Season of redemption?
by Lucas Aykroyd|16 NOV 2018
After a difficult IIHF World Championship debut in Denmark, Belarus goalie Ivan Kulbakov is getting a shot with the AHL's Utica Comets.
photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
In some ways, goalie Ivan Kulbakov symbolizes both the struggles and the hopes of Belarus in international hockey.

To say that this 22-year-old Gomel native had a rough introduction to the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship would be an understatement. He debuted with two straight starts at last spring’s tournament in Copenhagen, but was pulled after conceding four goals in the opening 5-0 loss to Sweden, the defending world champions, and again after allowing a pair in a 6-2 loss to France. Kulbakov wouldn’t see the net again.

Asked to reflect on what went wrong in May, Kulbakov can only laugh awkwardly: “It was good practice for me. Probably not good play by me, but good practice!”

Things went from bad to worse for the Belarusians. After they lost 6-0 to Russia, head coach Dave Lewis was relieved of his duties and replaced by assistant coach Sergei Pushkov. The official statement read: “Following a poor start of the Belarusian national team at the 2018 IIHF World Championship, the Belarusian Ice Hockey Federation and head coach Dave Lewis took a joint decision on the need for another specialist to head the team. Dave Lewis believes that the changes in the coaching staff can add a momentum necessary for the team to improve their performance.”

It was a shocker that evoked memories of Jukka Rautakorpi’s mid-tournament firing at the 2017 World Juniors in Montreal, where Finland finished ninth. Unfortunately, Kulbakov’s teammates couldn’t turn things around and lost their remaining four games. With a 15th-place finish, Belarus was relegated from the top division for the first time since coming 14th at the 2003 Worlds in Finland.

Is it fair to speculate that facing the Swedes right out of the gate set the wrong tone? It was the equivalent of a home game for coach Rikard Gronborg’s powerhouse, with Copenhagen just a short drive from southern Sweden. And three different Swedish lines victimized Kulbakov, reflecting Tre Kronor’s exceptional offensive depth.

However, this young HK Gomel product refuses to make excuses: “It’s not that it was hard. It was just a bad day. It’s OK!”

Regardless, now it’s time to look toward the future and seek redemption. Both Kulbakov and the Belarusian program are prepared to fight their way back up from the bottom.

Kulbakov signed a contract with the Utica Comets, the AHL affiliate of the Vancouver Canucks, in July. Although he was expected to spend most of 2018/19 with the ECHL’s Kalamazoo Wings, injuries have given him an opportunity.

This season, he sits fifth on Vancouver’s goaltending depth chart, behind Jacob Markstrom, Anders Nilsson (who backstopped Sweden to the 2018 World Championship title), Thatcher Demko, and Richard Bachman. Also, Michael DiPietro, whom the Canucks drafted in 2017 (third round, 64th overall), will likely start for Canada at the 2019 World Juniors in Vancouver. That’s a lot of competition in the crease.

However, Demko is recovering from a concussion and Bachman has been promoted to the NHL with Nilsson on injured reserve due to a fractured finger. So Kulbakov is currently Utica’s starter. In 11 games, he has a 3.34 GAA and 89.7 save percentage.

“Right now I have to work hard every day,” said Kulbakov, who worked with a goalie coach in the off-season, and got additional instruction from Canucks goalie coach Ian Clark, who returned to Vancouver after seven seasons with the Columbus Blue Jackets. Kulbakov is a big fan of Sergei Bobrovski, whom Clark helped to win two Vezina Trophies (2013, 2017). The Belarusian also split time last season between the Cleveland Monsters, Columbus’s AHL farm team, and the ECHL’s Quad City Mallards.

Meanwhile, Belarus will seek promotion to the elite division, not just at the senior level, but also at the U20 level. Belarus came last at the 2018 World Juniors in Buffalo after getting swept by Denmark in the best-of-three relegation series.

While the U20 team will battle for an immediate return next month in Fussen, Germany, the senior national team will play for promotion at the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A in the Kazakh capital of Astana next spring.

Admittedly, this former Soviet republic is not producing talent at the rate it did in the 1990s and 2000s. For instance, when Belarus shocked Sweden with a 4-3 quarter-final upset at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, it had all-star caliber goaltending from Andrei Mezin, rock-solid two-way defence from the late Ruslan Salei, and veteran NHL experience from forward Vladimir Tsyplakov, to name just a few examples.

Yet there is hope. Some young Belarusian prospects have been selected in recent NHL drafts, such as towering defenceman Stepan Falkovski (2016, seventh round, 186th overall to Calgary) and shifty forward Maxim Sushko (2017, fourth round, 107th overall to Philadelphia).

Kulbakov believes that Yegor Sharangovich, who led Belarus in scoring at the last World Juniors (3-2-5), could become an impact player. A 20-year-old New Jersey prospect (2018, fifth round, 141st overall) who has two Worlds and two World Juniors under his belt, the ex-Dynamo Minsk centre is making his North American debut this year with the AHL’s Binghamton Devils.

“He’s my good friend,” Kulbakov said with a smile. “I’m speaking for him today! He’s a good guy, and he’s good enough to play over here. He’s great.”

The 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship will be co-hosted by Minsk, the capital of Belarus, and Riga, the capital of Latvia. Hockey is a priority in Belarus: the 2014 Worlds in Minsk set a then-attendance record of 640,044. And according to Kulbakov, Belarusian fans should feel confident that their boys will bounce back before the 2021 tournament arrives.

“It’s time. Hopefully! It was a bad season last season for the national team, but everybody is going to come back and play hard.”