Gazprom Neft Cup KHL Kids’ Tournament could expand to include all KHL clubs

Sport-Express

Interview with Gazprom Neft Deputy CEO for Corporate Communications, Alexander Dybal

Sport-Express Alexander Dybal

Chairman of the 8th KHL Kids Hockey Tournament Gazprom Neft Cup Alexander Dybal shares his impressions of the first few days of the Tournament, outlines his plans for the future, and explains why young players are so keen to take part.

— Today sees the conclusion of the group stages of the 8th Gazprom Neft Cup Tournament, in Minsk and Omsk. Is it possible to make any assessment, thus far?

— We won‘t be able to make any judgement on the success of the tournament, as a whole, until after the Super Final (between the East and West Group winners) in Omsk on April 25th. But it’s already clear the tournament has reached a new level this year, bringing together 24 teams, from six countries, for the first time. This is also the first time that we’ve held initial rounds concurrently in two different cities — with 12 teams competing in Minsk, Belarus, and a further 12 in Omsk, Russia. And if Omsk fans were used to the standard of play, well it certainly came as a surprise to those in Minsk! But I think we have managed to maintain a high level of organisation simultaneously in both countries — for the Opening Ceremonies as well as all subsequent matches — and I should like, in particular, to thank the President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, for inviting us to hold qualifying rounds in Minsk, as well as for his support in our preparations. The Opening Ceremony (followed by the first match, in Omsk) saw a record 8,700 spectators: and the opening match in Minsk drew about 5,000 people — which is a very good figure given this is the first time the Tournament has been held in that city.

— What else makes this Tournament so memorable for those taking part?

— The main thing is the addition of eight new clubs, with Jokerit (Helsinki, Finland), Dinamo (Minsk, Belarus), Donbass (Donetsk, Ukraine) and Barys (Astana, Kazakhstan) joining the line-up of foreign clubs, and Torpedo, Moscow Dinamo, Severstal and Vityaz joining from the Russian Kids’ Hockey League. The convenient location of Minsk meant several of the teams were able to travel there on their own coaches. And in Minsk we were, for the first time, able to hold all of the games under one roof, thanks to the new two-rink Chizhovka Arena, built specifically for the World Championships.

— And coaches enjoyed their own special program, I understand?

— We decided to extend the non-match program with some additional training events for coaches. Boris Mikhailov (two-time Olympic champion and one of Russia’s most distinguished coaches) is holding a seminar in Minsk for Tournament team coaches and coaches of other kids’ hockey teams throughout Belarus. And the Super Final in Omsk will see a seminar led by the legendary Vladimir Yurzinov — perhaps the most respected ice-hockey trainer working today. We plan to continue this practice at future tournaments.

— Coming back to the sports angle, what do you see as the main objective of the Tournament?

— Ten to eleven — that’s an important age for a youth player, and for his parents. It’s at precisely this point that many take the decision (and one which can change the whole course of their future lives) of whether to treat hockey purely as a hobby, or a way of staying in shape, or whether to follow the career path of becoming a professional sportsman. And there’s no better motivation for that than a championship at this level. The boys have a unique opportunity to experience the real atmosphere of adult hockey and everything that goes with it — including TV coverage. And the eight years’ experience we have already built up here demonstrates that — whatever happens in their future careers — taking part in this Tournament remains one of the highlights of a career in youth hockey.

— Are there yet any specific cases of players “graduating” from the Gazprom Neft Cup and going on to play at the highest level?

— Our Tournament is eight years-old as at 2014; so those lads that took part in the very first competitions are starting to “knock on the doors” of professional KHL clubs — young defender Ilya Dervuk being one such example. Having won a bronze medal at the very first Gazprom Neft Cup at the age of 11 he is now, at 17, playing in the Russian national junior team, and is on the Omsk Hawks team in the Junior Hockey League, having made his debut with the Avangard club last season.

— The Gazprom Neft Cup has the status of being the official kids’ tournament of the KHL. What advantages does this bring?

— Official status as a KHL tournament matches our own format very closely. The KHL is the best ice-hockey league in Europe — and the Gazprom Neft Cup the best kids’ ice-hockey tournament on that continent. For that reason, we adhere to all of the key standards of the KHL — from refereeing to the quality of the rinks. Incidentally, Tournament opening matches and finals are broadcast on the KHL TV channel, with the standard of the opening pre-match show comparable to that of the KHL’s All-Star Game. Collaboration with the media has, this year, been better than ever, with 200 accredited journalists covering the Tournament.

On that basis, the Tournament is now well known, and followed by ice-hockey specialists and scouts. Which means that, for those youngsters determined to play hockey seriously and so on, there is now a unique opportunity to catch the eye, even at such a young age.

— The Gazprom Neft Cup is now, already, into its eighth year. And the number of teams involved has grown practically every year. Will this continue in the future?

— As it happens, we discussed this with KHL President Alexander Medvedev and Gazprom Neft CEO Alexander Dyukov at the Opening Ceremony in Minsk. We have agreed, in principle, that the Gazprom Neft Cup, as the official tournament of the KHL, should continue expanding to ultimately include all clubs in the league.