FRIBOURG, Switzerland – Wherever Vyacheslav Bykov played in his career he won gold. In the Soviet Union, the European Cup, the World Championship, the Olympics. Just not in Switzerland. Now his son Andrei is close to this missing piece to the family’s medal collection.
It was in 1990 after the fall of the Iron Curtain when the hockey careers of Vyacheslav Bykov and his “twin” Andrei Khomutov brought the Chelyabinsk-born duo from CSKA Moscow to Fribourg-Gottéron.
Bykov was arguably the most skilled player in the Swiss National League A in the ‘90s. During his time in the NLA from 1990 to 1998, the two Russian “magicians” led the team to two regular-season titles and three finals. They inspired thousands of fans and future hockey players in the city of 36,000 inhabitants, a similar effect to what Wayne Gretzky had with the L.A. Kings when he moved from Edmonton to California in 1988.
Once Fribourg lost to archrival SC Bern in these finals, twice against EHC Kloten. Until this day Gottéron fans have been waiting for the first Swiss championship, as has the Bykov family. But there’s a possibility this could change.
Andrei Bykov, born in Moscow in 1988 as the son of Vyacheslav, grew up in Fribourg and has been playing for no other club than Fribourg-Gottéron. In December 2005 he had his first game with the senior team as a 17-year-old. That’s also when he started to represent Switzerland in one U18 and two U20 World Championships as well as in exhibition games with the men’s national team in the last three years.
For most of his career Andrei has been seen as “Slava’s son”. Genetic similarities cannot be dismissed when looking at the young Bykov, his technical style of play, his skating and agility. And same as his father, he’s not among the biggest players in the dressing room in terms of size. Bykov stands at 173 cm (5’8”), as does his father.
Since Vyacheslav Bykov returned to Switzerland from Russia, where he was coaching the national team, Salavat Yulayev Ufa and CSKA Moscow, he now follows his son more closely.
“It’s nice that he has the possibility of seeing me play what hasn’t been possible that often in the past,” Andrei said about his father. “But he also knows that he’s not my coach. That’s why he doesn’t tell me all the time what to do. He’s a really cool dad.”
More and more Andrei Bykov has been skating out of his father’s long shadow, building his own legacy as he goes.
This season, the 25-year-old centre has scored 17 goals and collected 44 assists in 58 games, earning the top scorer title of his team after the regular season and 16 years after his father did last time. In Switzerland this means to become highly visible not only skill-wise but also by wearing a special jersey and helmet in the yellow colour of the league’s main sponsor.
Not such long time ago Gottéron fans worshipped the Russian twins. Today their equivalent is a trio of Swiss national team players with Andrei Bykov and his wingers Julien Sprunger and Benny Plüss.
“I have the fortune that I have Julien and Benny on my line, they do a good job for me,” he said, praising his teammates. “We are a nice family in the dressing room. I’m proud to be able to battle for this team together with these teammates.”
After mediocre years following the Bykov/Khomutov era that was accompanied by financial trouble, the club is now back among the top teams.
The finances are back in the black also thanks to sponsoring money from companies close to the regional authorities.
The ancient-looking St-Léonard ice rink has been gradually upgraded and the attendance figures have grown to the numbers the club had in the ‘90s. The last 12 games – and 25 out of 33 home games this season – have been sold out with 6,700 fans.
Instead of missing the play-offs like in the mid-2000s, Fribourg reached third place in 2012 and won the regular season in 2013. And for the first time in 19 years the team reached the final series, after a troublesome quarter-final series where Fribourg won 4-3 against underdog EHC Biel before eliminating defending champions ZSC Lions Zurich 4-1 in the semi-finals.
It’s a different team compared to the era of Vyacheslav Bykov. Head coach Hans Kossmann combines the more physical hockey culture of Canada, where he grew up, and the German-speaking area of Switzerland his ancestors came from, with the more skill-based hockey culture adored in the Romandie, the French-speaking part of the country where he spent most of his career as a player and coach.
This could turn out to be a perfect mix since Fribourg is a bilingual (though more francophone) city just a 30-minute drive away from Berne, the country’s capital. It’s also the home city of the team’s arch-rivals, SC Bern. In the often heated matchups between the two teams, players on the ice and sometimes even the fans off the ice clash in a reminder of the medieval battles that occurred between these two regions many centuries ago.
When the two teams met in the finals in 1992, neutralizing Bykov/Khomutov was on top of the to-do list of SC Bern, with its trademark rough style of play that was criticized by Fribourg while Bern was equally complaining about penalties using phrases like “monument protection” for the opponent’s superstars. The league even resorted to referees from Germany including Gerhard Lichtnecker, now Referee-in-Chief in Germany and Referee Supervisor in many IIHF tournaments, to calm the critics.
“I don’t remember the days of my father so well but it’s cool that we’re now in a similar situation, although we don’t talk about it that often,” Andrei Bykov said.
Also the start of this year’s final series was full of emotion. Enforcers on both sides had their work cut out for them, but eventually SC Bern got the break on the opponent’s ice in a 4-1 win because the “Bears”, coached by Finnish world champion Antti Törmänen, capitalized better on their scoring chances than the local “Dragons”.
Will Fribourg be able to fight back or will SC Bern win the title after having lost last year’s final series in seven games to the ZSC Lions Zurich?
“We showed in the regular season that we have the means to beat everybody. Now we know that we have to be harder and more physical,” Bykov said.
The series, labelled as “Zähringer Derby” – named after the noble founding family of both cities –, continues with game two in Berne on Saturday.