anatoly Kurilets, a former Deputy Interior Minister of Belarus.

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On a happier note, we have schedules!  The KHL and VHL calendars have been out for some time, but now they have been joined by the schedules for the junior MHL and its subsidiary MHL-B, as well as for the Russian Women’s Hockey League (links are PDFs, in Russian).  MHL play will begin on September 2nd with a far-eastern tilt between Sakhalinskie Akuly (junior team of Admiral Vladivostok) and Amurskie Tigry (Amur Khabarovsk) in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.  The league will feature 31 teams this season: 28 from Russia and one each from Latvia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.  The second-tier MHL-B will have 24 squads (22 from Russia, one each from Belarus and Kazakhstan), and will start play on September 11th.

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SKIF Nizhny Novgorod players preparing for the new season. (Image Source)

The Russian Women’s Hockey League, meanwhile, will begin its first season of play under KHL administration with seven clubs, down from last season’s nine.  The 2015-16 participants will be:

  • Agidel Ufa
  • Arktik Universitet Ukhta
  • Biryusa Krasnoyarsk
  • Dynamo St. Petersburg
  • Representative Team of Sverdlovsk Oblast (Yekaterinburg)
  • SKIF Nizhny Novgorod
  • Tornado Moscow Oblast

The new season begins on September 4th, with a pair of games: Arktik Universitet will host Dynamo, while defending champions Tornado are at home to the team from Sverdlovsk Oblast.  For the first time, the RWHL will put on an All-Star game in 2015-16, with those festivities going ahead on December 11th and 12th.

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We’ll take a closer look at the MHL, MHL-B, and RWHL when we get a bit nearer to the opening faceoffs.  And there will be maps!

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Sticking with the women’s game, another mainstay of the Russian national team will be joining the New York Riveters’ Lyudmila Belyakova in the newly-founded National Women’s Hockey League this coming season.  Forward Yekaterina Smolentseva, who has captained Team Russia on occasion, has signed with the Connecticut Whale for 2015-16.  At 33, Smolentseva is one of the veterans of Russian women’s hockey, having appeared in four Olympics (she scored 2-4-6 in six games at Sochi) and numerous World Championships.  At the club level, she began her career in 1995-96, and has played for Spartak-Mercury Yekaterinburg, SKIF Nizhny Novgorod, and most recently Tornado Moscow Oblast.

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Ilya Nikulin. (Image Source)

Still on the subject of transatlantic transfer activity, it looks like the Ilya Nikulin saga may be nearing its end.  Nikulin, the long-time star defenseman for Ak Bars Kazan, was surprisingly let go by the club earlier this off-season, leading to rumours ranging from “he’s moving to the NHL” to “he’s retiring.”  It now appears that the former is the correct option, with Alexander Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals said to be the favourites for his services.

The 33-year-old Nikulin began his career with his hometown Dynamo Moscow in the late 1990s.  He moved to Ak Bars for the 2005-06 Russian Superleague season, and had been there ever since.  Nikulin has represented Russia at numerous international tournaments, including the last two Olympics, and has served as Captain of the national team on and off since 2011.  He is currently tied for 16th all-time in KHL points, with 218 in 363 games.  As far as the Capitals (or other potential future employers) are concerned, he should have lots of road left in front of him — he scored a very respectable 13-15-28 in 58 games in 2014-15.

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Another famous Russian defenseman appears to be staying in North America for at least one more season.  Sergei Gonchar, who turned 41 earlier this year, has signed a deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins.  Gonchar began last season with the Dallas Stars, before moving over to the Canadiens in November.  This will be his second tour of duty with the Penguins, whom he helped to a Stanley Cup victory in 2008-09.  Gonchar has been an NHLer since the 1994-95 season, playing 1301 games and amassing 811 points in that time.  He also played for Russia in four Olympics between 1998 and 2010, but did not make the squad for Sochi.

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Alexei Kaigorodov. (Image Source)

Not a lot of player movement among KHLers this week, with the regular season looming.  However, one incident deserving of note was Salavat Yulaev Ufa’s decision to say farewell to useful veteran forward Alexei Kaigorodov.  Kaigorodov, 32, spent 12 seasons with his hometown Metallurg Magnitogorsk club in the Russian Superleague and later the KHL, before moving to Bashkortostan during the 2012-13 season.

