MOSCOW – The hockey team of Moscow’s Central Sports Club of the Army was once a much celebrated team, but the last of its 32 national championships dates back to 1989 at the end of the Soviet era.
Soviet-era giants CSKA Moscow are now set to be on the march once more – fuelled by a lucrative deal with Russian oil major Rosneft. The move, widely rumoured in Russia over the past month, was formally announced last weekend – and has prompted pledges of a new “superclub” in Russian hockey. Those words come from the very highest level: Prime Minister Vladimir Putin himself spoke of Rosenft’s intention to recreate the glory days of the Red-and-Blues, a team which famously won 13 consecutive Soviet titles from 1977-1989, enjoyed similar dominance in Europe with 20 European Cup titles and led the Russian charge in assorted Super Series against the big guns of the NHL.
Indeed, Putin said that the decision to get a powerful state-owned company involved in the future of CSKA had been taken at a high level. The club’s president, Viktor Tikhonov, had lobbied the politician earlier this year. Tikhonov’s complaint that this once-proud symbol of Russian sporting prowess was on the brink of collapse resonated with Putin and prime ministerial influence encouraged new investment.
While details of the future Rosneft-CSKA deal are still scarce, Putin did give some clues about how the deal was brokered, and how it might operate. “I was shocked by what Viktor Tikhonov had to say, and we thought about what to do,” the Prime Minister was cited by Sovietski Sport. “Eventually we decided to ask Rosneft to explore the possibility of working with the club. We owe them special thanks for agreeing, which they did with one condition. Rosneft wants to appoint a director who will personally control the flow of funds and not just mindlessly spend money.”
For its part, Rosneft issued a statement from company president Eduard Khudainatov emphasizing the firm’s role in developing Russian sport as part of its program of social responsibility. “We are proud to be able to support this legendary hockey club, which is loved by millions of Russians, to take part in the team and its successful development. In turn, carrying out this noble task will also contribute to the efficient focused promotion of our brand.”
The new ownership deal – which has echoes of the hydrocarbon-fuelled bankrolling of SKA St. Petersburg (Gazprom), Ak Bars Kazan (Tatneft) and current Gagarin Cup holders Salavat Yulaev Ufa (Bashneft) – promises to transform the face not just of CSKA, but of hockey in Moscow and across Russia.
High on the agenda is a new arena, which many hope will appear on the club’s current Leningradski Prospekt home just to the north of the city centre. The 1950s building which currently houses the club has a limited capacity of just 5,500, and facilities which are clearly showing their age.
The Megasport Arena on Khodynskoye Pole, built for the 2007 IIHF World Championship a stone’s throw away from the CSKA arena, has given Moscow a taste of the classy modern venues springing up in the provinces – and it is that level of spectator and player comfort that CSKA hopes will become a visible symbol of the club’s planned renaissance.
Although there are no drafts of the new venue yet, there are hopes that construction work could be underway before the end of next year. With city rival Dynamo talking about including a rink in its new VTB Arena complex one kilometre south, Moscow could soon find itself with three impressive modern ice arenas within walking distance of each other. If better facilities can win back the crowds and help attract better players, the days of championship medals going to the provinces could be drawing to a close.
But construction work is also needed on the ice. Since the Soviet glory days, when top players were almost literally conscripted at will into the Army Men’s ranks, CSKA fans have endured lean times. Following Wednesday night’s home defeat to Dinamo Riga – a result which took the shine off the first home game since the Rosneft deal was announced – Tikhonov admitted that the current playing roster was not strong enough and needed a fundamental overhaul.
At present Julius Supler’s team is struggling to blend a crop of promising youngsters with a handful of veteran talents including Alexei Yashin, Ilya Zubov and Alexei Badyukov. This season has been better than last time, when the club failed to reach the KHL play-offs, and there is genuine excitement over the emergence of the likes of Vyacheslav Kulyomin, Dmitri Kurgyshev and Sergei Barbashev. But while the future seems promising, the current squad is some way short of the quality required to make a serious bid for honours – and the team has only managed one sell-out crowd, to welcome Yashin for his first game back in October.
With this in mind, Vyacheslav Fetisov, the legendary defenceman now taking charge of much of the day-to-day running of CSKA, is remaining cautious about the future. For him, it seems, the Rosneft connection is an opportunity – but by no means a guarantee of future glory.
Following the Riga game he estimated it might take two more years to build a competitive squad, and added that work had barely begun on recruiting new players. Head coach Supler also played it coy when asked about changes in personnel: “Our squad will be strengthened when players come back from injury,” he said in the post-match press conference. “That’s five new players right there!”
Fetisov’s two-year timeframe would also give a chance for the Krasnaya Armiya feeder club to bear fruit. The youngsters won the Kharlamov Cup – the top prize of Russia’s junior league MHL – last season, and Supler has been quick to give players game time with the senior team. And CSKA has a good track record of developing talent in recent seasons: this season’s leading scorer Sergei Shirokov, 25, is back home after a two-year stint in North America, and with Denis Parshin returning from injury this week, those two are hoping to recreate an attacking line which has been successful since they played together in the youth regiments.
Meanwhile, highly-rated Nikita Filatov is widely tipped to return to CSKA after two years with the Ottawa Senators. The CSKA graduate returned to Moscow on a short-term deal in December 2009, impressing in his four-month spell, and is now being linked with a permanent return.
And that offers an intriguing contrast with the fortunes of SKA St. Petersburg. Gazprom’s cash has transformed hockey in Russia’s second city, attracting big crowds for a sport which had previously failed to capture imaginations beside the Neva. But while SKA, the other Army Club in the KHL, has largely invested in big-name signings – attracting the likes of Denis Grebeshkov and Maxim Afinogenov back from the NHL and taking its pick of the brightest talents in the European leagues – CSKA can draw on its own hockey heritage. Will the mixture of old traditions and new wealth prove to be a winning formula?