VLADIVOSTOK, Russia – Vladivostok’s Admiral is ready to launch its first landing party – and the club’s fans are confident that it will be an invasion like Khabarovsk has never seen before.
On 6th September the KHL newcomer plays its first game at regional rival Amur, with a seldom seen influx of visiting supporters expected to make the 750km trip to Khabarovsk for the game.
Nikita Lyutikov, who runs the Admiral fan-site hvl.ru, is expecting a unique experience: “I think it will be the first time anyone at Amur has seen so many away fans at a game, simply because the cities are so close together. It’s expensive to fly to other parts of Russia, but the cheapest tickets between Vladivostok and Khabarovsk are just 1400 rubles (about $40) so lots of people will have the opportunity to come and get behind Admiral.”
It’s not necessarily going to be a bitter rivalry, however. Lyutikov himself was born in Khabarovsk, and knows several people in that city who are comfortable dividing their loyalties between Amur and Admiral. In the Far East, perhaps, a shared sense of remoteness from the rest of Russia breeds a fierce regional pride which transcends urban boundaries. In KHL terms, that’s hardly surprising. Moscow is 6,481km, and the 8,035km trip to Slovan Bratislava is further than the journey to the nearest NHL outfit in Vancouver, a mere 7,427km away.
So when Admiral concludes its opening seven-game voyage and steps out on home ice for the first time on 27 September against CSKA, plenty of fans will travel from Khabarovsk to Vladivostok with a view to checking out the brand new Fetisov Hall – and lending their support to the Admiral project. And, come the end of the season, they will return to see Amur’s return game against Admiral – perhaps with divided loyalties.
That 5,500-capacity arena, named for Hall of Famer Vyacheslav Fetisov who is a parliamentary representative for Russia’s Far East, stands close to the main road between the city centre and Vladivostok airport. Plans are under discussion to create a light railroad connection – the city’s first – to speed fans to and from games, but for now efforts are focused primarily on getting everything ready for the big face-off.
The team gathered for training in Odintsovo, near Moscow, before further camps in the Czech Republic and Finland ahead of the Donbass Open Cup in the last week of August. In early September it finally arrived in Vladivostok to present itself and practise in the new hometown.
Under the guidance of Hannu Jortikka, an experienced Finnish coach who took Amur to its only KHL play-off spot, results have been encouraging for the newbie. The team recorded its first victories against the Espoo Blues and Växjö Lakers, and tasted further success when it played KHL opposition for the first time in Donetsk. After edging out Severstal Cherepovets, Western Conference semi-finalists last year, by the odd goal in nine, Admiral went on to finish second overall in the five-team tournament. Only a 3-2 defeat against the home team on the final day cost the Vladivostok side a first piece of silverware.
The games in Ukraine also presented fans by the shores of the Pacific with a first glimpse of their teams after the local TV station aired the games live. And in a city which has never had a top-level team before, that kind of coverage is vital to quickly attract supporters.
“At the moment, compared with our KHL opponents, there aren’t so many people in Vladivostok who are interested in hockey,” Lyutikov added. “However, there are plenty of people who watch the World Championships on TV. I think it’s worth promoting hockey in Vladivostok in general, and not just Admiral. It’s another way of getting more people used to the idea of going to the arena and taking in a game.”
By late August there was little evidence of Admiral selling itself on the streets of Vladivostok, while the city itself was paying more attention to the first ever V-Rox music festival and an eagerly-awaited gig by local heroes Mumi Troll. But as Yevgeni Kraft, editor of another fan-site at hc-admiral.ru, explains, the team has not been entirely silent. Among the events he has seen, the sight of the team’s cheerleaders heading to the city centre to hand out schedules and fliers sticks in the mind. Similarly, the club has also formed a partnership with a Vladivostok bar to host meet-and-greet evenings during the Donetsk tournament.
As anticipation mounts off the ice, the team itself is steadily taking shape. To assist the club’s development, a special waiver draft was organized to enable Jortikka to call on one player from each other club in the league. Experience is therefore guaranteed, and big things are expected of former Magnitogorsk forward Enver Lisin and Alexei Ugarov, a Gagarin Cup finalist with MVD Balashikha back in 2010. Other names to look out for include Richard Gynge, a Swedish forward who also spent some time working with Olegs Znaroks at Dynamo Moscow last season before moving on to Lev Prague, and former NHL forward Niclas Bergfors.
Then there’s the foreign legion. Not the usual assortment of North Americans, Scandinavians and Czechs who pop up at most KHL clubs. Admiral, mindful of its proximity to Korea and Japan – the vending machines at Vladivostok airport sell Japanese soft drinks rather than traditional Russian Kvass – used the KHL youth draft to snap up a few prospects from a region which it could legitimately regard as the ‘not-so-far’ east. That brought Korean youngster Chong Hyun Lee and Japan’s Izumi Shoma to Admiral, where opportunity might give them a chance to become the first players from their nations to appear in KHL hockey. Both represented their countries in the IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship program last season.
But the key thing for the head coach is not so much where players have arrived from, it’s where they are right now. “Every player and everyone working at the club needs to understand that Vladivostok is now our home,” he told the Regnum news agency. “It doesn’t matter where we’ve come from, our goal is to bring joy to the local fans. In the end we’re playing for them, and we will be proud to defend the colours that our supporters have chosen for our team.”
As for those supporters, expectations are modestly optimistic: “A successful season for Admiral would be one which leaves a positive impression on supporters,” said Lyutikov. Kraft added: “I’m expecting to see my team give everything on the ice.”