Champs from another island
by Martin Merk|14 MAR 2019
The PSK Sakhalin players celebrate their first Asia League title in club history.
photo: Reiji Nagayama
The Asia League has a new champion. After winners that previously came from either Japan or Korea, the new champion is PSK Sakhalin from the Russian island north of Japan.

Sakhalin won all three games of the best-of-five final series against the Nippon Paper Cranes, for whom Thursday’s game was the last since the owner, the Nippon Paper Industries Co., had previously announced to shut down the team with a 70-year old history and four Asia League titles, most recently in 2014, and are looking for a new owner.

The history of PSK Sakhalin in hockey is not as old. The multi-sport club on the island of Sakhalin joined the Asia League in 2014 where it played well but lacked success in the deciding games. In 2016 and in 2017 it lost the final series and last year it became regular-season winner for the first time before being eliminated in the semi-finals.

This time things were better for Sakhalin. They finished the regular season in second place and beat defending champion Anyang Halla from Korea 3-1 in the semi-finals. The Nippon Paper Cranes were fourth and had to play a qualification series against the Oji Eagles, which they won 2-1, before facing regular season winner Daemyung Killer Whales. The scored an upset against the Korean team by winning the series 3-0.

The best-of-five final series started with two games in Kushiro on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido before moving to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk for the remaining games. But PSK Sakhalin made it quick with two wins on the road during the weekend, 2-1 and 5-2, before 3,000 fans in Kushiro.

On Thursday 1,402 fans filled the small arena in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk to the last seat hoping to see their team win the championship but for a long time it didn’t look like that. After 35 scoreless minutes Shinnosuke Kato opened the scoring for the Cranes. With two seconds left in the period Shogo Nakajima made it 2-0 on a power play and 33 seconds into the third Kento Suzuki gave the Japanese guests a three-goal lead.

However, Sakhalin didn’t give up. Maxim Yushkov scored just 21 seconds later and Denis Kovalyov cut the deficit to 3-2 at 11:40. The Russians pushed for the equalizer and with 56 seconds left in regulation time Artyom Sursov tied the game at three. Vitali Zatsepilin scored the championship-clinching goal at 19:11 of the overtime period.

Sakhalin thus became the first Russian team to win the Asia League. The other clubs in the eight-team league come from Japan and Korea. Previously teams from China competed as well.

Sakhalin won the championship in its fifth season in the league. It was originally founded as Morskie Lvy in 2013 but changed its name to PSK Sakhalin with PSK standing for professional sports club since it also has a men’s football and women’s volleyball team competing in Russia.

Ice hockey at this level has limited tradition on Russia’s Pacific islands but the opening of the Sport Palace Kristall in 2013 opened new possibilities in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, the biggest city on the island with about 180,000 inhabitants.

While there are local amateur players in other teams on the island, the PSK Sakhalin players all started their hockey career in mainland Russia including a few players from Russia’s traditional Far East hockey city of Khabarovsk such as Mikhail Klimchuk, who played two years in Russia’s top league with Amur Khabarovsk and was one of the best scorers for Sakhalin.

After years of dreaming about winning the trophy the dream of winning the Asia League has finally become true. After a 19-15 winning record in the regular season Sakhalin made it surprisingly clear with a 6-1 record in the playoffs.

While the season is over for the Sakhalin player, it will continue for many players from the Japanese and Korean club teams.

The Korean national team will play in the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A in Astana, Kazakhstan, end of April while Japan competes one tier below in the Division I Group B in Tallinn, Estonia.