"The result matters, but the main thing is to enjoy the tournament!" East Group teams start arriving for the Gazprom Neft Cup.
It is 9:00 a.m. in Omsk, but still only 6:00 a.m. in Tatarstan and the newly arrived guests from Kazan are still in their local time. But the morning chill wakes up the Ak Bars boys, parents, and coaches: it will get warmer as the day goes on, but now it is just
The boys gaze intently at Omsk through the bus windows.
“We already know a lot of the teams,” says Dmitry Zyablov, head coach of Ak Bars-2004. “We play against some of them regularly, share the same hotels, we are on good terms. We’ll be sharing accommodation with Avtomobilist, Traktor, and Magnitogorsk Metallurg — we know them all well.”
But the Ak Bars boys have never faced Avangard, the Omsk junior team, and they know its fearsome reputation. The matches against Omsk (the Kazan players are sure that the opening game won’t be their sole meeting) promise to be tournament jewels. The Ak Bars head coach sets store by the game result, but, in his view, it is not the most important thing:
— The Ak Bars coach last year was proud of the team’s strong central line-up and goalkeepers. What are your strengths this time?
— We have a lot of character, we go out there with a will to win. You’ll see what we are good at when the time comes. Our minimum goal is to get to the final, but, of course, we’re not the only ones who want to do that. All the boys are ambitious, not just ours. What we are looking forward to is a festival of children’s hockey. The result matters, but what’s most important for the children is the tournament as an event. The Gazprom Neft Cap is always brilliantly organized, it gives us positive emotions and invaluable experience. We see a lot of different teams, including some that we have never seen before. Most of all, though, it’s a special occasion.
Ruslan Yelmekeyev, the Ak Bars forward, sees things a bit differently from the coach:
“I am looking forward to new emotions from this tournament, but what I really want is to win! We are here to compete, friendship comes after, hockey is the main thing.”
Ruslan is a serious lad, ready to keep his head when the play gets tough:
“Our team is strong right-through — goalkeepers, defenders, and forwards. We play attacking hockey.”
— So your game is different from the grown-up Ak Bars team?
“Yes, of course, but I can’t say how. I guess they have a harder time.”
The boys start a heated discussion on the bus. “How do they play? Do they play defence? Who plays attacking hockey, then — SKA? When do we play against SKA?”, and the journey to the stadium seems over before it has begun.
The boys stare hard at the Omsk Arena as it comes into view.
“It looks like a football stadium, like Camp Nou in Barcelona. It’s huge!” they say.
In this arena the boys will play the most important games of their short careers to date. But that’s tomorrow. The task today is to settle in at the hotel.
While the Kazan players viewed the stadium from outside the Avangard boys were busy practicing inside. The players of Avangard-2004 know this ice well and Alexander Filatov, a forward, believes that this will help his team:
“I think that playing at home gives us an advantage. Our strengths are skilful passing, knowing each other’s play, and good positional hockey. We are strong as a team — we encourage each another in difficult situations, we always pull together at the right time.”
The atmosphere in the changing room, where the Avangard adults prepared for matches in the 2014 KHL championship, is business-like and it’s easy to forget that these are 11 year-olds. Alexander Peretyatko, the Avangard head coach, is also impressed:
“We have been preparing for this Tournament a long time, we have worked hard and we really want to do our best. We want to play in the Super Final and win. That’s what we have worked for. Our morale is good and we’ll go out there in the best of spirits. Our team’s advantage is game thinking — we have worked out combinations and quality tactics by playing a lot of different games on hard ground. Thinking, agility, coordination, game-playing strengths are our trump cards. Our boys get on well with each another and we play a smooth game — the boys have been training together since there were five years-old.”
— The tournament is for children, but it draws as much attention as a professional adult tournament. How much pressure are the boys under?
— They are strongly motivated. They will have a different attitude than usual to the game, their concentration and commitment will be at a different — the highest level. They have come on a lot, they are mature, they understand a lot of things the right way.
Avangard and Ak Bars meet in the East Group opening match tomorrow at 16:00 (Moscow time). It will be hot!