YUZHNO-SAKHALINSK, Russia – The MHL Red Stars won the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 Challenge Cup of Asia. It was a success for the host from the Russian island of Sakhalin, which joined Russia’s top junior league MHL for the upcoming season.
The MHL Red Stars consisted this year of players from Sakhalinskie Akuly, a club that was newly founded to bring top-level junior hockey to the island of Sakhalin. On the squad of the “Sharks” were local players, such from other Russian regions in the Far East and from elsewhere in the country and Europe. Some of them may even play games in men’s senior hockey as Morskie Lvy Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk joins the Asia League with the best club teams from Japan, Korea and China.
The MHL Red Stars had a great start with an 8-3 victory over the Japanese U20 national team thanks to team captain Vitali Timoshenko, who grew up in Sakhalin and came back after spending several years playing youth hockey in Siberia. It was him who scored the first four goals for his team and added a hat trick in the second game.
“This tournament was a great experience for us and a good start for the season. All the teams and players, coaches and organizing committee worked really hard and I would like to thank everybody who made this tournament happen,” Timoshenko said about the event. “As for our team – there are areas in which we need to improve and which we will improve.”
The MHL Red Stars continued with a 12-0 blanking of Korea and won the deciding game for first place against the Kazakh U20 national team on Thursday 3-1. It was a fast game with scoring chances and breakaways for both teams. The MHL Red Stars had the better chances but the Kazakh goalkeeper kept his team in the game before the host team eventually succeeded.
The result left Kazakhstan, which had previously defeated both Korea and Japan with the score of 4-2, in second place while Japan beat Korea 8-2 to finish the tournament in third place.
“The tournament was very tough for us but we will improve from this experience and prepare for a successful (U20) World Championship where we will be a better team,” Japanese captain Jo Osaka said.
“It was a good experience for us. It makes us understand how we need to play. All of us found out what we need to improve for our personal development,” his teammate Yu Hikosaka said.
It was the third U20 Challenge Cup of Asia with the participation and co-operation of the Russian-based Molodyozhnaya Khokkeinaya Liga (MHL), the junior league of the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) that same as the senior league also includes teams from other countries.
In the first year in 2012 the Russian selection won the tournament held in Seoul, Korea. One year later the event took place in Khabarovsk in Russia’s Far East and the MHL Red Stars represented by the local MHL team Amurskie Tigry Khabarovsk lost the deciding game for the tournament win 6-4 to Japan.
“We have a very good co-operation with the MHL management, which again made this tournament happen. We would like to thank the organizing committee for their co-operation and organization on a high level and we have received positive signals from the politicians in Sakhalin. We look forward to discuss the next steps with our partner MHL,” IIHF Vice President Thomas Wu said.
The event was also a chance for U20 national teams from Asia to play games at a high level as there are usually few international games organized between national teams from Asia outside of IIHF events.
Kazakhstan and Japan will compete in the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division I Group B in Dunaujvaros, Hungary, 14-20 December 2014 while Korea will play one tier below in the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division II Group A in the Estonian capital of Tallinn.
“If we want to improve and develop we need to take this chance to participate in tournaments like that,” said Mark Mahon, the head coach of the Japanese men’s and U20 national teams. “The level was high and we are very thankful that we can participate in this tournament, which definitely will help in our development and World Championship preparation.”
The tournament also gives opportunities to discuss the future co-operation of the various organizations represented in Sakhalin and also a possible further expansion of the MHL in the Far East. In the past Amur Khabarovsk was the only top-level team in Russia’s Far East. Now Vladivostok (KHL) and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk (MHL) have become other venues. The MHL also includes teams from Austria, Belarus, the Czech Republic, Kazakhstan, Latvia and until last season Ukraine. Additionally, teams from Lithuania and Moldova compete in the second-tier MHL-B. Could it also expand to other Asian countries?
“The MHL opened the doors for Asia and especially the teams from Japan and Korea need to take this chance and opportunity,” said IIHF Asian Project Manager Harald Springfeld, who was the Chairman of the tournament. “And why shouldn’t we see sooner or later a team from Japan or Korea participating in the MHL? It would be a big boost for their development and would help minimize the gap compared to European countries which we have in Asia because of the geographical distance. The others don’t sleep and we need to be and will be creative.”
“Tournaments like that are a great opportunity to sit together and think about future plans and activities,” said MHL Managing Director Dmitri Yefimov. “We from our side are interested in working together and expand our league and we think that this tournament was again an excellent opportunity for all teams involved and will help in the development.” Click here for scores and stats.
MARTIN MERK (Zurich)
HARALD SPRINGFELD (Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk)