Proud and poignant

BLR - SWE stirs up many emotions

22.05.2014
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Oleg Khmyl, Andrei Mezin and Vladimir Kopat celebrate after scoring an historic 4-3 quarter-final upset for Belarus over Sweden at the 2002 Olympics. Mezin still plays for this year’s host in Minsk. Photo: Mike Blake / Reuters

As Belarus gets set to face off with Sweden, Minsk is celebrating happy memories of that famous 2002 triumph - and paying tribute to an absent friend.

Visitors to Minsk often reflect that the Belarusian capital feels like a wave of nostalgia. Its wide, clean streets are free of the traffic jams that stifle most of Europe’s capitals; its imposing facades are relatively unsullied by corporate logos and life has a slightly gentler pace.

But as the national hockey team carries the hopes of 10 million Belarusians into battle against Sweden in Thursday’s quarter-final there’s only one moment of recent history that is capturing the local imagination: February 20, 2002.

That was the date when Belarusian hockey came of age, thanks to a shock Olympic victory in the quarter-finals. The victim? A star-studded Swedish roster.

For the current crop of players donning the red sweaters of Belarus, the events of 12 years ago are a vivid memory.

Oleg Yevenko, a defenceman making his first World Championship appearance, was only 11 when Vladimir Kopat’s crazy shot from centre ice somehow bounced off Tommy Salo’s head and handed the rank outsider a stunning 4-3 win over the Tre Kronor.

Like most of his countrymen he was at home, glued to the action. “I remember watching it all on TV,” he said. “It was a great feeling and everyone was really proud. It was such a huge event and it would be incredible to do it again. It would make everyone really happy.”

However, memories of past Belarusian glory are tinged with sadness as well as great pride. The loss of Ruslan Salei, the only NHLer among the class of 2002, is still deeply felt in this country.

Salei was one of 43 who were killed in the Yaroslavl air tragedy in 2011 when the Lokomotiv team plane crashed on take-off as it headed for a game at Dynamo Minsk.

Fans still wear jerseys and bring banners with his number, 24, and the current roster remembers their absent comrade as an inspiration.

Vladimir Denisov played as stand-in captain in the final group stage game against Russia, but for him, and the rest of the team, there’s only one true leader.

“It’s like [regular captain] Alexei Kalyuzhny says, we only have one captain on this team, and that’s Rus,” he said. “It’s kinda tough to be captain after him. It’s not easy to talk about.

“We’re all playing for him. I hope he can see how we are playing and I hope he’s smiling right now about our games. He helps a lot for us.”

You don’t need to be born and raised in Belarus to feel the warmth with which Salt Lake City is still regarded here. Kevin Lalande, the team’s Canadian-born goalie didn’t see the game first time around, but he’s been brought up to speed since coming to Minsk in 2011.

“They like to bring it up once in a while,” he smiled. “I didn’t see the game at the time, I was maybe a bit too young, but I’ve seen the video.

“I think our group will take a lot of pride in that game when we go out on Thursday. It’s not just an important game for our team, but for the country as a whole.”

Head coach Glen Hanlon, another Canadian-born member of the team, has led Belarus to the World Championship quarter-finals in each of his three stints behind the bench here.

And, in each of those stints he’s been bombarded with questions about Vladimir Krikunov’s warriors and that Salt Lake special.

“In Belarus I always get asked two questions – the one about Salt Lake City, and whether I can sing the national anthem,” he said. “I must have answered that one about 50 times since I started out here.”

There’s a hint of affectionate exasperation as Hanlon answers the question one more time: “It was a great game for Belarus, for Vladimir Kopat and for coach Krikunov. Andrei Mezin was the player of the game and it happened on February 20, which is my birthday.”

Hanlon doesn’t celebrate a birthday when Belarus plays Sweden in its latest quarter-final but a home win would confirm a best-ever World Championship result – and could kick-start an even bigger party.

ANDY POTTS

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