Big-time hockey has now reached the northern part of the Tyumen region: On Saturday, Yugra played their first home game in the KHL, debuting in Europe's strongest hockey league.
Yugra was established as a professional hockey team in 2006 with funding from the administration of the Khanty-Mansiysk autonomous district. But the team only really entered the ranks of pro hockey two years later, when Sergei Shepelev – a 1984 Olympic champion and three-times world champion – took over as coach.
“The offer I got from Yugra in 2008 was appealing, and along with my colleague Nikolai Solovyov, we signed off on moving the team to Khanty-Mansiysk,” recalled Shepelev, who played most of his career with Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg and Spartak Moscow.
Yugra's following two seasons were phenomenal. Both years they won the Bratina Cup, the main trophy in the lower division VHL, and they were licensed to join the KHL in March 2010.
“For Yugra, for all of Khanty-Mansiysk, it was a huge event,” Shepelev continued. “Our fans were waiting a long time for that day, and Yugra ultimately found itself in the KHL, where we'll get to face the strongest teams from Russia and nearby countries.”
Khanty-Mansiysk has been spoiled with big sports events in recent years. There were the multiple stages of the Biathlon World Cup, which draws the strongest shooting skiers from around the world. But on Sept. 11 of this year hockey was the only thing anyone in the city was talking about.
People started showing up around the arena three or four hours before game time. Fans waiting for the start of the historic game had plenty to keep them busy, as tents were pitched around the arena to grill meat and sell all sorts of tasty food. The fans, too, were warming up – after all, this season they'll need to venture to lots of new cities to watch their favorite team play.
“Last season we attended virtually all of Yugra's games in the Urals and Siberia,” said one fan wearing a custom-made team jersey. “Recently we went to Yekaterinburg and Ufa for preseason tournaments. Our 'raids' to support Yugra will continue in the regular season. And we're also hoping to make the playoffs. We're used to closing out the season in April, and we wouldn't want to break that tradition.”
Yugra's management took an extremely thoughtful approach to settling the problem of tickets for the first game of the season. The average price for a ticket against a top-flight opponent is 300 rubles, or about $10 – an entirely reasonable price for fans, the majority of whom are oil industry workers at local plants.
No one had any doubt that Yugra's first home game of the season would be sold out. Especially since their opponents were the menacing SKA, who arrived in Khanty-Mansiysk with stars including Nabokov, Sushinsky and Afinogenov. SKA played some excellent hockey and rightfully won, 6-2, but the impressive defeat in no way dampened Yugra fans' mood. They let out a joyful cheer as St. Petersburg took the ice and they applauded the visitors after the game.
Despite his team's clear superiority, SKA head coach Ivan Zanatta was unhappy with his defense's performance:
“We've allowed seven goals in two games. Is that really acceptable? Soon we're going to be sitting down with the guys to discuss how it's going to be extremely difficult to keep getting big wins at this rate. As for Yugra, they struck us as a very lively team. They kept pushing forward, trying to catch up until the final seconds. I'm sure Sergei Shepelev's team will only continue to improve.”
“Yes, the VHL is ten times weaker than the KHL... But we'll do everything possible and make every effort to perform as well as we can this season,” Shepelev said following his team's first game of the season.
Dmitry Litvinenko, special for khl.ru