International Ice Hockey Federation

Russia eyes home glory

Russia eyes home glory

Hosts look to shrug off pressure

Published 19.04.2018 12:40 GMT+5 | Author Slava Malamud
Russia eyes home glory
Team Russia poses with the 2018 IIHF World U18 Championship mascot. Photo: Andrea Cardin / HHOF-IIHF Images
Amid some roster issues, Russia is approaching the opening faceoff of the U18 World Championship with confidence and cautious optimism.

“Welcome to Chelyabinsk, a City That Lives Hockey”, says an enormous mural on the side of a building in the Chelyabinsk airport. This is hardly an exaggeration. Known as a breadbasket of puck talent even back in the Soviet days, the South Urals city on the shores of several huge lakes (cleverly named Lake One, Lake Two, etc.) considers hockey its unofficial religion. It seems that the entire population of Chelyabinsk, which has produced such international megastars as Sergei Makarov, Sergei Gonchar and Yevgeni Kuznetsov, is composed of hockey players and hockey experts. Within two hours of my arrival, for example, I had extremely knowledgeable puck talk with a taxi driver and a hotel maid, the latter of whom has a son playing in the Traktor Chelyabinsk system.

With such a following, and coming off a big KHL season, which took Traktor deep into the Gagarin Cup playoffs, the hosts won’t lack for either rabid support or enormous pressure. The pressure, though, wasn’t necessarily evident at the last practice at the Traktor Ice Arena before the Russians face off against their first U18 Worlds opponent, France.

The Russian roster is still a work in progress, as the top-rated prospect Andrei Svechnikov still hasn’t arrived from Canada. The probably high first-round NHL draft pick has finished his season with the OHL’s Barrie Colts, but still hasn’t been cleared to leave, with the team claiming he is nursing an upper-body injury. Still, the mood around the Russian team was upbeat.

“The atmosphere is perfect”, said defenseman Nikita Okhotyuk, who was born and raised in Chelyabinsk. “We are nervous, but this happens before any game. Even for the stars.”

Okhotyuk, who will have all of his friends and family in the stands for every game, has noted that the team’s confidence has grown with every pre-tournament game. If the last one, a 5-1 win over Sweden, is any indication, a lot of the pieces are already in place. That said, France is hardly a team the Russians have been preparing for extensively.

“To be honest, we don’t really know much about them”, said assistant coach Kirill Alexeyev. “This isn’t really about France, it’s more about us. We all understand that our main opponents are Finland, Czech Republic, and Slovakia… Not to say that we are taking the French for granted, not at all. There are no easy opponents at the Worlds, these aren’t empty words.”

Froward Pavel Zavgorodny, who has spent the last season in the QMJHL, noted that, this being the players’ last chance to impress NHL scouts, every game is hugely important, with an added level of responsibility and motivation. Of course, Zavgorodny has done a bit of scouting himself, as he faced off against several potential U18 Worlds opponents in the juniors.

“(Czech defenseman Filip) Zadina is very good. I also liked (Canadian center Joseph) Veleno”, said Zavgorodny.

According to Alexeyev, the coaching staff’s biggest challenge will be to deal with the young players’ emotions.

“These aren’t adults, they are known for emotional swings”, said the coach. “We need to understand this, it’s inescapable at this age. We will certainly need patience, as coaches.”

Russia will square off against France on Thursday, April 18, at 19:30 local time.

 

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