MOSCOW – After a one-year sabbatical to resolve the club’s financial problems, Spartak Moscow will be back in next season’s KHL. And the club is looking for a new era of stability as it moves from its compact Sokolniki home to a larger arena for the 2015/16 campaign.
The four-time Soviet champion was driven to the brink of bankruptcy following the collapse of its major sponsor, Investbank, in December 2013. The team limped to the end of the 2013/14 season in the KHL before withdrawing from senior competition for a year. But after a lot of hard work behind the scenes, directed by double Olympic champion Alexander Yakushev as Chairman of the club’s supervisory board, the Red-and-Whites will be back in the big time when the season starts in August.
Yakushev told the KHL website: ““I’d like to congratulate all the hockey fans who have waited so long for this day. I want all who love Spartak to show their gratitude to those who have made this possible. They did a great job and worked extremely hard, and for this we owe them our thanks.”
When the puck drops, however, the team is unlikely to be playing at its traditional Sokolniki home. That is being retained as a training base and a home for the youth team, but plans are already in place to play KHL game at Luzhniki, recently vacated by Dinamo Moscow as they move to a new arena. In the longer term it’s possible that Spartak will play at the Megasport Arena, the 12,000-seater venue built for the 2007 IIHF World Championship, but that depends on the completion of renovation work.
Much of Spartak’s new management has made the short journey from the suburb of Mytishi, where Atlant recently announced that it could not provide the financial guarantees needed to play in the KHL next season. GM Alexei Zhamnov fulfilled the same role for Atlant last time around and was happy to see a way to smooth Spartak’s return to the game.
“Initially we weren’t looking at reviving Spartak on the base of Atlant, it was just how things worked out,” he told Sovietski Sport. “But then we started to think that if we couldn’t save Atlant we could try to preserve the skeleton of that team so that Spartak would not have to start out with nothing.”
The budget, reckoned to be around 1 billion roubles (almost €16m), is among the smaller figures in the league and there is no intention of rushing out to make a marquee signing to announce the club’s return. Similarly the idea of hiring a big-name foreign coach was quickly dismissed – “we need someone who can nurture and develop the team and we couldn’t do that if we filled up the coaching staff with foreigners,” Zhamnov added – and German Titov was appointed as head coach.
The former Metallurg Novokuznetsk supremo was a boyhood Spartak fan but never got the chance to play for his heroes. “Back in the 1980s I had trials for the Spartak hockey school but they didn’t take me and I ended up at Khimik Voskresensk,” he told ITAR-TASS. “But even today, Spartak means a lot to me. I know how much this team means to its fans and how many people – supporters, ex-players, journalists – will be following our work closely. I would never have taken on the role of head coach at such a legendary team if I wasn’t fully prepared for all that.”
Titov is joined by Vyacheslav Kozlov, who hung up his skates at the end of last season. The 43-year-old forward spent two seasons at Spartak before the hiatus and was with Atlant last time out. Now he’s preparing for his first coaching role and he admitted that the lure of return to Spartak was hard to resist. “My experience of playing for Spartak was a big factor [in accepting this role],” he told the club’s website. “Spartak has fantastic supporters and the club’s return to the KHL is a notable event.”
The roster is still taking shape, with 38 players joining the first training camp in Finland this week. However, Spartak has already announced its five foreign players for the coming season – and the work of Zhamnov is evident in the signings of former Atlant men Atte Engren and Matt Gilroy. The Swedish goalie, who featured in Lev Prague’s run to the 2013 Gagarin Cup final, and the American D-man, who was a KHL All-Star back in January, are joined by ex-Dinamo Riga man Charles Genoway. Spartak has also enlisted two KHL newcomers: Czech forward Lukas Radil arrives from Pardubice while Casey Wellman crosses the Atlantic following a stint in the AHL with the Hershey Bears and a handful of NHL appearances with the Washington Capitals.
While Spartak looks forward to a brighter future, the situation for Atlant is rather different. Like Spartak a year earlier, the Moscow Region team has been unable to find sponsorship for the coming campaign and has stepped down from senior hockey. The youth team will continue in the MHL and the door remains open for the club to emulate its Moscow colleague and return to the KHL in the future.
Meanwhile the league is working on the setup for the upcoming season. Apart from Spartak no new club is expected to join for the upcoming season while financial issues put a question mark behind other clubs than just Atlant both in Russia and at three foreign teams. While the issues at Dinamo Riga and Medvescak Zagreb seem to be solved, Slovan Bratislava still needs to confirm its ability to participate in the KHL this month.