On April 25, the 9th Gazprom Neft Cup KHL Kids Hockey Tournament — the biggest competition in Europe for children aged up to 11 — will start concurrently in St Petersburg and Omsk. Alexander Dybal, member of the Gazprom Neft Management Board and chairman of the Tournament Organizing Committee, told Sport-Express (SE) about the tournament history and Gazprom Neft Cup new arenas.
- For nine consecutive years, the Gazprom Neft Cup has been bringing together children’s teams from different cities and countries. For already several years, it has been a big international tournament attended by KHL clubs. At that time, in the beginning, did you expect that it would become such a large-scale event? Did you set yourself a goal to organize the biggest U-11 tournament in Europe?
— Gazprom Neft Cup games were held for the first time in 2007. Then, it was a competition between children’s hockey teams from the regions where our company has its major production assets: the Yamal-Nenets and Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Areas, Omsk Region, and Tyumen Region. However, from the very beginning, we were aspiring to develop the tournament as a flagship project within our program aimed at supporting the children’s and youth hockey. The most important milestone was the assignment to the Cup of an official Kontinental Hockey League Kids Tournament status in 2010. Approaches to organization also changed — now, according to the regulation, the tournament can only include children’s teams of KHL clubs or clubs that temporarily left the league. So, the tournament is attended by KHL children’s teams, as well as Tyumen Rubin and Yamal from Salekhard that have been participating since the very first tournament. As a result, 25 teams from 6 countries — Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Ukraine, and Finland — will fight for the cup this year.
I would like also to note that the hockey players who were playing at the very first Gazprom Neft Cup have right now approached the age of adult teams. The guys born in 1996 are now 19 years old. There are already examples of good start of our foster-children in the professional hockey. For instance, Valentin Valentsov who played in the 2007 tournament now plays in SKA-1946 that has qualified for the final of the Junior League West Conference this year. Ilya Dervuk, Omsk hockey fosterling, has a chance of becoming a first-team player in Avangard. Nearly 40 players — former participants of the Gazprom Neft Cup — play in MHL (Junior Hockey League), over 20 players represented Russia at different international junior tournaments; five hockey athletes are taking shots at Northern American leagues.
- This year, the Cup games will be held in St Petersburg for the first time. Why the Northern Capital was chosen?
— In 2014, due to teams from Belarus, Finland and Ukraine joining the tournament, the Gazprom Neft Cup was held concurrently in two cities: West Group teams played in Minsk, while “eastern” teams traditionally gathered in Omsk. It was an important milestone in the tournament development, since holding games concurrently in two cities requires a totally different organizational approach. Also, the number of participants that reached two dozens could not physically allow the tournament to be held on a single ground. And we addressed this challenge rather well. This year, St Petersburg has been chosen as a “western capital” of the Gazprom Neft Cup. Several factors coincided at once. First, both the SKA hockey club and city Governor took interest in holding the tournament. Second, St Petersburg is a good choice due to its transport accessibility and good infrastructure: we have quite a lot of teams from different countries that will benefit from getting into the Northern Venice. And the Moscow Region represented by four participating teams at once (including the current champion — CSKA) is also not far away. Finally, you should not forget that our company is based in St Petersburg, which fact is of great symbolic importance for us. If organization of the tournament in St Petersburg meets our expectations, then the city has every chance of becoming a permanent place to host the West Group’s stage.
— What is the difference between the Gazprom Neft Cup and other children’s hockey competitions?
— The main differences are the scale, international format, teams’ level and organization. The Cup is intentionally held at an adult international tournament level. These competitions are “kids’ competitions” by participants’ age only, not by their organization. I would like to remind that Gazprom Neft Cup games are held on rinks of KHL clubs, games are serviced by highly qualified referees, and the Cup itself is made by the same craftsmen as the Gagarin Cup. All this creates an atmosphere of a big international ice hockey tournament, a true one, but for children’s teams. First games and finals of the East and the West Groups, and, of course, the Super Final will be broadcast in HD on KHL-TV. Moreover, the Cup has its own website containing all information on each tournament player, statistics, news, multimedia archive, and game highlights... So, generally speaking, there is every indication that it’s a big tournament.
