As time goes by everything is changing. It is not so long time ago when seemed as if all hands had been dealt in world hockey. Changes in the power structure were very rare and when change did occur, it had a long-lasting effect. Any child with only a bit of hockey knowledge could easily name the six strongest hockey nations and hockey's two "superteams" - Canada and Soviet Union.
For a long time, the "Maple Leafs," who gave ice hockey to the world, watched only from afar the effort of the Europeans to come closer to hockey's Mount Olympus. They believed that the Gulf Stream sooner flow toward the Canadian shore than some cheeky team from Europe would ever take away their throne as the World Champions. The dominance of Canada was unshakable and the rest of the world was always left to battle among themselves for second and third place as a consolation prize. It was the same as in soccer during the reign of Brazil's Pele. Canada later paid a dear price for their smug self-satisfaction; they sat back while the talent gap become narrower and narrower. Seemingly out of nowhere, the Russian team emerged to beat several Canadian "dream teams" in classic games. The climax of it came at the Olympics. At that time, hockey's Olympus began to move slowly but surely toward Europe. The era of a big hockey rivalry between Europe and North America started. Besides the Russians, the European teams involved were the skilled but predictable and inflexible Swedes, the former ČSSR team and the underdog Finns trying to come from behind. The century series between U.S.S.R. and Canada which, by turns, saw each country taking victories on the other's "home" ice and the match-ups between the best teams of the Soviet league with some NHL teams only added the fuel to the fire in the rivalry between both nations. All of these on-ice battles delighted true hockey fans everywhere, who exulted in the magnificent spectacle again and again. Ice hockey did not stagnate; it moved forward.
One of the 15 Soviet republics was Belarus, or more accurately, the Belarusian Republic (or the Republic of Belarus, but in Russian language it is Belarusian Republic) Belarusian hockey has always developed as a part of the Soviet hockey school but has never played a crucial role in it, including after the fall of the Soviet Union. That was not unexpected, considering the fact that Belarus was a republic in which only two roofed hockey arenas had been built at the time of becoming an independent country in 1991. Both hockey arenas were in the capital city, Minsk. Minsk was the main center of hockey in Belarus.
There was only one representative from Belarus in the highest level of Soviet club hockey. Dynamo Minsk, which was far from a league powerhouse. Minsk was on the sidelines of traditional hockey centers in the nearby region of Kiev, as well as Leningrad (now called St. Petersburg) and Moscow. The main contenders for the Soviet title were usually traditional Moscow rivals Dynamo Moscow, the Soviet Wings and, arguably the leader of Russian club hockey of the 70's and 80's, CSKA Moscow (Central Sport Club Army), which was called "Red Army" in North America. Dynamo Minsk appeared only few times in the highest division of Russian hockey, mostly playing at the second level. Paradoxically, while not having a strong hockey team, Minsk built up one of the most famous hockey development schools in the Soviet Union, called "Yunost," which in the mid 80s produced quite a few players for the aforementioned Moscow clubs.
In Soviet times, ice hockey was not the number one sport in Belarus. The sport faced strong competition from soccer and handball (especially handball; SKA Minsk was the most successful team in the whole of Europe in the second half of the 80s). This was one of the reasons why the means for keeping the top players in Minsk were not found. The fact that 90% of all players to suit up for Belarus' national team were trained at Yunost is a testament to the high quality of training in the program. The most famous pupil of the school is without a doubt Sergej Fjodorov (the English version of his name is Sergei Fedorov), the multiple World and Olympic champion, the Stanley Cup winner, the member of All-Star-Team and one of the best hockey players of all time.
What is not too well known is that the best player who ever played hockey has ties to Belarus. No, Wayne Gretzky is not Belarusian but his grandfather immigrated to Canada at the beginning of the 20th century from a town in Belarus called Mogilev, which soon became a part of the Soviet empire. With such a tradition, Belarus deserved to enjoy at least a degree of success in ice hockey. Eventually, some came.
The first blush of success came when Minsk placed itself in the top ten teams of Soviet league in the late 80s. The best players on the team, Jurij Krivochiza and Andrej Kovaljov, were invited to represent Soviet Union at the Izvjestija tournament (tournament for the prize awarded by the "Izvjestija" newspaper), now called the Baltica Cup (Baltica is a Russian brewery). For the first time, some players from the Minsk team were given a chance to play in this prestigious tournament. Soon, interest from the NHL also came. The scouts picked out several players who later left for careers overseas - e.g. Jurij Krivochiza, Alexander Galcenuk, Alexandr Andrjevskij and Oleg Mikulcik.
With the break-up of the communist regime and the Soviet bloc, new countries aspired to have their national hockey team forge a place for themselves on the hockey map of the world: post-sovietLatvia, Ukraine, Kazakstan, Belarus and also Slovakia.
