MOSCOW – After an acrimonious summer of mergers and financial threats it was a relief for Dynamo Moscow to finally get back on the ice.
A month after welcoming fans of the new-look 'United Hockey Club Dynamo' a franchise which maintained the oldest name in Russian hockey by merging with MVD Balashikha. Olegs Znaroks’ reputation as a cunning coach has been further enhanced by steering his squad to the top of the Western Conference.
And after a tentative start, crowds are returning to the Blue-and-Whites, with official attendance over of 5,000 at most October games.
A bridge with history
The season began with a determined effort to prove that the current Dynamo wasn't a hollow franchise, divorced from the club's long history.
Prior to the opening home game against KHL newcomer Yugra Khanty-Mansysk the keyword was 'continuity'.
The lights went down and a voiceover presentation played: "Dynamo, it's my team"; Fans recall how they wept with joy when the club ended a 36-year wait to lift the Soviet championship in 1990, after decades of CSKA domination.
Finally, shamelessly tugging on the heartstrings, a child's voice explained that first his granddad was a fan, then his dad and "now I cheer for Dynamo."
Next came a video sequence chronicling the club's nine Soviet and Russian titles, with stirring music, and a live rendition of club anthem 'Vperyod Dinamo, my s toboi'; (Advance Dynamo, we are with you) before the announcer declared: "A great club with a long history opens its home season - and that means the history of Dynamo Moscow continues."
But the attempts to include the MVD line-up into the on-going Dynamo story took time to settle. Despite providing free buses for the 20-kilometre trip from MVD's Balashikha base to Moscow, there was little evidence of the now-defunct club's colours among supporters.
Curiously there were more MVD shirts and scarves on show at the pre-season Mayor of Moscow Cup and the away game at Spartak.
And the home crowd reserved special cheers for Leonid Komarov and Denis Tolpeko, the sole survivors from last season's much-hyped, but ultimately unsuccessful Dynamo squad.
At MVD Znaroks, who also coaches the Latvian national team, built a squad without stars, but with a ruthless efficiency and will to win. Unusually the Balashikha fan-base, which had grown impressively on the back of a competitive team, brought banners hailing "Znaroks - our coach"; rather than singing the praises of the likes of strikers Denis Kokarev or Matt Ellison.
But for Dynamo fans, used to marquee signings such as Jiri Hudler or Mattias Weinhandl, this took some getting used to.
The opening game against Yugra came just two days after a thrilling derby win at Spartak and barely a week after captain Alexei Kudashev raised the Otkrytiye Cup after shooting down defending champion Ak Bars, 3-1, in the curtain-raiser in Kazan.
But there was a half-empty arena to greet the team for their home debut.
during the game there were sniffy comments as well: Andrei Khomutov, who coached Dynamo for much of last season, returned with Barys Astana and said: "This is not really Dynamo. We will see at the end of the season which was better."
Meanwhile, hints that some Dynamo games would be played in Balashikha ultimately came to nothing. To add insult to injury, the junior squad “Sherif” switched its MHL games to Tver, MVD's original home of 2004.
The Muscovites' farm team, previously based in Dmitrov, also moved north to Tver, close to 200 km from the capital, leaving Balashikha without senior hockey of any sort.
Success breeds success
But, with the help of a long run of home games, Dynamo is showing signs of reconnecting with its fans.
Crowds have steadily increased - helped by the fact that the team on top of the Western Conference - the official attendance in the game against SKA St. Petersburg was 7,000, close to the Luzhniki Arena's 8,200 capacity.
A midweek match with rival Spartak drew even larger numbers to the city's largest ice arena, the Khodynka venue built for the 2007 IIHF World Championship not far from Dynamo's spiritual home in Petrovsky Park.
And fan attitudes are changing. Prior to the opening home game against Yugra Andrei, 26, from the suburb of Novogireyevo, said he was coming more out of habit than affection.
"I've been watching this team since they won the title last time [in 2005]," he said. "It would feel strange not being here, but it doesn't really feel like my team either. Maybe we'll get used to each other, but I'm not sure right now."
That day the team's 3-1 win was greeted with polite, restrained enthusiasm, but the impressive 5-2 demolition of SKA was better received.
Komarov and goaltender Michael Garnett - a star for MVD last year - returned to the ice and both received a rapturous reception, evidence that the new-look club is winning acceptance as well as games.
"In a year or two everyone will have forgotten about MVD and the merger," said Oleg, a long-time Dynamo fan. "People have short memories - especially when the team is playing well."
Winners and losers
But in sport for every winner there is a loser - and it has helped Dynamo's cause that the early season strugglers include their biggest rivals.
Spartak, the historic foe of all things Dynamo, has been beaten twice in KHL action already. A 5-1 hammering in its second meeting proved the undoing of head coach Milos Riha, sacked the next day.
And CSKA, once the kings of Soviet hockey, also languish near the foot of the Western Conference despite the arrival of experienced Czech striker Jan Marek from Metallurg Magnitogorsk.
Many Dynamo fans will also struggle to repress a smirk at events in St. Petersburg, where SKA is emulating last season's struggles at Luzhniki.
Head coach Ivan Zanatta has a high-powered squad at his disposal, and it showed its quality in a 5-3 exhibition win over the Carolina Hurricanes. But despite the presence of Yevgeni Nabokov between the pipes and Denis Grebeshkov in defence SKA has conceded over three goals a game and is playing catch-up in the Western Conference. They’re currently seventh in the 11-team Western Conference.
The squad features four Dynamo men from last season - Weinhandl, Denis Denisov, Dmitri Shitikov and Konstantin Panov - while Petr Cajanek, Maxim Afinogenov and Nabokov himself all have blue and white on their CVs.
And their relative struggles - greeted with huge ovations when disappointing scores are announced to Moscow crowds - have only added extra flavour to the quiet satisfaction growing in one corner of the Russian capital.