And, most importantly, due to the KHL official tournament status, the Gazprom Neft Cup was incorporated into the young hockey player training system. By all criteria (scale, international format, organization, and participant level) our tournament became one of the most significant hockey competitions not only in Europe but throughout the world. The Gazprom Neft Cup is a reference point for young players striving for professional growth. The goal to win the trophy shapes a correct, victorious psychology, making a quality spurt possible. We are trying to create conditions favouring the Gazprom Neft Cup’s becoming a basic milestone for the young athletes on their way to a junior team first, then to a youth one and eventually to the first professional contract with a KHL team. I believe that we will see very soon players of the first Gazprom Neft Cups on the ice dressed in the Russian national team’s form.
— Will the West Group teams play in the St Petersburg Ice Palace only?
— The Ice Palace will only host the West group’s opening and final games. SKA and CSKA, the current holder of the Gazprom Neft Cup, will meet in the first game. Given the dramatic opposition between “army” athletes from the two capitals in the final of the Gagarin Cup conference, the game is going to be fascinating! Eventually, on April 27, the Ice Palace will host the West Group’s final: based on the group’s tournament results, the two best teams will meet face-to-face in a fight for the right to play in the Gazprom Neft Cup’s Super Final in Omsk. The other games in the St Petersburg part of the tournament will be held in another well-known sports palace, Yubileyny, owing to the support of the city government. In Omsk, according to tradition, we will also play on two rinks — the Avangard Sports Complex and Omsk Arena, Avangard’s home ground. On April 29, it is the Omsk Arena that will host the Super Final between the best teams of the group stage to award the Gazprom Neft Cup. Admission to all tournament games, including the opening and finals, is free.
- What is the main sportive element of the tournament?
— I think that the Gazprom Neft Cup is the first really serious trophy a hockey player can win! It is not a district, city or regional competition — it is indeed a prestigious international tournament where you have to fight against top-rank European children’s teams! We know that in many KHL children’s schools preparation for our cup starts a year before it commences! Sometimes they even need to give up their current regional competitions for it. There is a very high competition for a spot in the team. Boys aspire to win the Gazprom Neft Cup — in fact, it really indicates that your hockey school is the best in Russia and, probably, in Europe. All teams are coming accompanied by their support groups consisting primarily of family members and friends. Of course, the closer the region, the bigger the support group. So, it will be very easy to get to St Petersburg from Moscow, Riga, Helsinki, and Minsk, and to Omsk from Kazakhstan, Siberia, and the Urals region. Upon completion of the tournament, we interview parents to find out what needs to be improved in terms of organization.
— What team is the main favourite of the 2015 Gazprom Neft Cup?
— It is always difficult to answer this question. The sport is unpredictable in general, and the children’s sport is unpredictable particularly. Moreover, as the past years have shown, we observe an apparent tendency towards professional development of teams that have never been leaders before. By the way, it should also be credited directly to previous Gazprom Neft Cups. For not only young hockey athletes learn their lessons here, but also coaches. And they do it both during games and at special workshops for team coaches. Still, “Eastern” leaders certainly include Ak Bars, Magnitogorsk, Salavat, and Traktor that won the Cup three years ago and afterwards each time stopped one-two steps of the trophy. Avangard hockey players who used to win the Cup too are also motivated for the victory on their home ground. Moscow Dynamo and Minsk Dinamo players left very good impression in the East Group last year; a powerful Yaroslavl Lokomotiv school is still struggling to fulfil its undeniable potential. Finally, CSKA is the first club in the Gazprom Neft Cup history to win the trophy two years in a row. So I think that it will be three times as much difficult for the Moscow “army” athletes born in 2004 to win this time.
By Mikhail KLETKIN