As Belarus became an independent country, it earned the chance to run its own Belarusian Hockey League. A mere four teams took part in this competition: Dynamo Minsk (which changed its name to Tivali Minsk), Plymir Novopolock, Neman Grodno and a fourth participant, which was the overall winner in the competition of all the amateur teams. The tournament system (how many times the teams played each other, the structure, etc.) changed many times but the winner always remained the same - Tivali Minsk. At this point in time, two new ice rinks appeared in Belarus; one in Grodno and another in Novopolock. The number of ice rinks increased to four. The government did not render much assistance in the development of ice hockey and the structure of the Belarusian league did not give much opportunity for the advancement of ice hockey in this country. The hockey schools in Grodno and Novopolock played only at the junior hockey levels in the late 90's; neither had a senior squad.
A certain degree of progress and encouragement was offered by Tivoli Minsk, which played brilliantly on the international scene. They played repeatedly in the EHL (European Hockey League) and achieved remarkable success in 1995, when they ended up in 5th place. Nevertheless, the lack of competition in the Belarusian league caused its lower level and the players coming from the hockey schools were not as experienced as in Soviet era. The solution was founded through cooperation with countries which struggled with identical problems. The main challenges they faced were low quality home championship leagues and a stagnation of growth in skills and tactics. The best teams from Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine and Belarus founded a league called VEHL (East European Hockey League). It is played with a typical format; a regular season with playoffs following. The winner of the playoffs becomes the winner of the VEHL. Mainly for economic reasons, the number of teams participating varies a lot at different point of time but the number has never decreased below five. Thanks to the effort of organizers who have to deal with the lack of money, it is possible to also operate a league for juniors and youth. These young guys should eventually advance to senior teams playing in the Belarusian league.
The greatest hockey success of Belarus was made by the national team. Belarus began to write its hockey history in 1993 in pre-qualification round for Pool C Ice Hockey World Championship. The initial results were poor. Belarus lost to Ukraine in its first hockey match up ever, despite playing the game in the Belarusian capital city, Minsk. Four years later, in 1997, Belarus advanced after winning Pool B to the Pool A of the World Championship. In autumn of the same year, Belarus secured their position at the Olympic Games 1998 in Nagano.
The year of 1998 became a year of the greatest success ever enjoyed by Belarusian hockey. The NHL stopped its merry-go-round of its match ups to allow the gathering of the best players in a single tournament. Because he was under an NHL suspension that did not carry over to Olympic play, Belarus' Ruslan Salej (Salei in North America) became the first NHL player who played in the "Tournament of the Century". Besides Salej, another NHLer Vladimir Cyplakov [Tsyplakov] played for Belarus. Belarus did not lost a single game during the qualification round and advanced to compete among the elite countries in the sport, including Sweden, Russia, and Canada. In the quarterfinals, Belarus lost to the eventual silver medalists Russia. (I would like to congratulate the Czech hockey fans; in this tournament in which all the top players took part, the winner was the team from the Czech Republic).
Without a doubt, making the "big dance" was a great success and the performance of Belarus in the main tournament was secondary to the achievement of getting there. And why not? Presently, ice hockey is considered to be big business; as a matter of fact, there is a virtual "hockey industry." Here, in the country with undeveloped industry, still marked with a steerage of communists, a good hockey team has appeared! It is hard to imagine an equivalent in other world forums. For example, suppose the automobile industry of Belarus took 8th place in the world right behind General Motors, Daimler Benz, BMW and Ferrari or right away stepped into to the electronics market behind Sony, LG and Phillips; that would be highly improbable. It is well known that in hockey superior tactics and team play can overcome greater skills and more polished technique. The team which plays tactically well and follows the coach's advice usually beats better skilled players who play as a bunch of individuals.
After the Olympic debut, a huge hockey boom occurred. Construction began on several new roofed hockey arenas and new tournament, called "Golden Puck" was established for all junior division. The sponsors started to support hockey much more, hockey players were treated as the national heroes and even the president of Belarus took in them in his residence as guests. At the Olympics, the crusade from the qualification round to the 8th place in the world caused huge excitement in Belarus.
In 1999, the Ice Hockey World Championship took place in the land of Vikings (Norway). This championship was a test of maturity for Belarusian hockey. It was a test of Belarus' right to compete among the high society of hockey-developed countries. This championship left ambivalent feelings. In contrast to the Olympics, the squad took a step backwards, finishing 9th place. But was it really a step backwards which reflected the present trend in Belarusian hockey or just a small setback? That is a question which deserves a clear analysis. [Hopefully, OHF will excuse a mere review of facts].
