When it comes to hockey legacy, Belarus may not be one of the world’s heavy hitters, but it ranks with the best of them when it comes for appreciating the game.
It is not a secret that Belarus will not be on anyone’s list of European hockey superpowers. The former Soviet republic has certainly had its moments in the sun since beginning to play internationally 22 years ago, but the memorable Olympic semi-final appearance in 2002 and an odd IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship quarter-final now and again constitute the entirety of the country’s achievements on the world stage as of now.
Still, there is at least one thing in which Belarus has a leg up on most European countries, including even its much more heralded “big brother” to the East, Russia. For Belarus, you see, is a true hockey nation. In the sense that hockey is at least as popular as football there, even surpassing it at times.
“Well, when FC BATE Borisov was winning in the UEFA Champions League against teams like Lille and Bayern Munich, football was ahead,” says Piotr Rabukhin, the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship promotion manager. “But as the football successes waned and as the Worlds got closer, hockey again became the undisputed number one in Belarus.”
One could perhaps trace this phenomenon back to the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City when the little-regarded Belarusian squad toppled the mighty Swedes in the quarter-final in what was perhaps one of the most exciting and wildest contests in Olympic history. Though the creator of that triumph, then-head coach Vladimir Krikunov, prefers to downplay his team’s role.
“The hockey boom in Belarus was already happening back in the Soviet days, when Dynamo Minsk first made the USSR Top League,” says Krikunov, not being all that modest since that success was also his creation. That Dynamo Minsk team of the late 1980s was Krikunov’s first coaching experience and some of his charges went on to play for him in Salt Lake City.
He won’t deny, though, that beating Sweden had really put Belarus on the map, and not only in hockey terms.
“After (Salt Lake City) they were saying that we did more for the country’s international relations than the entire Ministry of Foreign Affairs ever did,” laughs Krikunov. “The country’s President said he had never before got so many calls from other world leaders in one day.”
Well, that is to be expected, since in Belarus hockey is a matter of state importance. According to Krikunov, the game really took off in the country after its outspoken President Alexander Lukashenko started playing himself and became Belarusian hockey’s most prominent PR agent. It is no surprise, then, that when it comes to organizing the World Championship, there was no shortage of governmental support for the project.
“It is tough to organize something like this for the first time”, says Rabukhin, “but in our case, things are definitely easier. We have no problem with issues like promotional budget and logistics. The organizing committee is headed by the Prime Minister, the promotional subcommittee by the Minister of Information, the volunteer program by the Minister of Education, and so on. All the local logistics are handled by the city hall. All we have to do is take care of the tournament itself.”
In Belarus, much like in Russia, when things get done on such a grandiose scale, they usually get done well. To quote Krikunov, “when we promise something to the world, we keep those promises.” But no matter how much help comes from up high, nothing can succeed without the enthusiasm of the fans. Luckily for Minsk, the people of Belarus won’t let anyone doubt their love for hockey.
Dynamo Minsk, the country’s KHL representative, led the league in attendance in 2011-12 and 2012-13, boasting average crowds in excess of 14,000, and was the second-best attended team in Europe. This season, with the team’s on-ice fortunes taking a sharp turn for the worse, the attendance fell – all the way to second place in the league and still over 10,000 per game. A mediocre season is clearly not enough to significantly dampen Minsk’s love for the game. Not with the KHL’s finest arena in their city.
“We started selling World Championship tickets back in late September and the bulk of them was gone by late November”, says Rabukhin. “As for the final, the tickets we put out for online sales were all sold in seven minutes.”
Most of the ticket buyers are Belarusian, with Russians in second place and always enthusiastic Latvians closely behind. Finland and Germany round out the top five. Neither the ticket holders nor the accredited media will need a visa to enter the country, an unprecedented move on Belarus’ part.
“Hockey in Minsk is undoubtedly a holiday, a festivity,” says Rabukhin. “This is why our official slogan is ‘Together We Celebrate’. When we watch Dynamo, we celebrate by ourselves. This time, we have the world coming over to share in our celebration. This is why we do things the way we do them. In Belarus, when you are expecting guests for a holiday, you put your house in order. You paint what needs painting, you clean what needs cleaning, you cook all the best food. All to make the guests comfortable.”
A worthy endeavor, no doubt, but if while doing that the home team can also swing another on-ice miracle for a celebration of its own, Belarus’ love for hockey may begin rivaling that of Canada.