One of the greatest joys of coming to a World Championship is seeing players earn the rewards for their efforts in the KHL and take their first steps on a bigger stage.
At a time when Russian hockey is once again contemplating the departure of young talent to the NHL – this year Nikita Zaitsev is the big loss as he prepares to move to Toronto – it’s encouraging and important to demonstrate that there remain ways for KHL players to progress and prosper.
That, surely, is why Sorokin got such a rousing reception when he was sent on to the ice in the closing stages of the game. Sure, the outcome was entirely apparent by the time he replaced Sergei Bobrovsky, but the chance to sample the big tournament atmosphere for the first time shows the 21-year-old – and many other home-grown prospects – that game time in big tournaments is not exclusively dependent on a Trans-Atlantic profile.
Sorokin himself talked down the excitement of his debut. “It was only 13 minutes, not a full game, so I didn’t try to get the puck as a souvenir,” he said. But with head coach Oleg Znarok suggesting that Sorokin will get another chance during the group stage, the youngster has an excellent chance to learn more about the demands of top-level international hockey as the next Olympic cycle comes into sharper focus.
The call-up of Sannikov, so impressive for Sibir in recent seasons, was less widely anticipated. His slot on the roster was held open while the NHL play-offs continued and while Alexander Radulov sought to demonstrate his fitness. But, as the business end of the championship approaches, Sannikov is on roster and got on the ice alongside Pavel Datsyuk and Sergei Mozyakin against Denmark.
“Playing alongside Datsyuk was just a dream,” he said. “I’ve been a fan of his for 15 years now. And Mozyakin is a great player. The main thing for me was to make sure I didn’t disrupt their game – if you let them play, they’ll create chances.
“I never imagined I’d get to play in a World Championship on home ice when I was first called into the national squad.”
Sannikov, Sorokin and the rest of Russia’s roster know that there will be tougher times ahead. Upcoming games with Switzerland and, especially, Sweden will determine the team’s final placing in Group A and the prospect of a tricky quarter-final against Finland or Canada is still alive if the team cannot secure at least second place in the coming days.
But for now, after a slow start to the tournament, it is starting to feel as if Russia is growing into its game – and there’s still Ovechkin, Kuznetsov and Orlov to join the party.