MOSCOW - The number logic placement puzzle Sudoku became a big hit in Japan in the mid 80s. It became a global hype in 2005 under the name "Number Place".
With the 2008 World U20 Junior Championship, less than two weeks away, dedicated hockey and puzzle fans can enjoy solving another puzzle; the Team Russia WJC selection. This year presented by former NHLer Sergei Nemchinov.
Nowhere else, other than perhaps Canada, is the final selection for the WJC controlled by the media more than in Russia. This year is no exception. Experts have been all over each other in the media expressing their views on the preliminary squad named by head coach Nemchinov.
As with any Sudoku, some numbers are already given. The same applies to the selection camp that will prepare the team for the tournament in Novogorsk from December 9 - 22.
Forward Alexei Cherepanov is a given and will lead Russia's attack. The 18-year old Avangard Omsk player is one of just four possible returnees from the silver team of last year. In that tournament, Cherepanov quickly made a name for himself locking three prizes. He became the tournament's top goal scorer with five goals, was named the best forward and earned a spot in the tournament's all-star team. This year, the media and fan attention will be increased heavily on him. Cherepanov won't mind. He thrives under pressure and has showed he can deal with the pressure both on international and on club level.
On defence, the presence of Yuri Alexandrov seems guaranteed. Also a member of last year's team, the Severstal Cherepovets defenceman has been seeing regular ice time in the Russian Super League this season. Vyacheslav Voinov should also be on the team again.
But with the obvious known, the real puzzle begins. On the preliminary roster, there are just six players drafted by an NHL team, leaving much room for scouts and fans to fill their notebooks on the other players. As with any puzzle, you run into unexpected situations at times. No different this time for the Russian selects.
The most notable omission is Goaltender Semen Varlamov. Last year, Varlamov was superb in net for Russia and led his team to the finals. He would have been voted the tournament's top goaltender, had there been no Carey Price in net for Canada. Instead, Nemchinov has picked Sergei Bobrovsky and Sergei Gayduchenko, both from Metallurg Novokuznetsk and Stanislav Galimov of Ak Bars Kazan.
Having made his way up to the senior team, Varlamov was one of the final cuts of the Russian Karjala Cup team. Coach Vyacheslav Bykov opted for an extra skater, so Varlamov would be available for the U20 team. But Varlamov never received a call and was hugely surprised himself that he was not named to the team.
Russian media have speculated heavily about an underlying personal conflict between Nemchinov and Varlamov to be the root for his absence, but both parties deny this.
"Absolute nonsense," Nemchinov claimed. Varlamov on his turn said he is not a person seeking the conflict way to solve issues. "I guess it means that I do not deserve to be part of the Russian U20 team."
Nemchinov was more open in his reasons not to select Varlamov. "Without a doubt, Semen is a quality goaltender but I have decided to go with the three other goaltenders, who have showed their class." The coach will relate to the most recent Canadian-Russian challenge, where the best Canadian juniors faced a Russian selection last month. Canada won four out of six games and Galimov and Gayduchenko tended the nets. Earlier this year, Canada and Russia met in the "Super Series" where the reigning U20 World Champions won the series convinced 7 games to 1. Varlamov was in net during three games including one stinker (just one save on four shots) and a game in which he stood on his head (48 saves). Yet, it seemed his performance in this series cost him his spot on the team.
"If I take my responsibility and I am in the position to decide, I select on quality," said Nemchinov. "I have nothing against Varlamov personally, but he is not part of my group of goaltenders." The words of the former centre, who recently stepped into coaching, do not leave much to be desired. "I select players who I can trust, who I can build on. Simple as that."
Varlamov himself will probably be glad that he is not reading the Russian newspapers these days. The young goaltender has flown to Egypt with his team Lokomotiv Yaroslavl for a holiday. Asked whether he is expecting a late call-up after all Varlamov is clear. "I will switch off my mobile phone, I need my rest. I have my passport with me though," Varlamov admits, "but it does not hold a visa that allows me to travel to the Czech Republic."
On December 26, Russia will open its campaign with a game against Finland. Only the will the solution to the Nemchinov Sudoku puzzle be known. The next few days, the avid puzzle fans can take a look at the Russian preliminary roster and try to solve it.
In the Czech Republic, the Russians will look to continue their great record at the World Junior Championship. They have made it to the finals eight times the last decade. According to Nemchinov, the squad he put together is able to do it again. Or will Nemchinov come up with another game and will he pull out some surprises out of a hat at the very last moment?