These young hockey players don’t come out on the ice for money or glory. Their aim is to win for the sake of winning, to experience pure emotion and the joy of battle — everything that can make an 11-year-old boy rave about the game, train six times a week and hope one day to play in a real tournament, such as the Gazprom Neft Cup KHL International Kids Hockey Tournament, an event that the hockey world is already referring to as the children’s world ice-hockey championship.
A glance at the competitors in the 2014 Gazprom Neft Cup shows why the comparison has been made. There were eight new participating teams this year, six nations were represented, and games were played in two major cities in two countries. Clearly, the Gazprom Cup is now far more than a Russian domestic event. The decision to expand the geography and number of Cup participants was made a year ago, when it became obvious that the number of clubs willing to take part far exceeded the Tournament’s current format. The organizers promised that no one would be turned away in the future, and that the list of competing teams would expand to 24. It was no sooner said than done. The result was a transformed Tournament schedule with two qualifying groups — the East and the West. The easterners were welcomed in the ever-hospitable city of Omsk in Siberia, while the westerners went to Minsk, the capital of Belarus. The choice of Minsk was a conscious one: Gazprom Neft operates the Mozyr Refinery near Minsk (jointly with Rosneft) and also operates a chain of filling stations in the city.
Minsk had just completed the huge, up-to-date Chizhovka-Arena to host the forthcoming 2014 Ice Hockey World Championships in May and was more than happy to open its doors to the younger hockey stars in the run-up the big event. So the Tournament’s West Group fought their battles here.
The Group was genuinely international. Children from Dinamo Minsk (Belarus), Dinamo Riga (Latvia), Donetsk Donbass (East Ukraine) and Jokerit (Finland) joined battle with Russian teams in the race to the Super Final. While Russian junior clubs frequently cross paths in various competitions and know each other quite well, almost nothing was known about the foreigners, and that added to the suspense. Three days of matches put the stronger and weaker teams in their place, showed who had overestimated their abilities and who had the self-confidence to achieve the impossible. And as a prelude to the action the young hockey players, their coaches, spectators, and the most tireless of all the fans — the boys’ parents — were treated to the fairy-tale show of the gala opening ceremony.
The atmosphere at the big ice rink of the Chizhovka-Arena was low-key ahead of the first games of the Tournament on the morning of April 20. The boys tested the ice, the fans practiced their chants, and the security guards looked bored. But by evening the spirit of hockey had come to life, shook its head, and all boredom was banished: the Arena car park was packed with cars, spectators filled the halls and journalists buzzed around the team changing rooms. The enthralling gala show — an impressive 3D multimedia fantasy projected directly on the ice — was followed by the entry of the teams and the first face-off, which set the tone for subsequent games. The Minsk Tournament opened with a contest between the home team, Dinamo Minsk, and SKA St. Petersburg. To say that the young players were a little nervous would be a gross understatement: “You should have seen the children’s eyes,” the coach of the Minsk team, Sergei Gromov said later. “This is something they will remember for the rest of their lives.” The game was memorable in itself as Dinamo took the upper hand and snatched a
As Minsk hosted the first match of its Tournament leg, players in Omsk had already wrapped up their day and were ready for bed. The Tournament in Siberia began four hours earlier, also with a grand, exciting and thrilling ceremony. Omsk also set a new attendance record this year with 8,700 spectators watching the opening ceremony in the stands of the Omsk Arena. The local fans faced a disappointment on the first day as the home team, Avangard, was overpowered by Traktor from Chelyabinsk. But it was a worthy opening game with both teams battling hard to the very last.
Fans, sports journalists, and hockey experts were unanimous in praising the standard of play achieved by the boy players at this year’s Tournament. “From the semi-finals onwards, all of the games were unpredictable and interesting,” said Alexander Dybal, Chairman of the Tournament Organizing Committee, speaking at the final press conference. He particularly recalled the East Group final, which pitched Avangard (recovered from its opening defeat) against Ak Bars. "The boys played as if it was the final match of a senior world championship, they used proper tactics, worked from defence and showed understanding of the importance of every score or missed shot. Many of the teams played high-class hockey, but the teams in the Super Final — CSKA and Ak Bars — certainly deserved to be there.
