The Battle for Gagarin

It was the Grand Final everyone had been anticipating. A clash between new money and, if not actually old money, at least older money. A showdown between two former head coaches of team Russia. A battle between one of the most fervent hockey-supporting regions of Russia and a city which, for decades, had shown only moderate interest in a moderately successful team.

And yet, after four games of a best-of-seven series, it was almost all over.

Ak Bars Kazan, twice Gagarin Cup winners, multiple Russian Superleague champions and one of the most consistently powerful teams in 21st-century Russian hockey, trailed 1-3 to SKA St. Petersburg, the Gazprom-fuelled chequebook team of the Northern capital. Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, a Kazan legend, was on the brink of being bested in resounding fashion by the man who he succeeded as head coach of Russia’s national team, double world champion Vyacheslav Bykov.

tatneft arena interior
Inside the Tatneft Arena.

It was a role reversal for Ak Bars, a team that had for so long been an automatic candidate for major trophies in any given season. And not just on the ice: in the stands, and in the bars and sports clubs of Russia, there was a groundswell of sympathy towards a club once crudely dubbed Ak Bar$ (in a pre-game animation before a play-off clash at a then-impoverished CSKA Moscow, no less) thanks to its generous backing from the Tatneft oil company. The subsequent rise of SKA, a team that had never managed more than a bronze medal in Soviet days, had changed the whole concept of a bankrolled club. Now regional powerhouses of industry, like Tatneft or the Magnitogorsk Iron & Steel plant, were up against serious international behemoths of the energy sector like Gazprom or Rosneft.

ak bars blimp
A snow leopard blimp at the Tatneft Arena, Kazan.

Thanks to Gazprom, backers of SKA, backers of the KHL, sponsors of the Gazprom Neft children’s cup, the Army Men could suddenly afford to start attracting players back from the NHL – Ilya Kovalchuk was the flagship signing after he starred during the 2012 lock-out, but he had been preceded by the likes of Maxim Afinogenov, Denis Grebeshkov or goalie Evgeny Nabukov as the club threw its financial muscle behind the quest for a major trophy.

Now only Bilyaletdinov and Ak Bars stood between them and that long-awaited goal – and the resistance thus far had not been overly impressive. Beginning the series with home ice advantage, Ak Bars lost the first two games. Despite recovering to win game three on the road, defeat in game four left the series on the brink of becoming a blow-out. For a team that is regarded as something of a cult by the fans, in a city where sport it a touchstone of civic pride and glorious destiny, this was not in the script.

ak bars fans
Ak Bars Kazan fans at the 2015 Gagarin Cup final.

So the atmosphere was an odd mix of hope and defiance, tempered by the realism that said this was not destined to be their year. Optimistic calls for one further push to get back into the series rolled around the arena but crashed against a wall of traveling fans who believed their time had come. On the mic, the stadium announcer promised that Ak Bars would fight to the last and give everything in pursuit of victory. On the ice, that lasted just 73 seconds before SKA took a lead they would never relinquish.

By the end of the first period the Ak Bars defence was in tatters. Elementary errors and simple turnovers saw SKA power into a 4-0 lead. The game, the series and the season were effectively through. Ironically, though, it wasn’t the star names that did the damage. Kovalchuk was a solid play-off performer, but the real heroes were players like Evgeny Dadonov, Artemy Panarin and Vadim Shipachyov, recruited from the deeply unglamorous likes of Donbass Donetsk, Vityaz Podolsk and Severstal Cherepovets. They came from tough teams in tough towns and collectively they blitzed the post-season. For 40 minutes, SKA’s traveling army could party as the clocked ticked towards a trophy the club had dreamed of for almost 70 years. Stripped to the waist, dancing and singing, they whipped up an unexpected carnival in Kazan. Only one or two, having sampled rather too much beer in the Trinity Irish Bar before the game, ended up trying to get onto the ice and were left to the not-so-tender mercies of the police.

The game ended 6-1. SKA lifted the cup. Bykov joined Bilyaletdinov on two Gagarin Cup wins, but unlike his fellow coach he had led two different teams to glory. Bilyaletdinov stayed on in Kazan to oversee the rebuilding process, finally parting with his long-term defenseman Ilya Nikulin over the summer. Evgeny Medvedev, so long a reliable partner for Nikulin, headed across the Atlantic; Nikulin himself held out for the right offer and ended up at Dynamo Moscow.

Bykov, to everyone’s surprise, left St. Petersburg within weeks of the grand final, citing family reasons. Panarin made headlines at the World Championship before moving to Chicago and having a storming rookie NHL campaign. SKA got back on the coaching merry-go-round, signing up the combative Andrei Nazarov from Barys Astana and quickly ditching him in favour of in-house coach Sergei Zubov. Kovalchuk ended up a healthy scratch in the play-offs and a newly-enriched CSKA went on to the Grand Final against Metallurg Magnitogorsk. Once again, regional power versus international investment. Once again, two financial models for Russian sport facing off.

Game details

Tatneft Arena, Kazan, Russia.

April 19, 2015. Gagarin Cup final series, game 5

Ak Bars Kazan 1 (Glukhov) SKA St. Petersburg 6 (Ericsson, Kovalchuk 2, Dadonov, Ponikarovsky, Cervenka)

Att: 8,500

gagarin cup
The Gagarin Cup on display at the Tatneft Arena in Kazan.
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