Fulfilling the league’s potential.

By Jake Dole
Since 1946, hockey has taken over as the sort of competition which, to this day, familiarizes other nations with Russia and its system of sporting procedure. Until the fall of the Soviet Union, the system was extremely successful(although somewhat inhumane), which was evident with the enjoyed success of the “Sbornaja” clubs for more than 3 decades. Although, the system had its flaws, the secret lay within the strict development of youth to ensure the country’s athletic prosperity and assure consequent triumphs.

With the upcoming winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah, one can only wonder if the nation can realistically compete for gold. Whether or not the problem lies within the apparent shortage of hockey youth, an argument can be made that unlike in the late 80’s or early 90s, Russia can no longer exhibit a punch of youthful energy to its lineup. Ten years ago, the likes of Mogilny, Bure and Fedorov represented the core of the country’s hockey prosperity. However, in 2001 the country is faced with putting together a team either with the millionaire stars who don’t want to be there or with the unproven youngsters who…well, have yet to prove anything. The lackluster development of hockey posterity in the 90’s has resulted in numerous disappointing world championship results for Russia, a tournament which was supposed to showcase more of the country’s budding youth. Although there has been clear improvement with an increase, let alone, the proportion of talent, many problems still plague the junior hockey systems in Russia.

A key problem currently is by all means financial. The majority of the remaining obstacles seem to be direct results of the diminishing finances. The old and deteriorating facilities, as well as the low-paying coaching jobs are the examples of the somewhat skeptical absence of cash. The ones who end up paying are the young hockey players, whose hockey schools are negatively influenced as a result. Gone are the old days where these programs were praised as the more effective and successful in hockey. Those youths who make it through the junior system, on their way to professional and financial stardom, find that the programs only serve as incentives to leave Russia for the international stage.

Whether or not it is already obvious to everybody, Russia’s economic struggle is the main reason for the players’ migration to North America. The breakup of the Soviet Union resulted in a plethora of new concerns towards Russian hockey. In numerous cities, many youth hockey facilities were eliminated in an attempt to “downsize” the amount of facilities to roughly a half of what was before.

In an attempt to locate other problems, I will look into the Russian junior hockey system in more specific detail. Be sure to note certain differences in the development of the Russian hockey youth, to the development of youngsters in other countries.

Of course, it all begins with childhood. Those kids which are deemed to be the most talented get accepted into hockey schools at the age of seven. The major teams such as CSKA or Moscow Dynamo extend all the way down in age groups. These teams have farm clubs, which represent some of the youngest age ranks. The clubs represent a specified area, or city in Russia.

Gifted children, starting at the age of seven attend the Children’s Sporting Youth Schools, where they are disciplined, trained and taught the rules of the game. These schools provide little financial support, therefore more often that not, you will see more kids from wealthier families attend. In the rarest of times, children from poor families are taught if the child possesses extraordinary gifts. Those children who show the most promise, remain with the teams and some obtain financial assistance. Gradually as they grow, the youthful players move up in the levels, mostly facing competition of equal ages. Certain exceptionally gifted youths play a level or two higher, competing against older players.

A key problem in selecting talented hockey youth in Russia is the shortage of hockey rinks. Although certain cities like Yaroslavl still thrive with the reputation of being the breeding grounds of young athletes, the lower-profile communities, such as Novosibirsk, have seen an extreme recession of rinks and hockey balance as a whole. I don’t think that hockey is growing out of favour with the new generation, but the current lack of vivacity for the sport seems somewhat alarming.

Speaking of alarming, the salary of the hockey coaches in Russia is a reason to be concerned. Apparently, on average, coaches are paid roughly 2,000 rubles a month; which translates to about $70 American. There are figures that are lower, while some are higher, depending on the city. In Moscow, the salaries are higher, although still ridiculous at best. Comparing the coaching salaries in Russia to those in Europe, particularly Finland and Sweden, also makes one shake his or her head in disbelief and embarrassment.

On a positive note, in the Moscow regions new and improved hockey rinks are being made, mainly because of financial input of certain private organizations. Of course, it might be too much to expect something to be done outside of Moscow…

Although the financial problem is an obstacle to Russian hockey, it is not the only one. According to fans and coaches, the younger generation of hockey players simply does not have the inspiration nor the work ethic of the players from the Soviet era. Ask any veteran of Soviet hockey, and he will recall the times when he competed on outdoor rinks in freezing cold, playing through the harshness of Russian winters. In addition, the contemporary youths seem more interested in hurting each other than playing hockey the way it was intended. Physical game is not prohibited at the younger levels in Russia, thus oftentimes the games seem more like brawls then something intended to display judgement and intellectual savvy. Little emphasis is being placed on skating and stickhandling.

The lack of desire and dedication is imminent. A little known story on Alexei Zhamnov comes to mind. At the age of ten, Alexei failed a tryout with the CSKA, but soon after he joined Moscow Dynamo, where he remained playing for roughly a decade. Although good stories in hockey remain, I seldom hear something like this today.

However with the subject of underdogs coming to mind, the Golden Puck tournament was created in order to discover those youths whose talents went unnoticed by scouts and coaches one way or another. That is a good move, especially considering that many of today’s star NHL players made it big with the odds not in their favour.

In several hockey countries, including Russia, 15 is the age when a player is asked to participate in more serious international competition, which requires more personal responsibility. Players are required to leave home and concentrate centrally on their careers with their respective teams. Czech Republic is another country where 15 is the “maturity” age. The youngsters are expected to participate in U-16 championships, followed by U-17 and U-18 tournaments.

Right now in Russia, you will see teams playing roughly 40 games a year with practices taking place 2 times a day. Players are expected to attend every practice, although it is the player’s responsibility to find the means of transportation. Whether by bus or by car, dedication is vital for Russian hockey, strict rules are made regarding lates and absences. Practices are centered around improving strength with the puck, speed, mobility and passing.

Although the article might have sounded somewhat pessimistic, I am confident that the junior hockey system in Russia is improving. I am deeply aware that there is minimal support to the sport of hockey from the Russian government. As long as the development of hockey youth is ignored in Russia, the country will forever remain inconsistent at tournaments and championships, despite the unquestionably rich abundance of talent. The talent is visibly there, however. Aside from the likes of Ilya Kovalchuk and Stanislav Chistov, there are two players who have made exceptional strides at the junior levels. 15-year olds Alexander Ovechkin and Roman Petrov have both displayed excellent potential and have been compared to Kovalchuk in their respective styles.

It is nice to see that at least there is a basis to improve upon.