CSKA awarded Russian title
by Andy Potts|04 JUL 2020
Mario Kempe, Kirill Kaprizov and Anton Slepyshev celebrate a goal for CSKA Moscow during the 2019/2020 season that ended during the playoffs due to the COVID-19 pandemic but still saw the team get awarded the Russian title.
photo: Vladimir Fedorenko / RIA Novosti
CSKA Moscow is Russia’s champion once again – despite being unable to complete the 2019/20 season. The Army Men, winners of last season’s Gagarin Cup, finished top of the regular season table in 2020 and progressed to the second round of the KHL’s playoffs before the coronavirus pandemic forced a halt to the action.

The KHL decided some weeks ago that it would not attempt to award the Gagarin Cup to any team, choosing instead to rank the eight teams still in the playoffs equally and award places 9-24 in its usual fashion. However, the Russian Hockey Federation (FHR), was still keen to announce a national champion, and ranked all of the Russian teams in the competition. The Muscovites came out on top ahead of joint runners-up Ak Bars Kazan and SKA St. Petersburg. Dynamo Moscow was awarded the bronze medal for its campaign.

A statement from the FHR, issued Friday, explained how it compiled its final table based on the regular season and the first round of the playoffs. The top six places went to the six Russian clubs that won through the opening stage of post season. They were then ranked according to the points they amassed in the regular season. The subsequent positions, 7-18, were awarded based on the regular season placings.

CSKA, as regular season champion, defeated Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod in the first round of the playoffs and thus retained top spot under the new system. SKA and Ak Bars were tied on points, games won and head-to-head meetings, and therefore shared second place. Dynamo finished fifth in the regular season, one point behind Avangard Omsk. However, the Blue-and-Whites defeated Spartak in the opening round of the playoffs, while the Hawks went down to Salavat Yulayev Ufa, so Dynamo takes bronze for the season.

Army joy

The news was greeted enthusiastically at CSKA. The club can now claim back-to-back Russian championships after winning last season’s Gagarin Cup. Indeed, this is the third time the Army Men have taken the prize in the KHL era: back in 2015, after topping the regular season table, CSKA was awarded the title of Russian Champion – the first and only time that honour went to the regular season champ rather than the Gagarin Cup winner. 

Amid the celebrations, though, defenceman Bogdan Kiselevich admitted that the team would prefer to have won its medals on the ice.

“Of course, all the guys are happy that at the end of this incomplete season, CSKA gets the gold medals,” he told the club website. “It makes up for the way the season ended, even though we all really wanted to repeat last year’s [Gagarin Cup] success. I hope that we won’t see any repeat of the events that forced this season to finish early.

“We want to win our medals and cups on the ice with the support of our Army fans.”

Forward Anton Slepyshev added: “It’s pretty cool that I’ve played two years with CSKA and won two Russian championships. It’s a reward for our work and it’s a credit to the whole CSKA family – the coaches, the team staff, the players and the fans.

“I’m really pleased for our supporters, who were left without hockey at the business end of the season; now they can celebrate and proudly say ‘We are the champions!’. Now I want to extend our winning run.”

The club president, Igor Yesmantovich, hit back at critics who suggested that there could be no Russian champion unless the Gagarin Cup was awarded.

“We prepared to play a full season but, unfortunately, the pandemic halted our attempts to win a second Gagarin Cup,” he told RIA Novosti. “We understand why the championship had to be determined like this and we are happy with the outcome because the club deserves it.

“Although many sceptics say that you can’t be a champion of Russia without winning the Gagarin Cup, CSKA has always been categorically opposed to that philosophy.

“We understand very well that the regular season and the Gagarin Cup are very different sporting challenges and, in effect, are two separate tournaments. We won the regular season, got through the first round of the playoffs and were gearing up to win every game we could. And I think that’s enough to show that the Federation has made the correct decision.”

Mixed reactions

However, past players had conflicting responses to the news. Andrei Nikolishin, a 1993 World Champion whose career began with Dynamo and took in spells at CSKA and SKA, criticised the decision.

“It’s wrong to start the season with one set of rules and finish it with another,” he told Championat.com. “In these circumstances, there shouldn’t be a final ranking of the teams. The whole world is dealing with a pandemic, what does the final table matter? We should be fighting against coronavirus, not puzzling out placings. Is it fair to base the entire outcome on the regular season? Of course not! There’s no need for any kind of league table, it’s meaningless. It would be better to accept the situation for what it is.”

But Pavel Bure, whose entire Russian career, bar one game, was played with CSKA, supported the FHR’s decision. Speaking before the Federation announced its verdict, the three-time Rocket Richard trophy winner told Interfax: “A Russian champion should be decided. Sure, we couldn’t award the Gagarin Cup. But we shouldn’t just dump the season in the trashcan of history.

“The teams battled against each other, the players worked hard, they gave their all to entertain the fans until the season had to stop. I think it’s right to award prizes from this year’s championship. Maybe it wouldn’t be entirely fair based purely on the regular season, but we also completed one round of the playoffs. If you combine those results, it might be enough to determine an entirely objective winner.”