MINSK-TORONTO -- They first made noise back in 2002. A group of 16 and 17-year old Belarus kids not only earned their country their first ever win at the elite level of the IIHF U18 World Championship. They also went on to defeat Canada and finish a remarkable fifth that year.
Mikhail Grabovsky scored the game winning goal in that 5-3 victory over the Canadians. To date he still ranks it as the highlight of his career. “Some people might remember me more from my four-goal performance against Austria (at the 2005 World Championships) but I do not think I played my best game then,” Grabovsky tells.
In spite of all the glorious moments, it could very well have been the case that the current Toronto Maple Leafs forward would never have played the game -- if not for the historical event of the coming down of the wall in Germany.
The 24-year old was born in former East Germany (Potsdam) but moved to the Belarus capital Minsk at the age of three. It was there were he mastered the game on.
Grabovsky: “My father worked in a construction company in the GDR but after the wall came down we moved to Minsk. I have a few memories from my German time. We still have some friends over there and I remember the hospital I was born in.”
As soon as he could lace up his skates, hockey was the game he fell in love with. “Sometimes we played soccer, but hockey always came first. As a matter of fact I think about hockey too much at times,” he admits. “But if I didn’t play hockey, I’d probably had become a football player.”
Trained by the coaches who were educated in Russia, Grabovsky made huge strides in the youth program of Yunost Minsk. It didn’t take long before he was given a chance in the men’s Belarus league for the team coached by Mikhail Zakharov (father of St. Louis draft pick Konstantin).
Grabovsky still has warm feelings for Zakharov whom he lists as one of the coaches that have influenced him most. “I also have to thank Alexander Baranov, my junior coach for ten years. He supplied me with vital advice after my junior career. Funny thing is that his brother lives in Toronto and coaches a junior team as well.”
It was Zakharov who also recommended the young player to leave for the Russian league to continue his development. Grabovsky left his parental home as a seventeen year-old and moved to Nizhnekamsk to play for the local Neftekhimik team.
“It was difficult to leave but with Vladimir Krikunov I once again got an excellent coach. I was given regular ice time and could practice every day and we had no lack of good food,” remembers Grabovsky. “Therefore I think it was easier for my parents to accept me moving to Russia. They knew my dream was to play at top level and that is what I was doing so they were happy too.”
Krikunov took the Belarus winger with him to Dynamo Moscow (in 2005) where he was instrumental in the club’s historic European Champions Cup win in St. Petersburg. Grabovski centered the ECC’s best line with Maxim Sushinsky and Alexander Kharitonov. After compiling 4+4 in three games, the then 21-year old knew he was ready for the NHL. The Montreal Canadiens had drafted him one year earlier, in the fifth round.
The culture shock was huge and he had a tough time settling in Montreal. Most of the first season in North America was spent in Hamilton of the American Hockey League.
“My English was bad when I came over. Now I understand but I still need to speak a lot to practice it,” he acknowledges. “Language was the first problem, second was hockey. Russian hockey is totally different. Over here the rink is smaller and it’s all about shoot, shoot, shoot, while in Russia it’s pass, pass, pass. Sometimes I don’t understand my team mates. Often I anticipate a pass but nobody is giving me the puck back.”
In Montreal, Grabovsky was team mates with two fellow Belarus players; the Kostitsyn brothers Andrei and Sergei. The three became the the poster boys of Belarus hockey and the Canadiens earned themselves a huge fan base in Belarus.
Nevertheless Grabovsky was traded to arch rivals Toronto Maple Leafs this summer, a good move for Mikhail as he needed more ice time. It also resulted in the relationship between the Belarus boys getting sour.
First there was yapping and even fighting with Sergei on the ice and later they continued the feud in the media. It has calmed down now as both parties have shaken hands, yet Grabovsky isn’t feeling sorry for having left Montreal. “For me it doesn’t matter any more. I now play for Toronto and if the Canadiens are eliminated from the playoffs then I’m happy,” he jokes.
Belarus hockey fans better hope the dispute has indeed come to an end as the three players are core members of the national team that will play the upcoming World Championships in Kloten, Switzerland starting April 24. Seeded into a group with Canada, Slovakia and Hungary, Belarus will hope to build on their ninth place earned last year.
Expectations are high now since a familiar face is back behind the Belarus bench. After leaving the post in 2006, Canada-born American Glen Hanlon returns as head coach succeeding Curt Fraser. Under his command the country finished an all-time high sixth at the 2006 World Championships in Latvia.
Hanlon will be assisted by fellow Canadian Wayne Flemming and former national team players Eduard Zankovets and Vladmir Tsyplakov. The team is not only eying success in Switzerland but also at the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver, where they qualified automatically thanks to their 9th position in the IIHF World Ranking.
Despite the coach’s good track record, Grabovsky has mixed feelings about the appointment of Hanlon. “I realize Canada is number one in hockey and their coaches know all about hockey. The Belarus Federation started appointing a Canadian coach four years ago (Hanlon and later on Fraser) but after just one or two years they leave again,” he says pointing to a lack of consistency.
“We have got some great young coaches in Belarus who should be given a chance at one point. Coaches like Zakharov, Tsyplakov or Zankovets.”
Ever since the fall of the Soviet-Union, Belarus has been one of the most successful nations that became independent. Currently ranked ninth on the IIHF World Ranking they outrank Latvia (11th), Ukraine (17th) and Kazakhstan (19th). Although they are not playing at the elite level at the U20-level the country has been a regular participant in the past. Their U18’s also rank higher than the other nations.
Belarus is also the best example of improving ones program through building new rinks.
Only three ice rinks existed when Belarus gained independence in 1992, the same year as the Belarus Ice Hockey Association was founded. Now, new rinks are built every year. The biggest arena – at least for now – was opened in Bobruisk last summer.
The construction of the Bobruisk Arena is part of a program which envisions that every city with a population of around 100,000 should have an ice rink. Currently, 16 cities are in this range or above. A 15,000-seater arena in Minsk (140 kilometers from Bobruisk) will open next year and is part of the 2014 World Championship bid.
Grabovsky would love nothing better than to play a World Championships at home. And although he has been travelling since the age of seventeen, Minsk is still considered home.
Better said, Yunost Minsk is.
“I hope that I win the Stanley Cup one day so I can bring it here to show the people. Yunost is my everything,” he says while tapping on his heart. “It’s my house, my beloved home.”
- If Grabovsky would ever succeed in bringing the Stanley Cup to Minsk he won’t be the first player in history to do so. Goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin holds the honour of being the first player to showcase the trophy in Belarus. Although Khabibulin represents Russia he decided to travel to Minsk since his wife is Belarussian.
- In May 2008 coach Zakharov was given the exceptional “Order of Honour” from president Lukaschenko as a recognition for his contribution to Belarus ice hockey. A large number of fellow Yunost Minsk staff members were also rewarded for their part in the development.
- Apart from Dynamo Minsk (KHL), the Belarus teams played a joint league with Latvian teams. After a 52-game season the eight top ranked Belarussian squads geared up for the post-season. The top two seeds Yunost Minsk and HK Gomel advanced to the playoff final. After five games, Gomel holds a 3-2 lead.
- Hockey fans in Minsk will get some icing on the cake after the domestic final. Minsk will host the IIHF U18 World Championship Division 1 as of April 6. The Belarus youngsters will need to overcome Hungary, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine in their search to return to the elite level.