The stars came out in Ufa two years early. The Russian city of one million, which will host the 2013 IIHF World U20 Championship, had a test run last Saturday, staging the second MHL All-Star Game.
Only in its second year of operation, Russia’s Molodozhnaya Hokkeynaya Liga (“Youth Hockey League”), known as the MHL, presented an exciting contest, which wound up with the Eastern Conference defeating the West 3-2 in a shootout.
A regional, tournament-style national junior championship was all that existed in 1977 when Slava Fetisov helped the Soviet Union strike gold at the first official World Junior Championship in Czechoslovakia. Some Soviet juniors were playing only about 25 games a year.
Nevertheless, the Soviet Union and Russia won 13 gold medals at the World Juniors before the MHL arrived in the 2009-10 season.
Now Russian junior prospects are competing in anywhere from 50 to 60 games annually.
The MHL started with 22 teams, expanded to 29 teams this season and will have 32 in four divisions of eight in 2011-12.
The clubs are battling for the Kharlamov Cup, named after the legendary Russian star Valeri Kharlamov.
Alexander Medvedev, president of the KHL, said Russian player agents, who are sending young players to North America, are making a big mistake.
“Of the 150 players who left Russia to play junior and in the minor leagues, only five per cent managed to stay in hockey at all,” he said.
“Many agents are just hunting for some quick bucks. We should take a lesson from U.S. college hockey, where agent activity is forbidden.”
From a spectator’s point of view, the best thing about the new junior league is that in many cities there is no admission fee. Even clubs, who choose to sell tickets, are offering them at a price of between 50 and 100 rubles, which amounts to about $3.
Players are paid at least $500 a month, with the better performers earning more, even though most of the teens are still students.
Although a recent game in St. Petersburg, held in a 1,200-seat practice rink attached by a tunnel to the old Yubilenny Sports Palace, attracted only about 800 fans, attendance in the eastern part of Russia, where community spirit is more evident, has been averaging 2,000.
It’s not major junior hockey, as Canadians know it. In fact, preliminary international results indicate the MHL might better be compared to Tier 2 Junior A hockey in Canada. But it’s a start, and could be the foundation of the KHL for years to come.
An all-star team from the league recorded modest wins over Junior A and Junior B all-star teams in Canada during the Christmas holidays. But, the ‘Red Stars’ were impressive in a narrow 5-3 loss to Yale University, which is ranked number 1 in U.S. college hockey this year.
The age limit in the MHL is one year older than in Canada, and that allows 21-year-olds to play. During the North American tour, the Russian team dressed a handful of players, who had participated at the 2010 World U20 Championship in Saskatoon. Among them was defenceman Dmitri Kostromitin, who spent three seasons in the Quebec Major Junior League with Montreal and Rouyn-Noranda.
Sergei Fedorov, now playing for Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the KHL, believes the MHL could do an even more effective job of developing talent by extending the age limit to 25.
“Some guys are late bloomers,” he said. “They don’t reach their physical peak until the age of 25. I hate to see players disappear after they reach their 21st birthday.”
Harvard and the University of Vermont are interested in playing the Russian juniors next season, according to Dmitri Yefimov, the MHL’s executive director.
Some MHL players already are celebrities. Dmitri Shikin, a goaltender with the SKA-1946 junior club in St. Petersburg, and defencemen Georgi Berdyukov, who suits up with the juniors when he’s not skating with SKA’s parent club in the KHL, got the shock of their lives when the club presented each of them with a brand new Mercedes B-180 for winning the World U20 Championship gold medal.
Shikin was outstanding in Russia’s 4-3 come-from-behind win over Sweden in the semi-finals in Buffalo. He gave up three early goals to Canada in the gold medal game, but his replacement Igor Bobkov of the London Knights came in to shut Canada out the rest of the way as the Russians rallied for a 5-3 victory.
Spectator support for the new league might be lacking, but millions of Russians viewed the gold medal game on Russia’s Channel 1 station.
That is, except for one.
Shikin’s mother Natalia has always been afraid of her son’s suffering a serious injury.
“I sat in the bathroom with the door closed,” she laughed, following Dmitri’s recent game against Spartak Moscow. “I watched the replay of the game only!”
Most of the gold medallists spend the bulk of their time in the KHL, albeit on the fourth line. However, Shikin was one of nine players from the MHL.
In the Siberian city of Novokuznetsk, national junior team gold medalists Dmitri Orlov and Maxim Kitsyn were given apartments by the mayor of the city. Kitsyn now plays for the Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors of the Ontario Hockey League and Orlov, a first team all-star at the World Juniors, might join the Washington Capitals’ AHL farm club in Hershey.
All national junior team players were flown to the Novogorsk training centre outside of Moscow to be congratulated personally by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The Russian Hockey Federation also came through with monetary rewards of varying amounts, depending on what officials felt the player contributed to the victory.
In Shikin’s case, the magic enveloped contained 700,000 rubles (about $25,000).
None of the top-10 scorers in the MHL made the national junior team. That either means they are one-dimensional players, who don’t pay attention to defence, or that Russia has a lot more depth of talent at the youth level than it is given credit for.
Nor did any of the best 10 goalies get a trip to Buffalo. Shikin is not in the top-10 because he shares goaltending duties in St. Petersburg with Yevgeni Ivannikov, son of Valeri Ivannikov, one or Russia’s netminders at the 1994 Olympics in Norway.
Vladimir Yurzinov, recognized as one of Russia’s all-time best hockey teachers and coaches, is senior chairman of the junior league.
“The MHL was created to develop young players and coaches,” he said. “We can see that it’s working already. Now we have a gold medal.”