Drozdov dreaming of Minsk ‘21
by Andy Potts|28 MAY 2020
Ivan Drozdov - here during the 2018 World Juniors - will have to wait for his senior IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship. Maybe on home ice in 2021?
photo: Andrea Cardin / HHOF-IIHF Images
Ivan Drozdov was the scoring sensation of the Belarusian playoffs. His 19-point haul shattered a long-standing record and helped Yunost Minsk win the President’s Cup in the only European league to complete its season.

Circumstances robbed the 20-year-old prospect of a likely World Championship debut in Switzerland – but the buzz around this Vitebsk-born youngster suggests he could be one of the talking points on home ice next year when Minsk and Riga, the capitals of Belarus and Latvia respectively, will host the Worlds together.

Learning from Grabovski

Despite his youth, Drozdov is not lacking in experience. He played his first pro hockey in his hometown at the age of 15 and appeared in four World Championships at U18 and U20 level before his 20th birthday. Last season, in Fussen, Germany, he was among the leading scorers with 7 (4+3) points in five games, disrupting the host nation’s stranglehold on the top spots in the scoring race and holding his own alongside German first-round draft picks Dominik Bokk and Moritz Seider.

He also has a burgeoning reputation in the KHL, helped by Dynamo Minsk’s increased commitment to icing younger players. Minsk head coach Craig Woodcroft pointed out at the end of the season that the club had never before relied so heavily on its juniors – but for Drozdov it was about more than just game time.

“It was my second season playing for Dynamo and my ice time did increase significantly,” he said. “But it was not even about how much ice time was given to me and other young guys. The main thing is that we received additional coaching, there was a constant focus on developing individual qualities and skills. It means a lot when a Belarusian hockey legend like Mikhail Grabovski shows you a trick.”

It was a tough season for Dynamo with the team struggling at the foot of the KHL. As a result, Drozdov’s tally of 5 (2+3) points is not immediately impressive when compared with, for example, the dramatic emergence of youngsters at SKA St. Petersburg. However, at SKA, Alexei Kudashov has the luxury of integrating the kids into a flourishing team, backed up with bemedaled international stars. In Minsk, Woodcroft was asked to manage a change of generations, with fewer high-profile players than before and a greater focus on young Belarusian talent.

“The young players were trusted at Dynamo and, I believe, it was good for us,” Drozdov added “By the end of the season the progress was noticeable. The process of succession of generations is gradually taking place, I hope we will not be worse than our predecessors.

“Probably the most important thing for an ice hockey player is the trust of the coach. If you are not given a chance to play, it is very difficult to show what you are capable of. This was not the case with Craig: he was not afraid to let young players on the ice, he always found time for additional work with us.”

Yunost’s triumph

At the end of the season, back at Dynamo’s farm club, Yunost, there was a blaze of glory. Drozdov dominated as his team secured its ninth playoff triumph. And, as hockey around the globe slowly ground to a halt, there was even more attention on events in Belarus as Yunost defeated Shakhtyor Soligorsk in the Grand Final. Was that an extra inspiration for the young forward?

“I would phrase it differently: I was not inspired, but I felt an increased responsibility,” Drozdov said. “The playoffs are always a special tournament, especially when you play in the team that has such great traditions and sets itself only the highest possible goals. In addition, I represented Dynamo Minsk in the Belarusian national championship, I knew that the coaches of the main team were watching me. It was important to show my best hockey.”

This time, his ‘best hockey’ meant smashing Andrei Kostitsyn’s long-standing record as the top-scoring junior in Belarusian play-off action. And by a big margin. Kostitsyn set his mark in 2004 when he returned from CSKA Moscow to pot 8 (4+4) points with Yunost. Drozdov had 19 (4+15) points. You have to go back to experienced Ukrainian international Oleg Shafarenko in 2014 to match that tally.

His success didn’t go unnoticed among the coaches at Dynamo. Head coach Woodcroft was encouraged to see Drozdov’s progress during the season come to fruition at Yunost.

“I think that this season Ivan made a big step forward with Dynamo,” Woodcroft told hockey.by. “He was one of the bright spots for the coaches at the end of the season. We worked on him as a player and we saw a noticeable increase in his hockey IQ. In addition, you can’t fail to notice his increased technical skills as a forward.”

Meanwhile, Dmitri Dudik, Drozdov’s first coach at Vitsebsk, was impressed with the development of his former charge. As the forward exploded in the playoff semi-final against Dynamo Molodechno, his former coach noticed a new aggression in the youngster’s game.

“Look how he went to the near post and battled hard, despite his small size,” Dudik told hockey.by. “It was really good to see him playing that kind of hockey. I’ve known Ivan’s game for a long time, but in those play-offs even I was surprised by the number of points he got by playing hard.

“And Drozdov’s success is more significant because it came against the top teams in the play-offs. It’s good to see Ivan maintain his standards, it shows that things are not all bad in Belarusian hockey.” 

Dreaming of 2021

And Belarusian hockey is in need of a boost. The shock of relegation from the top division in 2018 after a calamitous campaign in Copenhagen hit hard; promotion as Division IA runner-up a year later in Nur-Sultan only began to ease the blow. Drozdov was close to a call-up for that tournament: an impressive showing at the World Juniors saw him join the Belarusian camp ahead of the World Championship. In the event, he featured in some exhibition games but did not make the final roster in Kazakhstan. One year on, back at camp, Drozdov was the focus of greater media interest than before after his playoff feats – but the COVID-19 pandemic denied him a chance to go to the Worlds, or to play in the Final Olympic Qualification in the summer, which was moved to 2021.

As one door closes, though, another opens. Potentially, Drozdov could make his World Championship debut next May on home ice in Minsk as Belarus hosts the tournament for the second time in its history. That’s an exciting prospect.

“It’s fair to say that this is my dream,” Drozdov added. “If I do a good job and am ready, the World Championship in Minsk may be my first top-level tournament at the senior level. And there is no doubt this will be a serious push for ice hockey development in Belarus, as we saw after the 2014 IIHF Worlds, when ice hockey enjoyed a remarkable boom in our country.”

As a teenager with high hopes of a career in hockey, Drozdov has fond memories of going to the 2014 championship – the first time his homeland staged an international tournament on this level.

“I have the best memories of this World Championship, the emotions were very vivid,” he said. “I still remember almost all the matches that I had a chance to watch. It was cool that the Belarusian national team played well in front of its fans and reached the quarter-finals. It was a special moment for the whole country.”

In a year’s time, maybe Drozdov will be on the ice to help his country repeat that achievement.