MOSCOW/KRASNOYARSK – With the regular season coming to a close in Russia, the rebirth of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl is moving to the next stage.
Less than six months after the team was destroyed by the air tragedy of Sep. 7, a new-look Lokomotiv is back in senior hockey and close to securing a play-off spot in the second-tier Vysshaya Liga (VHL).
And on Friday, in front of a nationwide TV audience, the side picked up a 3-2 win at Sokol Krasnoyarsk in the frosty Siberian air – with a record-breaking crowd of 16,100 turning out in spite of the frost.
The match, billed as the “Russkaya Klassika”, was both a fund-raiser to support the families of those who were killed in September and a profile raiser for the VHL and the new-look Loko.
Almost uniquely for a second-tier game, the open-air encounter at Krasnoyarsk’s Central Stadium got the full media treatment: live coverage on free-to-air TV channel Rossiya-2, extensive previews in the national sports press and a level of interest that would delight several teams in the KHL, let alone its little brother.
And even if the main attraction was Lokomotiv, firmly entrenched as every Russian fan’s second team, it gave a handy boost to Sokol’s own fledgling hawks in their first season at this level.
The weather lived up to Siberia’s reputation – the day dawned with thermometers showing -24°C, and by the early evening face-off Krasnoyarsk was still shivering at -18°C.
But in a city where bandy has long been the preferred winter sport, crowds are used to braving the elements to cheer on their heroes and almost all of the 17,000 tickets were sold. That exceeded the organizers’ expectations of a 15,000 crowd, and set a new record for a game involving a Russian club – inching past the 16,039 who saw Lokomotiv play at Dinamo Minsk in last season’s KHL play-offs.
For the players, though, it was a new experience: Lokomotiv forward Maxim Zyuzyakin came out of an open-air training session to tell reporters that it would be “interesting”, and admitted it wouldn’t be easy to get used to playing in such cold.
To help, the club’s medical staff had provided thermal underwear and hats to wear under the players’ helmets, hoping to ensure the team was comfortable on the ice and on the benches.
For Zyuzyakin, it seemed to work – he grabbed the opening goal on 14:06 – but from the start Sokol made sure that Loko goalie Nikita Lozhkin had plenty to keep him warm.
The home side trailed from that moment on, despite dominating long passages of play and eventually out-shooting the visitors 43-25. By the time Lozhkin was finally beaten, a pair of quick-fire goals just past the half-hour mark had seen Alexei Kruchinin and Danil Apalkov give the Yaroslavl side a 3-0 lead that was too big to claw back.
It was a fitting outcome for Lokomotiv. Following September’s tragedy, the shattered club politely rejected offers to create a new KHL squad overnight and take its place in the top flight, choosing instead to bide its time, mourn its losses and make a more discreet return at a lower level.
First the youth team, Loko, returned to action in the MHL, prompting emotional scenes in early October as the youngsters took to the ice in their hockey-mad home city.
Then in December the senior team – a youthful line-up comprised of MHL prospects and emerging talent – belatedly took its place in the VHL, drawing a capacity crowd to Yaroslavl’s Arena 2000 for the opening game against Neftyanik Almetievsk on Dec. 12.
Arriving three months late to the party caused some logistical headaches: a hastily redrawn fixture list saw the Western Conference teams visiting Yaroslavl, while the team made tracks to the East for its away games.
Despite an offer to give Lokomotiv a bye into the play-offs, the club preferred to earn its place on merit, prompting the league to adopt a “winning percentage” system for the Western Conference.
Prior to the weekend action, Lokomotiv was well-placed in third, with an impressive 64.7% win ratio from its 17 games. For comparison, KHL leaders SKA St. Petersburg and Traktor Chelyabinsk have posted 68.7%, with far more experienced squads.
Under the guidance of coach Pyotr Vorobyov, who returned to the club with which had won silver and bronze medals in the late 1990s, a hastily assembled team of players from Loko’s own youth system blended with youngsters reaching the end of the MHL careers has thrived in the men’s league.
Having worked with the Yaroslavl youth squad in the 2010-11 season, he was already familiar with the talent at his disposal within the club, and careful recruitment added steel to that side.
Some youngsters arrived with VHL experience – Oleg Yashin, 21, had 35 games for Ryazan last season, while Alexei Kruchinin arrived from VMF St. Petersburg with a full season plus play-off experience under his belt despite being just 20.
Others, such as top goalscorer Emil Galimov, previously at Reaktor Nizhnekamsk, were on the cusp of breaking into senior hockey from youth sides.
Then there are the likes of Zyuzyakin, raised in the Yaroslavl hockey school despite being born in distant Novokuznetsk, and getting his first chance to play adult hockey.
It’s a raw mix, but one which has proved successful – especially on home ice where the fans have taken this new generation to heart. Only two teams have managed victory at Arena 2000, and both table-topping Donbass Donetsk and fourth-placed Dizel Penza needed a shoot-out to take the honours.
And for the players themselves, it’s been a fantastic, if bittersweet, opportunity to stake a claim to play at the highest level. The talk in the locker seems to focus on responsibility – towards the club, the coaching staff, the fans and a city still coming to terms with its loss.
Take Galimov, who hit a hot streak in January on his return from the IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship. After posting 7+3=10 goals in eight games, and adding an assist against Sokol, he found himself touted as a KHL star of next season.
For his part, he remains modest about his prospects, telling the Ves Khokkei magazine that he still had plenty to learn while adding that many of his young team-mates also deserved a shot at the big league.
But his comments about playing under an experienced coach in a senior league were also telling. “The Lokomotiv coaching staff trusts me, and maybe that lets me play less in defence and focus more on the attack,” he said. “I owe Pyotr Ilyich [Vorobyov] a lot for giving me plenty of game time. I try not to let him down.
“It’s surprising, but I have less defensive work to do here. I’m trying to give the team an attacking edge. In defence my partners work well without me, and that has freed me from those duties to some extent.”
Other players who have been in Yaroslavl for longer, particularly those like Oleg Misyul, have been impressed by the support the team has enjoyed this season.
Misyul combines life as a hockey player with studies at the Yaroslavl State University, having moved from his native Belarus as a 14-year-old to join the Loko academy, and understands just how much hockey means to his adopted home.
“In Yaroslavl we’re playing in front of packed houses, whether it’s MHL or VHL. The support is just incredible and it inspires us to go out and try not to let the fans down. I want to play good hockey and all our thoughts are about this.”
For Misyul, 18, who also earned his first call-up to the Belarusian U20 national team this season, it’s his first chance to play senior hockey. The defenceman has a +2 coefficient from 13 appearances so far, and admits he’d like to return better stats in future, but added that the adult game is a steep learning curve.
“When I came back from Germany [after representing Belarus] I found myself in the VHL team,” he told Yaroslavski Sport. “It’s clear that the guys here are much stronger, teams have a different mindset and experienced players. It takes a lot more concentration and dedication to compete.”
Postscript: while the game in Krasnoyarsk was underway, it was reported on the KHL’s website that the widow of Lokomotiv’s Latvian forward Karlis Skrastins, Zana, had given birth to the couple’s third child, Viviana. In January, the widows of Ivan Tkachenko and Alexander Karpovtsev, two other players killed in the air crash, gave birth to sons.