Matching Iron MikeHartley follows Mike Keenan into the record books. He’s now only the second North American to win the Russian championship, and also the second man to do the Stanley-Gagarin double as a coach after his 2001 triumphs with the Avalanche. In his third year in the KHL, he delivered a prize that Avangard has long dreamed of – and was visibly moved by the scenes after the final hooter.
“Just look at that [gestures towards the celebrations on the ice]. They say a picture is worth a million words, look at this,” he said
“We finished the year 3-on-5, that’s the image of our hockey club. Look at the number of blocked shots, look at the commitment. I’m so proud of this hockey club, so proud of this organization. You fans at home, this victory is for you.”
Born in Hawkesbury, Ontario, he cemented his status as an adopted son of Omsk with a few words of Russian: “Spasibo bolshoi, druzya! Omsky Avangard, KHL – otlichno!” (‘Thank you very much, my friends. Avangard Omsk and the KHL – it’s excellent!”
Revenge missionThis was the first Gagarin Cup final to be played since 2019, with last year’s edition cancelled due to the pandemic. And it was a rematch of that 2019 campaign, which CSKA won 4-0. After suffering that sweep, Hartley promised he would be up all night thinking of ways to beat the Army Men. And, as Avangard’s twitter pointed out, he kept that promise. “Bob Hartley thought about it. We won,” the club tweeted as the trophy was handed over.
There was also personal story. Sergei Tolchinski was a CSKA player during the 2018/19 campaign, but his play-off action came in the VHL with the farm club, Zvezda. After two underwhelming seasons in Moscow, he moved to Avangard and blossomed: 51 points in regular season and 20 more in the playoffs – including the only goal of Wednesday’s decisive victory. Tolchinski fired in a one-timer from the point after Finnish defenceman Oliwer Kaski darted around the back of CSKA’s net.
“I don’t know if it’s destiny or what, but the way it happened was just incredible,” he said. “I’m just happy that I got to experience something like this. I’m already out of things to say, I can’t even remember today’s goal, it’s like everything is in a fog, to be honest.”
Igor Nikitin, CSKA’s head coach, had no hard feelings despite releasing Tolchinski last summer. “We worked together for two years,” he said. “During the presentations, I congratulated him. He deserves this win.”
Nikitin is also part of the ties between these two clubs: he began his coaching career in 2008 behind the bench in Omsk, but was replaced by Raimo Summanen partway through the following season. Despite the disappointment of defeat, he was happy for his old club.
“I’m grateful to Omsk for everything they did for me,” he added. “My parents still live there, it’s not a strange place for me. But I’m also grateful for the chance to work at CSKA and I’m grateful to our guys.
“The better team won, that’s all. When people ask if our imports played badly, they’re not thinking before they speak. I’m proud of our team, but Omsk played better and that’s why Avangard won.”
ResilienceThroughout the season, CSKA was the goalie’s worst nightmare. Not because they peppered the net with shots, but because almost every inbound effort was a genuine threat. It wasn’t unusual to see four or five goals scored from barely 20 shots on goal, wrecking GAAs due to a game plan that relied on carving out high-quality chances.
In the final, Avangard forced all that to change. In game six, looking to save the series, CSKA had 81 attempts on goal. However, only 25 of them reached Czech international Simon Hrubec. The home defence blocked 39 efforts, several of them in the last four minutes as the team killed a 3-on-5 penalty. Damir Sharipzyanov, who later admitted to playing through injury, made three huge blocks during that final storm.
“Today is the best day of my life, the emotions are overwhelming and I still can’t quite believe it. Nobody believed in Avangard, but that gave us strength. People wrote us off back in the second round, but here we are and the cup is ours!”
As a club, Avangard is also coping with tough times. Its home arena in Omsk was closed three years ago due to structural problems. A new home is under construction, and is due to be ready ahead of the 2022/23 season and in time to serve as second venue for the 2023 IIHF World Junior Championship beside Novosibirsk. However, at present the team is playing in Balashikha, a town on the outskirts of Moscow, some 2,500 km away from southwestern Siberia. The fans still follow the team and celebrated it at its traditional home in Omsk.
“I’m thrilled, it goes without saying,” he told Championat.com. “All season the team worked for this and with each passing series we got stronger and more united. That brought us to the final in the kind of form that enabled us to win the cup. Nobody believed in Avangard this season, but that just gave us more motivation and added to our strength.
“Everything is much better, in a week or so I’ll be back to normal and I’ll continue my career. Of course I heard all the rumours going around during the series against Kazan, but that’s just muck-raking, something unthinkable. It shouldn’t happen. And yes, it was good that Avangard has two captains. It reassured the whole team. The guys were always in touch with me, messaging, calling, supporting me while I was in hospital.”
The triple Gagarin clubYemelin’s role as captain was taken over by Ilya Kovalchuk, who joined the club late in the season and was reunited with Hartley, who coached him in Atlanta. For Kovi, Yemelin, and also Ilya Kablukov and Maxim Chudinov, this was a third Gagarin Cup triumph. Yemelin was part of the Ak Bars team that won back-to-back titles in the first two years of the KHL, while Kablukov and Chudinov played on the same SKA team as Kovalchuk when it won in 2015 and 2017.
“In these circumstances, I needed to come in and not disrupt anything,” the 38-year-old said. “We had the best power play and the best PK in the league, but the big thing was that we built a team and we became a family.”
There were similarities between SKA’s 2015 triumph and Avangard’s victory this time. In both instances it was a long-awaited first Gagarin Cup and, on both occasions, the losing goalie was a record-breaking Swede. Six years ago, Anders Nilsson had six play-off shut-outs for Ak Bars, but could not prevent SKA winning the cup. This time, Lars Johansson broke that record, blanking seven opponents, but also finished as a runner-up.
However, Nikitin paid tribute to his goalie’s performance: “People say we didn’t have a superstar, but I believe this roster had every chance of winning. But that’s hockey. To win the playoffs, any team needs a goalie who stands on his head. And I think that Lars was great for us, that’s why we got to the final.”