Avangard on the Move, Unwillingly
KHL hockey is returning to the city of Balashikha, just outside of Moscow, for the first time since HK MVD Moscow Oblast merged with Dynamo Moscow in 2010! But it is not returning, sadly, for the reasons that anyone wanted. Avangard Omsk Oblast today announced that they will at least begin the 2018-19 season at the 6000-seat Balashikha Arena, due to severe structural problems with their home arena in Omsk. Read on for more details…
Avangard’s “adventure” began a couple of weeks ago, when workers doing maintenance and inspections on the 11-year-old Arena-Omsk, which seats just over 10,000 spectators, discovered serious and unexpected problems, namely cracks in the foundation of the building. The situation was judged critical enough that the arena was immediately evacuated and closed, and it quickly became obvious that Avangard would be on the hunt for a temporary new home. The only bright spot here is that the problems were not discovered “the hard way” during an actual event at the rink.
The immediate candidate for a temporary building for Avangard was the local SKK Blinov Arena, the club’s own home from 1987 to 2007, but it too is in need of major repairs. The roof of the 5500-seat rink is reportedly in bad shape, the building lacks a number of required safety features, and it doubtless also requires significant upgrades to its hockey setup to bring it in line with the KHL’s current standards. And those 5500 seats are the minimum allowed by the KHL, so the rink is very much at the small end of things. However, the Blinov does remain a possibility down the road, once the timeline on repairs to the Arena-Omsk is known.
Avangard also took a long look at the brand-new 7000-seat Platinum Arena in Krasnoyarsk. That rink, which will be the new home of VHL club Sokol Krasnoyarsk, their junior side Krasnoyarskie Rysi, and Biryusa Krasnoyarsk of the Women’s Hockey League, had much to recommend it to Avangard. It is, as mentioned, very new (in fact, it will open in the next few weeks), includes all the modern arena conveniences, and while on the small side for the KHL’s purposes is easily big enough to serve as an emergency home. Furthermore, Krasnoyarsk is in Siberia, in the geographical territory of the KHL’s East Conference, of which Avangard is a member. However, the Platinum Arena was built specifically for the 2019 Winter University Games, which Krasnoyarsk will host. The Games take place from February 28th to March 12th next year, which is right smack in the middle of the first round of the KHL playoffs — and there is no certainty whatsoever that Avangard, who figure very much to be involved in the post-season, will be back in Omsk by that time.
Another serious candidate was Mytishchi — like Balashikha, in Moscow Oblast. The Arena Mytishchi certainly has some things to like as well. At roughly the same size as the new building in Krasnoyarsk, it once again fits that particular bill, and it is only a couple of years older than the Omsk-Arena. And it was hosting KHL hockey full-time as recently as three years ago, when now-defunct Atlant Moscow Oblast played there, and so would likely have needed relatively little in the way of upgrade work. And Mytishchi’s location provides easy access to flights all over the country. However, the Arena Mytishchi is already the home of big-name basketball team Khimki Mytishchi, the defending silver medalists of the top Russian league, and it would seem that the ensuing scheduling problems were insurmountable.
And so it is off to Balashikha and its eponymous rink. The Balashikha Arena is relatively young (it opened in 2007, like the Omsk-Arena), seats 6000 — again, on the small side but not unacceptably so — and like the building in Mytishchi it has had a KHL tenant, albeit not since 2010. And it has lacked a big-time occupant, and the associated potential scheduling difficulties, since last summer’s folding of VHL team Dynamo Balashikha. Finally, Balashikha shares Mytishchi’s relatively easy access to the Moscow airports.
However, that location is a double-edged sword, as many of those flights will be long ones for an East Conference team — not to mention the fact that Balashikha is well out of range for Avangard’s fans to take in their games in person. Moscow is about 2700 km. from Omsk, in contrast to Krasnoyarsk, which is “only” 1400 km. from Avangard’s traditional home. In fact, the KHL is already facing some tweaking of the 2018-19 schedule to accommodate the added travel (less tweaking, mind you, than the league would have needed had it moved Avangard to the West Conference). So for Avangard, while the temporary home will do for now, the best scenario is obviously as quick a return to Omsk as possible.
When might that happy event occur? Well, we simply do not know, although I consider it likely that Avangard will not return full-time to their native home until 2019-20 at the earliest. Restoration work on the old Blinov Arena, which closed entirely in 2017, has been postponed due to lack of tenders; in a ghastly bit of unfortunate timing, the news of that postponement emerged only days before the problems at the Arena-Omsk were discovered. As for the future of the Arena-Omsk itself, that will be determined in the next couple of weeks, with evaluation inspections scheduled to be finished by August 13th (examination of the Blinov will be completed at about the same time). The nightmare possibility is that the Arena-Omsk will need to be torn down and rebuilt from scratch, and that might force Avangard into the second-tier VHL for a time; we recall here that Lada Togliatti suffered that fate due to arena problems earlier this decade, and played in the VHL from 2010 until their new home was ready in 2014 (ironically, Lada are now back in the second league).
In all of this, we need to spare some sympathetic thoughts for Avangard and their fans — none of this, after all, is their fault in any way. The players face either moving their families on short notice, or a season-long separation from their loved ones. And the Omsk faithful were doubtless looking forward to the 2018-19 KHL season with even greater anticipation than usual. This spring and summer had seen the arrival of a new President in Maxim Sushinsky, well-known at the club from his playing days there in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as well as a big-name coaching hire in Bob Hartley. And Avangard had made some interesting player moves as well; more on those when we get their preview, but I will mention the return to Omsk of a previous fan-favourite in goalie Karri Rämö. Sushinsky, in an interview today, discussed the possibility of the club helping fans get to Moscow, and there has been also been talk of the team playing four outdoor games this winter back in Omsk itself. As for the club’s junior squad, Omskie Yastreby of the MHL, they at least will reportedly play this season in Omsk, at the 540-seat Alexander Kozhevnikov Ice Sports Palace.
Said incoming new Head Coach Hartley today: “Let’s go to Balashikha, we are still Avangard Omsk.” And it is to be hoped that we will soon see the team back in its traditional site for good, either at the Blinov Arena or at the Arena-Omsk. More news on this as events warrant, and in the meantime thank you for reading!