MOSCOW – On a sweltering August evening in Moscow, with most sports fans focusing on the Summer Olympics, a pre-season hockey game should hardly have been a big draw. Yet when CSKA entertained Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, even an exhibition game turned into an event.
With a crowd of around 3,000 at the Leningradka Arena, the game attracted more fans than several regular season clashes involving CSKA in recent times – and several hundred Lokomotiv fans came along, with many of them gathering at the players’ exit after the game to greet their team and welcome head coach Tom Rowe and his roster to the Loko family.
It was, of course, the first appearance of Rowe and his men following the team’s confirmation that it would return to KHL action following the tragedy of Sep. 7, 2011. And not even a 4-1 defeat at the hands of a CSKA squad revitalized by Rosneft’s money and led by the flamboyant – and expensive – Alexander Radulov could dampen the enthusiasm for the final stage of the rebirth of Lokomotiv.
And witnessing the depth of emotion that surrounds the club reminded Rowe once again of the task ahead of him – and underscored his determination to deliver a season worthy of one of Russian hockey’s biggest names.
“It’s a great inspiration,” he said. “I knew Brad McCrimmon [the Lokomotiv coach who died in last year’s air disaster] very well and we have to ensure we have a very good season.
“We want to make the team and the city proud. There’s an incredible fan base, and the team and the organization has a lot to live up to.”
Not surprisingly, then, Rowe will not be playing the sympathy card once the action gets underway in earnest for his team on September 6 in Novosibirsk.
“Our expectations are to compete at a very high level,” he added. “I’m coming here to make the play-offs and have a long run in those play-offs. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us. I’ve not come here for a so-so season. I want to be still playing hockey here in April.”
Rowe isn’t alone in having high expectations for the club: general manager Yuri Lukin explained earlier that an offer of a guaranteed play-off spot for the reborn club had been politely declined, and added that the Loko outfit was assembling a roster which it believed was capable of mounting a serious challenge for the Gagarin Cup.
Visiting Yaroslavl last autumn when the Loko youth team brought the game back to the grieving city, it was clear that many fans were reassured to see the city’s colours represented by youngsters who had grown up within the Lokomotiv organization.
And Rowe is under no doubts about the importance of maintaining continuity with the side which tackled the emotional task of contesting Russia’s MHL and VHL competitions last season.
“Every team is always looking towards its young players, but there’s a little bit more emphasis on that here,” he said. “And we have about 14 or 15 youngsters in the organization who can really play.”
As such, it was a youthful team which took to the ice against CSKA: experienced internationals such as Latvia’s Mikelis Redlihs, Belarusian Alexei Kalyuzhni and recent Russian debutant Roman Lyuduchin sat it out, as did former SKA captain Vitali Vishnevski, giving 11 players born in the 1990s ice time in Moscow.
And a first period where Loko more than held its own against CSKA’s oil-fueled aristocrats, the fourth line combination of Sergei Plotnikov, Vladislav Kartaev and Oleg Yashin provided an eye-catching threat. Yashin got Loko’s goal, off a Kartaev assist, while Plotnikov rattled the piping. Throw in the likes of Emil Galimov – one of the stars of last season’s Loko – and it’s clear that there are several boys who are ready to show that they have grown into men.
Kalyuzhni, watching from the sidelines, was impressed by what he saw from the youngsters. “Never in my career have I seen a team with so much young talent,” he said. “They lack experience, but you should see what they can do in training. It just takes a couple of years for them to get used to playing a man’s game and mature a little, then you’ll see them turn into league leaders.”
On the night, however, youth wasn’t quite enough: CSKA tied the game before the first hooter, and after the interval experience told as the hosts opened up a 4-1 lead, with Radulov converting a penalty shot along the way. But, as Rowe points out, Loko’s youth is tempered with experience of its own.
Aside from those who were watching from the sidelines, the likes of Finnish defenceman Sami Lepistö and Canadian goaltender Curtis Sanford bring NHL know-how, while Swedish international D-man Staffan Kronwall, signed from Severstal Cherepovets, and captain Viktor Kozlov – a Gagarin Cup winning campaigner with Salavat Yulayev Ufa – offer plenty of experience of the Russian game.
As for Rowe, this isn’t his first experience of Russia – he was on the coaching staff when the Carolina Hurricanes came east for a challenge match against SKA St. Petersburg, and suffered a defeat which underlined for the coach just how much talent exists in the KHL. And settling in to a new environment has also been very smooth so far.
“It’s going great. I’m enjoying myself very much,” Rowe said. “I’m enjoying Yaroslavl, the guys are friendly, and [Lokomotiv] is a great organization. I love it here. People have been tremendous to my wife and I and Yaroslavl is a very friendly city to be in.”