The opponents in the qualification round were Russians, Finns and Ukrainians. Then, in the relegation round, Belarus saw the Norwegians, Austrians and Latvians. In these six games Belarus lost in the only game, 1-4 to Finland. They almost beat the Russian "Sbornaja"; eventually the game was a 2-2 draw. If we leave aside the World Championship in St. Petersburg (which will be addressed later), there are not many teams which have the same number of wins as losses against the Russians. Those are only teams from the absolute apex of hockey. Practically all the national players of Belarus come from the one and only Yunost hockey school, which produces two or three really good players every year. So, basically, here's a team from one small young country, coming from one city, and training on one rink with artificial ice playing a game on equal terms with Russia (one year later, Belarus beat Russia 1-0!)! To be honest, the Russians did not have all their best players on their roster but that was a matter to be addressed by their coach (how he would make up the team for the World Championship), not a matter for the hockey fans. Belarus won the remaining 4 games and a match up between Russia and Finland decided the destiny of the Belarus national players. Unfortunately, as Bulgarian soccer player Christo Stoickov used to say, "During the World Championship, God turned away from our people." But we all should see also the opposite side of the coin. If Belarus has advanced among the best eight teams, it would probably have lost all the three games and the team would go home probably in a different mood. Even though 8th place is quite prestigious, there is something to be said for finishing on a winning note.
To be objective, I think the long-term meaning of the results from Nagano, Zurich and Hammar should not be over-estimated. Why? The answer is quite simple. Older Belarusian national team players from Soviet school might hang on until the next Olympics but what then? Time stops for no one. Players will slowly retire and replacements will be needed. The truly talented youngsters can be counted on one hand. At one point, these experienced players born in the late 60's won the competition of all hockey schools in U.S.S.R. (the Cup of Nations), they earned the spot in the top Soviet league for Minsk and many of them helped the Belarus team through the rough climb from Pool C to Pool A. Unfortunately, there are not many players like that presently. There are some prospects but they still have plenty of work ahead. The Belarusian junior team earned its spot in Pool A but a single success does not mean there is trend underway. process of raising talents needs much time and money. The government supported the national team well during their training for the 2000 World Championship. However, the budget for the year 2000 is still not completed.
Because of the short distance, the World Championship in St. Petersburg became more a mere TV broadcast event for the hockey fans in Belarus. A developing country, struggling with its industrial development and where a monthly wage of $ 100 is considered far above average, many Belarusians took their last money to set out on a journey to see its hockey team. Every game in which Belarus participated was visited by thousands of hockey fans. The national team did not disappoint its supporters but also did not star or overstep their predicted expectations. No more, no less. Belarus took "its own" ninth place spot. Without mentioning the statistics, here is some information about our participation. A victory over the weak Ukraine team was necessary to gain an entry ticket to the second part of the championship, which assured the preservation of Belarus in Pool A. The Belarusians were defeated by their "friendly rivals", the Latvians. It is no wonder this defeat came. Belarus beat Latvia on its way to their history-making success in Nagano; now it came time to pay debts back. Among teams of roughly similar performance abilities, it is hard to expect the same results every time. In the next game a spiritless and poor performance against Swedes resulted in a convincing loss. I have no comment otherwise. The second part of the Belarusian participation in the World hampionship was much better. In the end, Belarus suffered from their close loss to the U.S.A., although both teams would have deserved a draw. After that, Belarus beat its "big brother", Russia!!! Nevertheless, Russia remains among the hockey elite and will continue to provide new talents for a hockey world in spite of bad performance in St. Petersburg. Do you disagree? So stone me to death. Finally, our national team, despite being depleted by several injuries, beat Switzerland. Finito la comedia.
May the true experts judge the real potential of this team. May the scouts tempt its players. As we say in Russian, heavy rain and bigger drops (it means that a greater effort is wanted; in Czech, the saying also means that the goal is also attainable). But it looks like that in this world of growing side demands as from sponsors and hockey officials (club managers, people working for hockey federations, for clubs etc.) and recognizing the impending tough transition from the veteran generation of Belarusian players to the younger players, Belarusian hockey has likely reached its apex and cannot climb higher. Until replacements for the experienced players are found, until the hockey infrastructure improves, until clubs from Belarus become so powerful that they could compete with foreign clubs at the international scene, we can only dream on about better results in spite of the nationwide interest in ice hockey and our previous success. Belarus has now profiled itself and ceased being a mystery to the other teams. Just as no opponent can get away with giving less than their best when they play Belarus, so too can Belarus not expect to consistently pass a long way through any tournament without meeting failure. Let's hope that Belarusian hockey will develop and grow along with the whole hockey world. If not - what would life be like?
Alex + Vasilij
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