As we head into September, the Russian hockey calendar is beginning to fill up with meaningful games at all levels. The KHL is well underway, of course, and this weekend the Women’s Hockey League regular season kicked off as well. On Sunday, it was the turn of the MHL (Молодежная Хоккейная Лига — “Youth Hockey League”), home of the country’s top-level junior-age boys’ squads. The curtain-raiser, as is traditional, featured last season’s Kharlamov Cup finalists; the 2016-17 opener saw Chaika Nizhny Novgorod, riding a resolute performance by goalie Andrei Sukhanov, come away with a 2-1 shootout victory over defending champions Loko Yaroslavl. The entire league swung into action on Monday, so read on for a bit of a look at how it all works (and a map).
The MHL is administered by the KHL and is composed mostly of junior teams affiliated with clubs from the big league (there are a few VHL teams and independent junior clubs represented as well). This off-season saw four of 2015-16’s MHL teams drop out, while four new ones joined, so the net result is once again 31 teams. The four who left: Sakhalinskie Akuly (KHL club Admiral Vladivostok’s former youth team), Olimpiya Kirovo-Chepetsk, Dinamo-Raubichi Minsk, and the Russian Under-18 national team. The last of those was an experiment to see if Russia’s fortunes at the Under-18 Worlds could be improved through having the players stay together all year. While the team did fine in the MHL, it was replaced for the world championship at the last minute by the country’s Under-17 team (that full story is here). We may see another attempt at runing the U18 nats in the future, but they are out at least for 2016-17.
Admiral replaced Sakhalinskie Akuly with a new junior team, Taifun Primorsky Krai, who play out of the small town of Ussuriysk just north of Vladivostok. Two other new teams have VHL affiliations: Altai Ust-Kamenogorsk (junior squad of Torpedo Ust-Kamenogorsk) and Sputnik Almetyevsk (youth team of VHL champions Neftyanik Almetyevsk). The final new team is a famous name from the days of Soviet hockey: Krylya Sovetov Moscow (often referred to in English as “Soviet Wings”). Krylya Sovetov were one of the giants of hockey in the USSR, but in recent years the club had been reduced to only its children’s hockey school. A return to major junior play is the first step on a resurrection of the club that will, if all goes as planned, see it ice a team in the KHL in a couple of seasons. We shall see, but it the meantime it is nice to have them back at this level.
The MHL has switched its format from the previous four-division set-up to two conferences (East and West), with the top eight in each making the Kharlamov Cup playoffs — much like the KHL’s own system, in other words. For the regular season, the teams will play either 60 for 56 games each (depending on conference).
As for who to watch this season: well, it’s obviously a little early to say, given that a number of last season’s top performers have graduated on to the professional ranks. Loko Yaroslavl come in as the team to beat, having won not only last season’s Kharlamov Cup but also the World Junior Club Cup this summer. Much like their parent team (Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, of course), Loko relied heavily on their netminders, and the returning Anton Krasotkin is one to keep an eye on in this regard. Omskie Yastreby, Avangard Omsk’s junior side, were best in what is now the East Conference and also have some key players returning, including goalie Konstantin Lobachyov and top goal-scorer Anton Kovalyov. And those are obviously just a few names to keep in mind.
Below the MHL, is the league formerly known as MHL-B, which this summer was re-named the NMHL (Национальная молодежная хоккейная лига — “National Youth Hockey League). The NMHL had been under the administration of the KHL, but is now being run by the Russian Hockey Association, hence the name-change. It will include 19 teams this season (it was to be 20, but HK Zelenograd announced their withdrawal this weekend), 12 in the West Conference and seven in the East. The NMHL has more independent teams than the MHL, but there still a good number affiliated with KHL and/or VHL clubs. The NMHL season gets underway on September 9th.
So where do all these teams play? We have a map (MHL teams in blue, NMHL in red)! I have tried to list affiliations for the all of these teams, but I would warn you that that is still very much a work in progress. Enjoy, and thank you for reading: