Eager to prove their worth

After European success, Metallurg is ready for a new challenge.

30.09.2008
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Metallurg's Alexander Seluyanov scored against Traktor Chelyabinsk. Photo: Metallurg Magnitogorsk

MAGNITOGORSK, Russia – Having already routed Europe, Ural-based Metallurg Magnitogorsk is eager to test their skills against North American competition. The inaugural Victoria Cup provides just that platform.

When the Russian giant beat Sparta Prague (5-2) last year, they not just captured the European Champions Cup but also captured a ticket for a showdown against the New York Rangers on Wednesday in Berne. The game will mark the first time a Russian team meets one from the NHL in 17 years.

This summer the KHL started with a lot of ambition. Finally, after a number of events off the ice, the opportunity is there to meet on the ice. More than pride will be at stake. Metallurg head coach Valeri Belousov said: “Much will depend, of course, on how the Rangers’ players will treat the event. They say it’s just an exhibition game, but we know North American teams hate to loose. They are big professionals, so, for them there’s probably something to gain as well.”

With just four import players, all Czechs, Metallurg can be counted on to play a typical Russian offensive style of hockey. It will prove a clash of cultures against the New York Rangers. One that Belousov is interested to witness. “One of the main goals is to find out where we are, what our level is, compared to that of the New York Rangers and the NHL in particular”, he told nhl.com.

Forge to force

This season, Metallurg yet needs to be forged towards a powerful machine. Currently they’re ranked 12th in the 24-team league with five wins from ten games, one of them in overtime. On Sunday they saw a streak in which they won five out of their last six games end after a 5-1 drubbing at home to reigning champions Salavat Yulayev Ufa.

One of the areas Metallurg is struggling is the power play. To date, they’ve scored a league-low three power play goals on 49 occasions. With a power play percentage of 6.1% they rank 24th in the KHL.

The team’s top scorer Jan Marek is not suffering from Metallurg’s current form. He leads the league in scoring with eight goals and 16 points from 11 games. He really picked up his game as of mid-September collecting 12 points from six games. However, none of his eight goals have turned out to become game winning goals.

The game against the New York Rangers will be special to Marek since he was originally drafted by the Blueshirts in the 8th round in 2003. He never opted to come over to North America as he could play top-line minutes in Europe.

Youth academy starting to blossom

Although far not the most successful team in Russian hockey history, Metallurg has become one of the most well-known Russian team outside its border. This is partly because the team has been among the most successful ones in Russia and Europe the last decade. The team is mostly recognized for raising the likes of Alexei Kaigorodov, Nikolai Kulemin and last but certainly not least Evgeny Malkin in recent years.

In an interview to a Russian newspaper the young Russian super star was full of praise for the organisation where he honed his skills. “Metallurg's school prepares very good young palyers and that includes me. The school just needs more confidence from the coaches”.

The critical comment is an often-heard statement from teams that need to compete for the silverware every season. Nevertheless, the current squad has got a number of U20s that have made their KHL debuts. Defencemen Anton Glovatsky (20 years) and Vadim Ermolayev (19), and forward Mikhail Churlyayev (18) are given the chance to develop amongst men by Valery Belousov.


Evgeny Malkin is the most famous product from the Metallurg Magnitogorsk organization. Photo: Metallurg Magnitogorsk

Belousov equals success

Belousov, a former member of the Soviet national team that played in the inaugural Canada Cup back in 1976, is no stranger to Magnitogorsk. The team hopes the experienced coach can return domestic glory to the city after a successful spell in the late nineties. Although not a household name outside Russia, Belousov is one of the most successful coaches in Russian history.

After initially coaching the team between 1984 and 1986, he returned to the team in 1994 and raised the bar forever. He twice won the European Hockey League (1999 and 2000), captured the Russian title in 1999 and finished runners-up once and captured the bronze medals twice (like the Olympic Games, the Russian league awards medals for the top three positions).

Furthermore, he won the European Super Cup and the Russian Cup. Afterwards, he moved to Avangard Omsk where he worked with Jaromir Jagr during the NHL lock-out season and defeated his Metallurg in a heroic series.

Between 1995 and 2003, Belousov has won every title the team could win. They also captured at least one prize each season except in 2003.

Prosperous Postnikov

This summer Belousov arrived succeeding another Metallurg legendary coach: Valeri Postnikov. Postnikov on his turn came after Fedor Kanareykin, who, despite winning the European Champions Cup, failed to win the Russian league.
Postnikov’s name will also be linked to Metallurg Magnitogorsk forever after having coached them for over two decades in a number of spells dating back to 1971. It was under his command that Metallurg managed to climb up from the lower echelons of Russian hockey to become one of the nation’s most dominant teams. In this spell, Postnikov coached over thousand league games of Metallurg.

The 1992-93 season marked Metallurg’s debut in Russia’s top league. Back then, many people believed their adventure among the league’s best would be a short one. These critics were based on the fact that as soon as the stream of money stopped, they had no further base to rely on. This was also due to the lack of an own talent school.

But Postnikov wouldn’t be Postnikov if he used the critics to boost his team’s confidence. In its first season, Metallurg defeated heavy-favoured Spartak Moscow in the playoffs and it immediately made a name for itself. He also installed a youth department as of the early nineties that eventually led to Metallurg raising the likes of Evgeny Malkin.

Multi-talented founding father

Given their success the past decade it’s almost forgotten that the team, located on the border of Europe and Asia, is still a relatively young team that “only” exists since the early 50s.

Unthinkable nowadays but very common back then was the fact that the team of 1955 (which was the first Magnitogorsk team to play competitive) was coached by 20-year-old Felix Mirsky. Not just his age is surprising, Mirsky himself was also a talented player of the team (and thus could be considered a player-coach) as well as a well-trained athlete in a number of other sports.

On December 26, 1955, Magnitogorsk opened their account with a 7-3 victory. The team’s first-ever goal was scored after just 11 seconds and was scored by nobody else than Mirsky himself.

Frustrated by the lack of attention for hockey, Mirsky left the team in 1957 to become player-coach of the local football team. This wasn’t the lone blow for the hockey team as the coach took the core players with him. No longer on ice but on grass, Mirsky continued to have success and achieved a number of promotions with his new team.

The current status of Metallurg in Russian hockey is something Mirsky could only have dreamt of. With three titles to date, their last one dating back to 2007, Metallurg is hungry for a repeat of their success.
    
Winning the European Champions Cup was their lone prize last season, this season they have three trophies on their radar. The KHL title, the Champions Hockey League and first the Victoria Cup.

After being crowned the best in Russia and Europe, they once against set sight on something bigger. The New York Rangers will have to become their next scalp as Metallurg is trying to prove their worth.

Notebook:
  • One of the cornerstones behind the success has been General Manager Gennady Velichkin. He has managed the team since 1991 and has seen the club’s rise from the early days.
  • Metallurg also saw a number of foreign coaches behind the bench. Czech Marek Sykora was acquired with high expectations but could not succeed. More notable was the moment when Canadian Dave King announced he was to coach the Russian team. He was the first Canadian to coach a Russian team. The former Team Canada coach came off a year in Finland with HIFK Helsinki and was lured to Magnitogorsk to strengthen the team’s defence while not ruining the offensive team style. King passed with flying colours in his first season. Metallurg was the most dominant team in the league finishing 29 points ahead of runners-up Ak Bars Kazan. Also it had scored a league best 175 goals and conceded the fewest goals. Yet, the team could not overturn Avangard Omsk and had to settle for bronze.
  • In 2005, Metallurg was successful in winning the Spengler Cup. In the final, the Russians defeated Team Canada 8-3.
  • Metallurg’s first international appearance was in 1985 when the team performed a couple of exhibition games in Pyongyang against DPR Korea.

JOERI LOONEN


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