Belarus’s biggest moments

From Fyodorov to Salt Lake to Gretzky

09.05.2014
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Oleg Khmyl, Andrei Mezin and Vladimir Kopat celebrate after scoring an historic 4-3 quarter-final upset for Belarus over Sweden at the 2002 Olympics. Mezin still plays for this year’s host in Minsk. Photo: Mike Blake / Reuters

Hosting the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship is one of the biggest moments in Belarusian hockey history.

But the former Soviet republic has already put together an impressive string of highlights. Let’s review, in chronological order, the top 10 moments that Belarusian hockey fans can recall fondly.

1. Formative Year for Fyodorov

When you can say that the top Russian-born scorer in NHL history (1,179 points) honed his skills in your country, that’s something to be proud of.

Before Sergei Fyodorov switched to CSKA Moscow, he played the 1985-86 season for Dynamo Minsk in the Soviet second division. It was a remarkable achievement for the hyper-talented 16-year-old, who finished with six goals and one assist in 15 games. Vladimir Krikunov, who would coach Belarus at the 2002 Olympics and Russia at the 2006 Olympics, oversaw his development.

Fyodorov wasn’t the only Russian star who trained in Minsk, but the electrifying centre’s resume with two Olympic medals, three World Championship titles, three Stanley Cups, and multiple individual NHL awards is hard to top.

2. Belarus Joins the IIHF

May 6, 1992 wasn’t just the day future Montreal Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher was born. It also marked the hockey rebirth for seven former Soviet republics.

Belarus received IIHF membership, along with Azerbaijan, Estonia, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Russia, and Ukraine. Big things lay ahead for this proud nation of nearly 10 million people.

3. To Nagano With Hope

Interestingly, Belarus participated in the Olympics before making its top-level World Championship debut. It won four straight games in a 1996 qualification tournament in Riga, Latvia to make the cut for the 1998 Winter Games. In Nagano, Belarus went undefeated in the preliminary round, beating France 4-0 and Germany 8-2 before a surprise 2-2 tie with Japan.

Although the Belarusians wouldn’t win another game against the top nations, succumbing 4-1 to Russia in the quarter-finals, they set a good tone for the Worlds in Switzerland in May. There, they finished a very respectable eighth.

4. Miracle in Salt Lake

The 1980 “Miracle on Ice”, where American college players defeated the Soviet Union’s best 4-3 in Lake Placid, is still considered to be the number one upset in international hockey history. But Belarus’s 4-3 quarter-final victory over Sweden at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City is number two.

In its first three games, Sweden had posted a perfect record, beating Canada, the Czechs, and Germany. Tre Kronor had superstars like Mats Sundin, Nicklas Lidstrom, Markus Naslund, and Daniel Alfredsson in their prime. But the underrated Belarusians got a stupendous 44-save performance out of goalie Andrei Mezin, and defenceman Vladimir Kopat scored an incredibly weird winner from the red line with 2:24 left, drifting a slapper off Tommy Salo’s mask that bounced up, over, and in.

“Sometimes a gun without bullets can shoot,” Mezin famously said afterwards. Belarus went on to a fourth-place finish, its best ever in IIHF competition.

5. Salei’s Stanley Cup Chase

We’re still awaiting the day when the first Belarusian player gets his name engraved on the Stanley Cup. No one has come closer than the late Ruslan Salei did with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks in 2003.

Playing in a tight seven-game final against the New Jersey Devils, the veteran defenceman scored the 3-2 winner on Martin Brodeur at 6:59 of overtime. Adam Oates won a draw in the New Jersey end and slipped the puck over to Salei, who whipped it home from the edge of the faceoff circle.

The Devils would win Game Seven. But even though Salei tragically died in 2011 in the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl plane crash, the memory of his Stanley Cup heroics lives on. And he will be inducted into the IIHF Hall of Fame at the Worlds in Minsk.

6. Grabovski Goes Wild

Mikhail Grabovski didn’t score his first NHL hat trick until he made his Washington Capitals debut in a 6-4 loss to Chicago on October 1, 2013. However, the nifty center enjoyed an even bigger offensive outburst at the 2005 IIHF World Championship.

The host Austrians were hoping to avoid the relegation round, and to do that, they knew they had to beat Belarus in Group A, since they had little hope against Russia or Slovakia. But Grabovski scored four goals – three on the power play – to lead Belarus to a 5-0 rout before 7,691 fans at the Wiener Stadthalle.

Disheartened, Austria wound up going down to Division I. Belarus came 10th in Glen Hanlon’s debut behind the bench.

7. New Heights Under Hanlon

Hanlon, a 14-season NHL netminder who coached the Washington Capitals between 2003 and 2007, would achieve his best results as the Belarus bench boss at the 2006 IIHF World Championship in Latvia. There, surprising victories over Slovakia and Switzerland helped Belarus make the quarter-finals, where it fell 3-0 to Finland.

The sixth-place finish remains Belarus’s high-water mark at the Worlds. Memories of that achievement clearly motivated the Belarus federation to hire Hanlon again for the 2014 tournament.

8. An A-Mezin Performance

Andrei Mezin was outstanding in goal at the 2006 Worlds, posting a 2.01 GAA and 94.1 save percentage en route to cracking the tournament all-star team. But the Chelyabinsk-born stopper was even better in 2009 in Switzerland. His 1.72 GAA and 94.8 save percentage earned him Best Goalie honours plus another all-star berth.

Thanks to the diminutive Mezin’s acrobatics, Belarus defeated contenders like Slovakia and Finland, and stayed even with eventual champion Russia in the quarter-finals until Ilya Kovalchuk potted the 4-3 winner with 12:38 to go.

So it was good vibes all around for Belarus, which was awarded the 2014 tournament at the 2009 IIHF Annual Congress in Berne.

9. Welcome to the KHL

To stay competitive, it’s sometimes useful for lower-tier hockey powers to centralize much of their talent in one domestic-league club. When Dynamo Minsk joined the Russia-based Kontinental Hockey League in 2008-09, it was an opportunity for them to face stiffer competition than in the Belarusian Extraliga. Fans in the capital responded enthusiastically, as the team’s average attendance of 10,538 would top the KHL in 2010-11.

While Dynamo Minsk still hasn’t come close to winning the Gagarin Cup, the national team seems to be benefiting from KHLers playing together regularly. At the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship, Belarus hasn’t been relegated in more than 10 years.

10. The Great One “Comes Home”

Did you know that Wayne Gretzky, the NHL’s all-time leading scorer, has Belarusian roots?

In 2010, “The Great One” came to Minsk along with former Edmonton Oilers teammate Mark Messier as a guest of honour at the KHL All-Star Game. They took part in the ceremonial opening faceoff with Sergei Fyodorov, Vyacheslav Fetisov, and KHL president Alexander Medvedev.

Gretzky is so highly revered in Belarus that his silhouette was incorporated into the official logo of the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship.

LUCAS AYKROYD

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