Heroes of the day
As in the previous year, the 2014 Cup schedule was very tight with just one week for the opening, the qualifying games, two finals, a team transfer and the Super Final in Omsk. In the first days the boys played two games a day, and the winner of West Group then faced a tiring flight to Omsk, with acclimatization and changing of time zones. Ordinary 11-year-old boys don’t have to face such ordeals, but these were no ordinary 11-year-olds.
They are boys nonetheless. They sometimes get noisy, play tricks and quarrel. But something sets them apart from most of their peers. Firstly, they have firmness of purpose. The Gazprom Neft Cup is played between children’s hockey schools of KHL clubs. To enter such a school, you need a good physique. To stay in the school team you need willpower, perseverance, character and a keen desire to play. Not to mention the ability to sacrifice entertainment, abandon personal ambitions in favour of the team and pull together at the right time. The young players talk about all these things earnestly, without a hint of bragging or irony. “A hockey player needs intelligence and self-confidence. Intelligence to play well and self-confidence to win.” Such is the formula for a real hockey player from the Ak Bars forward, Adel Kurbanov, as he makes for the ice to decide who will be today’s victor.
AK Bars was beaten in the Super Final. But, according to the Kazan team coach Lenar Vildanov, that is no bad thing. “The team needs to lose the last game of the season, so that it has something to strive for next season,” he explains. But his boys certainly weren’t practicing that philosophy on the Super Final ice, where there was no quarter given and none asked. The Muscovites were confident and assertive after steamrolling their West Group opponents. The boys from Ak Bars counted on their goalkeeper, who had let in just two pucks in the whole competition, and on luck and patience. But luck was on the side of CSKA, which scored the only goal (as in 2013) to become the 2014 Gazprom Neft Cup winners. For Ak Bars there were bitter tears, praise from coaches and applause from the crowd.
As the ice melted under the heat of battle and the coaches strained to be heard, the spectators in the stands had an evening to remember. The Super Final was a game where the audience cheered, not because their team was playing, but because hockey equals excitement, entertainment and emotion. There was no hostility between the fans. Instead, there was togetherness and even a happy, unison performance of Katyusha. The Omsk Arena was filled to capacity that night and, most importantly, it was filled with boys of all ages, watching the game with interest not unmixed with envy.
All in all, the Tournament achieved what it set out to achieve, helping ensure that new Malkins, Kovalchuks and Ovechkins — the future of Russian and world ice-hockey — will be ready on their skates in years to come.
Final results of the Group qualifying stage
|CSKA (Moscow)||1||AK BARS (Kazan)|
|DYNAMO (Moscow)||2||AVANGARD (Omsk Region)|
|LOKOMOTIV (Yaroslavl)||3||METALLURG (Magnitogorsk)|
|DINAMO (Minsk)||4||SALAVAT YULAEV (Ufa)|
|TORPEDO (Nizhny Novgorod)||5||RUBIN (Tyumen)|
|SEVERSTAL (Cherepovets)||6||TRAKTOR (Chelyabinsk)|
|ATLANT (Moscow Region)||7||SIBIR (Novosibirsk)|
|SKA (St. Petersburg)||8||AVTOMOBILIST (Yekaterinburg)|
|DONBASS (Donetsk)||9||UGRA (Khanty-Mansiysk)|
|VITYAZ (Moscow Region)||10||NEFTEKHIMIK (Nizhnekamsk)|
|JOKERIT (Helsinki)||11||BARYS (Astana)|
|DINAMO (Riga)||12||YAMAL (Salekhard)|
Chairman of the Gazprom Neft Management Board:
President of the Kontinental Hockey League:
Distinguished Russian Coach:
Views of the players
Forward, CSKA (Moscow):
Goalkeeper, Jokerit (Helsinki):
Forward, Avangard (Omsk):