From the President of Belarus hitting the ice, to young players ready to break out onto the world stage, Sports writer GREGORY MILLER explores what makes hockey a source of national pride for fans within the nation and a thrilling show for spectators all over the world.
In which countries would political leaders play a fast-paced, thrilling game of hockey – the USA, Canada, Germany? Undoubtedly, it would be hard to imagine many of the world leaders putting on their skates and hitting a puck. Yet, in Belarus, President Alexander Lukashenko looks natural in the ice hockey rink. There is a saying about leadership: “Great leaders don’t tell you what to do – they show you how it’s done.” Even at 60 years of age, the President of Belarus is a chief in the ice hockey rink and plays the sport exceptionally well. He shows that he is a leader, not by using his official title, but by playing with skillfulness and love for the game. Furthermore, the President’s passion for hockey is not just his own, it is one that is shared with all Belarusians.
Last summer, on a nice warm day in northwestern Belarus, the thought of a swim or jog lay furthest from the minds of a group of young men putting on their skates in the Ice Palace rink found in the city of Lida, only 100 miles west of the capital city, Minsk. Instead, these young athletes were honed in on one thing only: ice hockey. Everywhere, stopwatches were seen gripped in the hands of trainers as the training camp of the Belarusian Under 18’s (U18) National Hockey Team got underway. This camp, organized by the Belarusian Ice Hockey Federation (BIHF), included trainers from North America such as Todd Woodcroft, Jay Woodcroft and Troy Stevens. These players knew that when they hopped on the ice, it was for much more than just drills. They were getting the training system that is used by professional players in the world’s major leagues, including the National Hockey League (NHL).
As the stopwatches signaled the beginning of the training sessions, there seemed to be a special buzz traveling through the crisp air. What made this year’s training camp so special? After all, these young Belarusian players had previously participated in many training camps involving foreign coaches. For example, seven years ago, trainers from Russia were invited to Minsk by the BIHF for the specific purpose of developing basic skills in young hockey players. The particular excitement
of the 2015 training camp, however, was associated with the fact that for the first time young Belarusian players were being exposed to advanced practices that were prevalent in the United States and Canada. The new cutting-edge training was different from the ones that were used by Belarusian trainers. The organizers knew that when it came to the new generation of Belarusian hockey, being a world-class athlete required world-class training.
Lida’s training camp was truly an excel- lent springboard for these young hockey players. In April 2016, the Belarusian U18 National Hockey Team won the 2016 Inter- national Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) Ice Hockey U18 World Championship of Division I-Group A at the Chizhovka-Arena in Minsk. This resulted in a promotion to the top division for the first time since 2010, for only the eighth time in the history of Belarusian hockey. Even though Germany entered the finals in the lead with 11 points, and host nation Belarus only had nine points, the Belarusian home team secured a sweet 5 – 3 victory. Germany just needed a point to tie or win, but the hosts scored two quick goals within 94 seconds, leaving the German team stunned. Germany’s team coach Rick Boehm summed up their defeat simply by stating, “The [Belarusians] played well, they played clever, they didn’t give us a great deal of scoring chances.”
The atmosphere at the arena, which was built as the second venue for the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship, was quite incredible. There were almost 10,000 spectators watching the next generation of phenomenal hockey players. “It’s difficult to play bad when you have such support as we had today. We realized the whole country was looking at us,” said the head coach of the Belarusian team, Yuri Faikov. On the opposite side, Coach Boehm was just as impressed with the atmosphere. “The home-team situation definitely helped Belarus, with the great fan support they had here,” said Boehm. “That gave them extra energy. They were fortunate enough to score the first goal, which was important since all games here were very close.”
Of course, Belarusian hockey fans have been cheering for ages, ever since Belarusian descendent and world hockey legend, Wayne Gretzky, hit the ice. Gretzky’s grandfather, Anthony Gretzky, was a Belarusian immigrant to Canada, and their relatives still live in Belarus today. Gretzky, who was correctly nicknamed “The Great One”, completed 20 seasons in the NHL from 1979 to 1999, playing for the Edmonton Oilers, Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis Blues and New York Rangers. Described as “the greatest hockey player ever” by the NHL, Gretzky is still the leading scorer in NHL history. He is also the only NHL athlete to score over 200 points in one season – a feat he accomplished four times. When Gretzky retired in 1999, he held 61 NHL records, and, as of 2014, he still holds 60 of his NHL records. Despite his fame, The Great One did not forget his roots or his fans, because in 2010 he traveled to Belarus to visit his relatives and see the fantastic land of hockey.
Belarusian hockey players are learning increasingly more from the great masters of the American and Canadian hockey leagues. Even in older hockey players, the new approach to hockey is already having positive outcomes. In 2015, the Belarusian national team was able to upset the U.S. team 5 – 2 at the World Hockey Championship, which also took place for the first time in Belarus. This incredible Belarusian team was led to victory by former NHL defenseman and Detroit Red Wings coach Dave Lewis. Also included on the roster were former NHL players, and brothers, Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn.
Although Belarusian hockey is under- going an evolution, the heart of the game still lies within the passion of the fans. As the 2016 World Hockey Championship approaches in May, Belarusian fans will watch their team compete in Russia with great anticipation. After all, it’s not just a sport in Belarus – it’s the past, and it’s the future. Perhaps, Wayne Gretzky said it best: “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been.”
For more information: http://www.belarus.by/en/about- belarus/sport/belarusian-national- ice-hockey-team