As for where Kaigorodov ends up, Salavat Yulaev have indicated that they tried to trade him, but that the amount of his contract prevented them from doing so.  There is certainly nothing wrong with him as a hockey player — his all-time KHL scoring line is a healthy if unspectacular 336 gp, 52-139-191, and he has decent size (6’0″, 212 lbs.).  If his contract size precludes a KHL team taking him on, he might even be a decent pick-up for an NHL team looking for forward depth.  One minor issue: he may actually still be on the suspended list of the Arizona Coyotes.  Kaigorodov played very briefly for the Ottawa Senators in 2006-07, and was suspended when he left the team to return to Russia.  The Sens subsequently traded him, still suspended, to the Coyotes.

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To the ice, finally!  Russia’s U18 team was in action this week at the prestigious Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.  The young Russians came away the bronze medal in the competition, losing to Canada in a shoot-out in the semi-finals before defeating the Finns in the bronze medal game.  The third-place contest was a thriller; Russia trailed 3-1 going into the final period, but got two goals from Nikita Popugayev and another from Artur Kayumov to squeak out a 4-3 victory.

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KHL pre-season action was also on the cards this week.  Spartak Moscow, fresh off their triumph in the Arkady Chernyshev Memorial Tournament at the new VTB Ice Palace in Moscow, repeated the trick in the same building by winning the Mayor’s Cup of Moscow.  It was a close one; Spartak, Dynamo Moscow, and CSKA all finished with identical 2-1 records, but the red-and-whites took the title on goal difference.  Bringing up the rear were poor Vityaz Moscow Oblast, who went 0-3.

***

As noted last week, Barys Astana were celebrating the opening of their new arena with the annual President’s Cup of Kazakhstan, and they made it an exceptionally happy occasion by winning the tournament.  The Kazakhs faced Admiral Vladivostok in the final on Thursday, and won it 3-2 in overtime on a goal by Roman Starchenko (see highlights above).  Ugra Khanty-Mansiysk defeated Metallurg Novokuznetsk to take third place.

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Admiral, beaten finalists in Kazakhstan, then took themselves off to Tolyatti for the Lada Cup, but once again the host team proved superior.  Lada and Admiral were joined by Salavat Yulaev Ufa and Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk, and although the tournament still has a day to run, the home team has already clinched it.  Lada defeated Salavat Yulaev and Admiral, and other results mean that their place atop the standings is assured.

***

Two other tournaments are just starting this weekend.  At the Ivan Romazan Memorial Tournament in Magnitogorsk, hosts Metallurg have welcomed four other East Conference teams: Sibir Novosibirsk, Traktor Chelyabinsk, Avangard Omsk, and Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg.  Traktor have the early edge in that one, having defeating Avangard and Metallurg in the tournament’s first two days.

Up in Riga, meanwhile, we have the Latvian Railways Cup, featuring Dinamo Riga, Dinamo Minsk, Ak Bars Kazan, and Lokomotiv Yaroslavl.  The hosts began the competition in fine fashion today, defeating Dinamo Minsk 4-3, while Lokomotiv knocked off Ak Bars 3-1.

Both those tournaments will wrap up later on this week, as will the Nikolai Puchkov Memorial Tournament in St. Petersburg, which begins tomorrow and features hosts SKA, HK Sochi, Jokerit Helsinki, and Severstal Cherepovets.

***

A final note on pre-season action: a couple of KHL teams were involved in tournaments this week outside the KHL world, and things went well for them.  In Trinec, Czech Republic, Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod were victors in the Steel Cup tournament against opposition from the Czech and Slovak leagues, while Medveščak Zagreb were likewise triumphant in Straubing, Germany, against teams from the Deutsche Eishockey Liga.

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Nikolai Zherdev and Max. (Image Source)

We will finish off with a bit of a human (and canine) interest story!  Former NHLer and current HK Sochi forward Nikolai Zherdev is the owner of a beagle named Max, of whom he is very fond.  So it was a shocking and sad thing earlier this week when Max was apparently stolen, prompting the club to offer a reward for his return.  A happy ending to this one!  Max was found by a sanatorium worker in the Matsesta district of Sochi, and returned to his owner.  There was no word on whether he had indeed been stolen, or simply wandered off, and I doubt it matters much to either Zherdev or Max at this point.

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Next Sunday, the last pre-season edition of the News Notes!  In the meantime, we’ll look at some interesting players from right now, and an interesting season from long ago.

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Posted on August 17, 2015, in 2015-16, International Hockey, Junior Hockey, KHL, MHL, Weekly News Notes, Women's Hockey. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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