When the action gets underway in September, Lokomotiv Yaroslavl looks certain to be everybody’s “second team” in the KHL.
When the club lost its entire first team and coaching staff in a plane crash on the opening day of last season, the outpouring of sympathy united hockey fans across Russia – and throughout the sporting world.
But the men responsible for returning top-level hockey to the city which was stunned by last year’s tragedy are determined to ensure that the reborn Lokomotiv maintains Yaroslavl’s proud hockey traditions without calling in favors from anyone else.
For incoming head coach Tom Rowe, nothing less than a serious tilt at the KHL title will suffice in his debut season in Russia.
“Our expectations are to compete at a very high level,” he added. “I’m coming here to make the play-offs and have a long run in those play-offs. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us. I’ve not come here for a so-so season. I want to be still playing hockey here in April.”
Rowe’s ambitions are matched by the club’s directors: general manager Yury Lukin had earlier declined an offer of a guaranteed play-off spot, insisting that not only would the new-look roster compete on its own merits, it would also be capable of an extended post-season.
To that end, a wealth of experience has been brought to the Volga to complement the youngsters who represented the organization in last season’s MHL and VHL competitions.
Gagarin Cup-winners Viktor Kozlov and Maxim Kondratiev are among of the stand-out names on a roster which also includes experienced Belarusian international Alexei Kalyuzhny (from Avangard) and exciting Latvian forward Mikelis Redlihs (from Dinamo Riga). Former SKA skipper Vitaly Vishnevsky brings further know-how to the defense, Finnish defenceman Sami Lepistö and Canadian goaltender Curtis Sanford bring NHL nous, and the D-zone is toughened up further by Swedish international D-man Staffan Kronwall, signed from Severstal Cherepovets.
Rowe admits it’s been an “unusual” situation, coming to a long-established club and having the flexibility to build a roster almost from scratch, but despite a busy summer in the transfer market he has also been impressed by the quality of young players in the team.
“Every team is always looking towards its young players, but there’s a little bit more emphasis on that here,” he said. “And we have about 14 or 15 youngsters in the organization who can really play.”
Names to look out for among the juniors include the eye-catching attacking trio of Sergei Plotnikov, Vladislav Kartaev and Oleg Yashin, and fellow forward Emil Galimov was one of the stars of last year’s MHL campaign.
In pre-season games, Loko has lost just one of five encounters, and the team’s first game on home ice produced an encouraging fightback win over SKA St. Petersburg.
Pre-season preparations will be wrapped up next week in a tournament in Riga, and the action gets underway in earnest on Sep. 6 when Loko travels to Sibir Novosibirsk for its first game. That’s sure to be an emotional occasion for both sets of fans – among the players killed the previous year was goaltender Stefan Liv, a huge success in his time at Sibir. And that depth of feeling around the club has already left its mark on Rowe.
“It’s a great inspiration,” he said. “I knew Brad McCrimmon (the Lokomotiv coach who died in last year’s air disaster) very well and we have to ensure we have a very good season.
“We want to make the team and the city proud. There’s an incredible fan base, and the team and the organization has a lot to live up to.”