This year’s Belarusian championship attracted greater attention than ever. Against a background of cancelled championships and tournaments throughout the hockey world, Belarus was the only country to complete its top men’s league. Last week the country’s hockey-loving president, Alexander Lukashenko, told a reporter from ONT Television after playing in an amateur tournament himself: “Why would I [stop going on the ice]? I don’t understand! There’s no virus here ... It’s a fridge, it’s the best thing for health. Sport, especially on ice, is the best remedy against any virus.”
That means no lockdown in Belarus. The country hasn’t closed its borders (although many of its neighbours did), shops are open, ice hockey continued according to schedule and with fans allowed and the football league just started as well after a winter break. The government hasn’t seen measures as west or east of the country necessary for Belarus.
Many players also welcomed the decision to complete the playoffs. Soligorsk forward Roman Krikunenko talked about the sudden interest in the tournament after his team reached the final. “I’ve heard there are people in America who want to buy Shakhtyor merchandise, but as far as I know it’s only available at our rink,” he told championat.com. “But it’s a good thing for Belarusian hockey that we didn’t stop playing. Now we’re seeing more interest around the world.”
Yunost forward Vsevolod Kashkar was also happy that his team had the chance to complete a victorious season. “It’s good that we finished the season and didn’t stop playing,” he told hockey.by after the final. “In other countries they had to award the cup to the winner of the regular season, so it’s great that we were able to finish the play-offs here. I think we deserved the President’s Cup.”
The play-offs went ahead in front of spectators and most games in the final series attracted crowds of 850-900 fans in Minsk or up to around 2,000 in small but full arenas at the smaller cities. Only the last game in the series suffered a drop in numbers, with 239 spectators at Minsk’s Chizhovka Arena to see Yunost claim the title. Due to the fear of the virus people voluntarily start to stay home despite no such rules in place.
The road to the titleYunost, for so long led by Mikhail Zakharov, underwent a change at the start of the season when the veteran head coach was succeeded by Alexander Makritski. The 48-year-old had previously worked as assistant to Alexander Andrievski in the KHL with Sibir Novosibirsk but he had some big shoes to fill when Zakharov was put in charge of the national team and Makritski was asked to replace a man who won eight Belarusian titles with Yunost.
But the new man responded well to the challenge, leading Yunost into the knock-out stages of the Champions Hockey League for the first time in the club’s history and topping the regular season table. The playoffs began with a six-game series against Lokomotiv Orsh, followed by a 4-1 win over Dynamo Molodechno in the semi-final. That set up the final showdown against Soligorsk.
The Miners came into the series after a gruelling seven-game battle against Neman Grodno and struggled in game one. A 5-1 loss at Chizhovka hinted at a short-lived series, but Shakhtyor hit back to tie it up in game two. The first action in Soligorsk proved to be a turning point. The teams were locked at 1-1 after 60 minutes, but a Mikhail Stefanovich goal gave Yunost the overtime verdict and set the Minsk team on its way to a ninth title. A shutout from Igor Brikun secured a 3-0 win as Yunost tightened its grip on the series and Makritski’s team had the chance to wrap it up on home ice.
That decisive game was tense. Stanislav Lopachuk gave Yunost an early lead on a delayed penalty, but Shakhtyor was determined to bring the series back to Soligorsk. Alexander Zhidkikh tied it up at the start of the second. Yunost regained the lead but missed a great chance to take a firm grip on the game when Vsevolod Kashkar missed a penalty shot early in the third. The chance was created by Ivan Drozdov, a 20-year-old forward who led the playoff scoring with 19 (5+14) points, just one shy of the Belarusian post season record.
Pushed onto the defensive, Yunost allowed a tying goal on another delayed penalty late in the game as Roman Krikunenko gave Shakhtyor hope of extending its season. But the home team regrouped and Maxim Parfeyevets scored the overtime winner to clinch the title.
Goal scorer Stefanovich, who collected his fourth championship medal, admitted that the occasion played on the team’s nerves in that third period.
“Our game didn’t flow today,” he told pressball.by. “We were 2-1 and we played too defensively. We got an idea into our heads that we needed to sit down and hold that scoreline, and it cost us a goal. Before overtime we had a serious talk and eventually put it right.”
The 33-year-old also admitted that the celebrations were somewhat muted this time.
More to come?Head coach Makritski is already eager for more after a successful debut with Yunost.
“This has been the best season in Yunost’s history,” he said in the post-game press conference. “We won everything in Belarus – the Salei Cup, the regular season and now the President’s Cup. And we went further than ever before in the Champions Hockey League.
“There is always room to grow and there is no limit to perfection – in any event, it’s impossible to stand still. We need to keep moving forward and developing, both as a club and as a team. And that’s true for each player individually, the process is endless.
“As for the Champions League, I absolutely believe that we could have gone even further this season, but for a few little details. Let’s see what we can do in the future.”
However, the club’s acting deputy chairman, Alexei Torbin sounded a note of caution. “Of course, we’d love to keep this team together,” he told TV channel Belarus 5. “But there are good reasons why we won’t be able to do that. Several players have already signed contracts in the KHL so, in any event, we will definitely lose some of the guys.”
‘Silver is as good as gold’Soligorsk head coach Yuri Faikov was happy with the way his team overcame difficult circumstances to reach the final. Throughout the playoffs, Faikov had talked of the difficulties of managing with a small roster, especially pertinent when Yunost added nine players from Dynamo Minsk once the KHL campaign came to a close.
“We have much to be proud of,” Faikov said after the game. “Given the circumstances we faced this season, a silver medal is as good as gold for us. We didn’t just get 150% out of the guys, we got 200%.
“Next season we need to do a good job in recruiting players. Of course, to win the title we need a roster like Yunost’s. It’s hard to compete when the only changes you can make are swapping someone from the second line to the first.”