MAGNITOGORSK, Russia – Gennady Velichkin was the face behind Metallurg Magnitogorsk’s rise from a lower-division team in the Soviet era to the most successful Russian club in the post-Soviet era. After managing the club for 18 years, Velichkin was released as the General Director on Wednesday.
In Russia, Velichkin was known for his success in the post-communist hockey era while Westerners knew him for his saucy comments about the NHL, most notably when the star of the club’s hockey school, Evgeni Malkin, left Magnitogorsk for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Metallurg Magnitogorsk won three national titles (1999, 2001, 2007) and was the best team in Europe three times winning the European Hockey League (1999, 2000) and the European Champions Cup (2008) during Velichkin’s time.
In the 2008-2009 season, Metallurg lost the inaugural Victoria Cup to the New York Rangers, 4-3, after holding a 3-0 lead. The team also lost the Champions Hockey League final to the ZSC Lions Zurich.
Metallurg is back on track in the Russian league and is currently in second place in the KHL Eastern Conference, but since the November break, things haven’t been smooth.
November began with a 7-1 loss at Barys Astana before Metallurg lost the top spot to Salavat Yulayev Ufa after a 3-2 loss in Ufa.
After the fifth defeat in the sixth game of November, 3-0 against CSKA Moscow at home, Velichkin was asked to step down.
On Wednesday, owner Viktor Rashnikov, whose giant steel work dominates Magnitogorsk’s skyline, announced that Velichkin is no longer the club GM. He was named vice-president of foreign relations and the club hopes that it can count on his experience in the new position.
15 months ago, Velichkin told IIHF.com: “Mr Rashnikov is a leader in steel products and wants to be number one everywhere. His slogan is to have everything or nothing.”
Velichkin stumbled on the defeats and on his transfer decisions this year.
Metallurg was seen as a title contender after acquiring the Fedorov brothers, Sergei (Washington) and Fedor (Neftekhimik), after getting back Evgeny Gladskikh and after signing two Finnish forwards that were successful scorers with their former teams, Tom Koivisto (Kärpät Oulu) and Petri Kontiola (Iowa Chops, AHL).
However, none of those players lived up to the high expectations.
Velichkin knew the pressure – and had to go. Head coach Valeri Belousov’s job is also in danger. According to Russian media reports he has a three-game probation period to find the path to success.
Alexander Tarasov will take on Velichkin’s difficult role. He previously worked as a director of a hotel and a health spa in Magnitogorsk.
Can he bring success back to the steel city?KHL notebook:
- Fabulous Filatov. The Russian talent, who was loaned by the Columbus Blue Jackets to CSKA Moscow, set a new league record with three straight game-winning goals. In three games, the 19-year-old has six points (4+2).
- Prosperous Popikhin. Evgeni Popikhin returned to Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod as head coach to replace Sergei Mikhalev – and immediately had success. Torpedo’s Ural trip with Popikhin ended with three wins in three games.
- Salavat vs. SKA. Salavat Yulayev Ufa leads the regular season standings. The club has 62 points in 28 games. Salavat dominated the regular season last year but was eliminated in the 1/8 finals. The Western Conference leader is SKA St. Petersburg with 61 points.
- Successful Sushinsky. The most-balanced statistic in the KHL is the scoring race. St. Petersburg’s Maxim Sushinsky took over with 33 (12+21) points in 28 games. Teammate Alexei Yashin and Salavat’s Alexander Radulov follow with 32 points. Former leader Mattias Weinhandl fell to fourth place. The Swede is the import with the most points, 31.
- Vigorous Verot. The scoring race might be tight, but there’s a favourite to win the KHL’s penalty race. Darcy Verot seems to be the only candidate with such ambitions. With 202 penalty minutes in 15 games, the Canadian Vityaz Chekhov winger has a 115-minute lead on his compatriot, Traktor Chelyabinsk defenceman Martin Grenier. Verot averages 13:28 penalty minutes per game and 6:41 minutes of ice time. He’s on a way to break his own record with Vityaz: In the in the 2007-2008 season he had 511 minutes.
- Booming Barys. Last year, Latvia’s Dinamo Riga was the only foreign club to reach the playoffs. This year, the only foreign team on pace for a playoff spot is Kazakhstan’s Barys Astana. The team is in fifth place in the Eastern Conference with a 14-point gap to a non-playoff place.
- Lucky Latvian. Good news for Latvia prior to the World Juniors in Canada. Dinamo Riga forward Roberts Bukarts was named rookie of the week. The 19-year-old scored two goals in his last three KHL games – his first goals in the league.
- Minsk meeting. The 15,000-seat Minsk Arena, which will be the main venue for the 2014 World Championship, will open its gates in a few days. One of the first events will be the KHL All-Star Game on 30th January.
- Lacking Lada. The financial situation at Lada Togliatti is alarming. The club is currently paying salaries with financial support from the league. The KHL announced that the league is ready to once again provide help to the club if Lada’s funding woes continue.
- Vetra Vilnius. That’s the name of one of the most famous football clubs in Lithuania – and now the owners founded a hockey club with the hope of joining the KHL next year. Alexander Kharlamov was named GM and the club is looking for a coach. The country’s traditional hockey team, Energija Elektrenai, is slated to become the farm team. Vilnius is ready to replace struggling KHL clubs, namely Lada Togliatti or Vityaz Chekhov.
- Astonishing AIK. The second-tier club from Stockholm signed a letter of intent to play in the Russian league next year. Now, AIK hopes to get green light from the Swedish Ice Hockey Association and from the thousands of club members at the society’s assembly. The major problem: The traditional club and seven-time champion is already in financial trouble playing in Sweden’s second-tier league.