BASLE, Switzerland – No team in the Kontinental Hockey League has changed its face so drastically over the last few months like Dynamo Minsk, one of the three foreign teams in Russia’s ambitious league.
The roots of the club date back to 1946 in the Soviet era when Minsk was the only town for hockey in now-Belarus. But the club has never faced as much hype as it has in the upcoming season.
The country’s president Alexander Lukashenko is a big hockey fan, which has helped the sport develop. Arenas are churned out all over the country, and there was also money to have a team from Minsk join the KHL.
Ranked 22nd in the 24-team league in its inaugural season, the success was mild. “We knew that we had to learn much in the first year. We didn’t use the full budget and didn’t have goals for our final ranking,” says assistant general manager, Vladimir Goncharov. “We had almost only players from the Belarusian league we wanted to give a chance. We knew that they had to collect experience at KHL level first. Now we will really start to play KHL hockey.”
Belarusian national team coach Glen Hanlon was hired to coach Dynamo Minsk. They wanted him last year, but he had already signed with Jokerit Helsinki.
The budget has been increased to $25m, the salary cap of about $20m might be reached this year. “80 percent of the budget is covered by the Belarusian Potash Company,” said Goncharov about the investment of the state-run potassium fertilizer exporter. It’s the usual structure in the KHL where one company or person is the primary source of income.
While Russian clubs are required to fulfil a five-player import limit, foreign KHL clubs can make their own choices.
“It’s Dynamo Finlandia,” jokes Vladimir Yurzinov. Yurzinov, who had coached several teams in Russia, Finland, Switzerland and was an assistant coach of the Russian national team, is president of the KHL’s new junior league MHL. Goncharov wants to discuss the joining of a Dynamo Minsk junior team for the 2010-2011 season.
Yurzinov is not exaggerating. When Dynamo lost 4-3 to Geneva-Servette (SUI) at a pre-season tournament in Basle, Switzerland, the team had five Finns, three Canadians, two Swedes, one Czech and a Russian on the ice adding to seven Belarusians. Also a Latvian and a Ukrainian are on the long list.
‘Quality beats quantity’ could be Hanlon’s slogan. While many home-grown players will be loaned to affiliate teams in the domestic league, Dynamo got back national team players from abroad like World Championship goalie Andrei Mezin and defenceman Andrei Bashko, who both came from Russian KHL rivals.
Most recently, the club signed two Finns from the NHL with Ville Peltonen and Ossi Väänänen. Hannes Hyvönen, the only Finn who played there last year, could say good things about the organization.
Having three times more imports than the other KHL teams also creates special needs. “We have employed people just to take care of the players and their families like administration, recreational activities and there are several international schools,” says Goncharov. “The wife of our head coach will even teach at such a school.”
The expectations are high. Even though the official goals are not set, Goncharov hopes that the team will at least make the quarterfinals and is happy to have Hanlon behind the bench. “He is very important for us and we are happy that he is finally our coach. He puts heart and soul in it. And he talks about ‘We Belarusians’,” says Goncharov, who helped Dynamo Moscow and the Russian Hockey Federation many years before where his son Sergej, now General Secretary of the Belarusian Hockey Federation, was working too.
Not only the players and staff have changed in Minsk. In order to circumvent a dispute with the Dynamo Minsk sport organization, the club’s name has been changed from the Russian Динамо to the Belarusian spelling Дінамо. Instead of the traditional letter D, the club logo is now filled with a bison, an animal found in the Belarusian countryside.
Adding to the hype is the new Minsk Arena, which is currently being built. Originally it was scheduled to open in December but the workers are building day and night. It’s the president’s wish to open it on November 7th. With the Subbotnik, a Soviet tradition of volunteer work on Saturdays, people work at the arena including Lukashenko and other government members.
As soon as the arena is completed, work on a second arena, also built for the 2014 IIHF World Championship, will begin. “We hope that we can have two to four KHL teams in the future,” said Goncharov. Teams like national champion Yunost Minsk, Gomel or Bobruisk.
And the new arena is, together with Chelyabinsk, one of the two remaining candidates for the KHL All-Star Game on 30th January.
“Thanks playing in the KHL the interest in hockey has increased. We also want to invest more in our youth organisation and a hockey school,” Goncharov explains. “Most games are broadcast live, much has been written about us, also critical because of our scores last season. But we hadn’t invested so much money compared to now. Actually, nobody criticizes that we spend much money, only that we played badly. Now we need positive results.”
The club expects to have an average of about 5000 to 7000 fans in the new arena. One of the best-known players to lure fans is Ville Peltonen. The 36-year-old Finnish winger joined his new team during the two-week camp in Switzerland and hasn’t been in Minsk yet, but heard good things.
“We have very skilled hockey players and it seems to be a good group. Last week we had a good camp in Leukerbad and were also climbing the mountains,” Peltonen says about his first experiences with the team during the camp in Switzerland.
Having English as the team’s and coach’s language looks like an advantage for an NHL player without Russian background even though he says that there are no imports in his team, only teammates.
Peltonen left the NHL where he played 382 games. “The situation in Florida was not right for me and then everything went quickly with Minsk,” said Peltonen.
The winger doesn’t have expectations of what awaits him when he arrives at his new home. “I’m just going to go there open minded and help the team win,” Peltonen explains. “I often played against Hanlon’s teams in the NHL and at the World Championship, and they were always well coached.”