May 23, 2021

KHL Victor Crowned

KHL Victor Crowned
You know a league has made it when it has its own Monopoly game. Amanda Shirnina

It is truly beautiful to watch a winning team in the immediate afterglow of the championship-clinching game. Both fists of the winning coach fly into the air. If we're talking hockey, the skaters on the bench flood over the boards, onto the ice, and into a pile of humanity.

Even if it is not your team—as long as your team was not on the losing end of the match—the pure joy on the faces of the players and coaches is an inspiring sight to behold.

Omsk Hawks Arena
Enter this arena only at your own peril! | Wikimedia Commons user Shipulin2020

This time, it was Omsk's top hockey team, Avangard (Vanguard), throwing their fists into the air. The club was founded in 1950, and its mascot is the Hawk. Its championship-winning captain and most famous player, Ilya Kovalchuk—a former NHLer—was the first player to skate the Gagarin Cup around the ice to the sound of "We Are the Champions." The Omsk head coach was one Bob Hartley, a French-Canadian and former NHL coach.

Every spring, the best teams in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) battle for the Gagarin Cup—yet another way the memory of the Soviet space hero never dies in modern Russia.

Omsk Arena Interior
The view from inside the Hawk. | Wikimedia Commons user Ofsimnupi

The KHL is the successor to the Russian Superleague, which lasted from 1996 to 2008 and was itself the successor to the Soviet Championship League. The lowest-ranked teams in the Superleague were demoted at the end of each season to the Higher League (Vysshaya Liga), creating some chaos in the league's identity and continuity. The league's rebranding as the KHL was part of a campaign to make Russian hockey similar to the United States and Canada's NHL. Former Russian minister of sport (2002-2008), Viacheslav Fetisov, who had played for the New Jersey Devils and the Detroit Red Wings, played a critical role in NHL-izing the Russian game.

Today, the KHL abounds with non-Russian players. Eighteen of the league's twenty-three teams are located in Russian cities; the other five are in Minsk, Belarus; Riga, Latvia; Helsinki, Finland; Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan (formerly known as Astana); and Beijing, China. In contrast to the drab affair that was a Nizhny Novgorod Torpedo game in 2005 (see photograph below), Russian hockey arenas in 2021 resemble – and even surpass in some ways – the spectacle of NHL hockey.

Nizhny Novgorod Arena Interior
Don't upset the guard by having too much fun!; at a Nizhny Novgorod Torpedo game, 2005. | Amanda Shirnina

The KHL has a dedicated television channel and produces team magazines. Cheerleaders mingle among the crowd, along with dressed-up mascots. The last names on the jerseys are written in English to both attract non-Russian spectators and reflect the fact that the league's teams are not limited to Russia.

As in the NHL, the KHL holds four playoff series rounds to determine a winner: conference quarterfinals (sixteen teams), conference semifinals (eight teams), conference finals (four teams), and cup final (two teams). Each series is a best-of-seven affair, making watching hockey more of a commitment than, say, the NFL Super Bowl. The Gagarin Cup sat in the arena at ice level guarded by two men for the entire final series, as if tempting both teams to play their best.

Gagarin Cup
To infinity and beyond! | GennadyL,Wikimedia Commons

The final series began with a goal by Omsk, a harbinger of things to come. Perhaps Omsk won the cup because it has a player named Kirill Gotovets (meaning ready or ready-made), who is always ready for anything. In the final Game 6, Omsk led 1-0, while its opponent, Moscow TsKA, kept the pressure on until the final horn sounded.

The winning captain, Ilya Kovalchuk, has played in the NHL for the Atlanta Thrashers, New Jersey Devils, Los Angeles Kings, Montréal Canadiens, and Washington Capitals. He was drafted first overall in the 2001 NHL draft. Although a great player, Kovalchuk seems not to have much club loyalty and has bounced back and forth between North American and Russian teams throughout his career. Two days after winning the Gagarin Cup with Omsk, he terminated his contract with the club—a mutual decision. His face has already disappeared from Avangard's online roster.

Ilya Kovalchuk
A stylish Ilya Kovalchuk. / Дмитрий Садовников, Wikimedia Commons

Bob Hartley, the French-Canadian coach of Omsk, graciously said in an interview after the clinching game: "We just beat an unbelievable hockey club!" A reporter capturing the post-game euphoria told Hartley, in English, "Say something in Russian!" His response humorously captures his current grasp of the Russian language: "Spasibo bolshoe, druzya! Omsk i Avangard. KHL – otlichno!" ("Thank you so much, friends! Omsk and Avangard. KHL – excellent!") His players either know English well or struggle to keep up with his instructions!

Hartley, whose first language is French despite his anglophone-sounding name, coached NHL teams Colorado Avalanche, Atlanta Thrashers, and Calgary Flames. In Calgary, he won the coach of the year award (Jack Adams Award) in 2015 before being fired a year later over a terrible string of losses. He became the head coach of the Latvian national team before landing in Omsk.

At the parade through the streets of central Omsk a few days after victory, fans displayed a big banner for Hartley reading, in the Cyrillic alphabet, "Gud dzhob" ("Good job").

SKA Shop Gagarin
Hockey loves Gagarin...for some the SKA St. Petersburg team store. / Amanda Shirnina

Frankly, we are happy to see Not-Moscow win. The bulk of the league's money is in Moscow and St. Petersburg, where it is far more likely that TsKA, Dynamo, or Spartak (of Moscow), or SKA (of St. Petersburg) will be able to buy the best Russian and foreign players – and frankly, keep them from playing in the NHL.

A few days after Omsk won the championship, Russia started celebrating another hockey event, the Night League Hockey Festival, in Sochi. This year marked the event's tenth anniversary. The amateur Night Hockey League consists of 970 teams and 19,000 players across Russia, including a women's "Amazon" division.

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