The big day had a worrying beginning – the Coyotes’ flight from Prague was delayed at take-off. Fortunately, the gremlins turned out to be minor ones and the team arrived on time at the Arena Riga and the representatives of the NHL made it to the official reception.
Those at the reception heard some very kind words from the Phoenix Coyotes president Mike Nealy about what a great honor it was for his team to take part in such an historic game in front of such passionate fans, how much his players were looking forward to it, and how he himself had spent several weeks in Latvia some seventeen years ago. He also paid tribute to his former Minnesota teammate Sergei Zholtok, and how deeply affected he had been by Sergei’s tragic death on the ice.
Another arrival was new KHL vice-president Alexander Mogilny.
“It is still a little early to talk about all my new duties, but here in Riga I have one mission – to increase the popularity of hockey and to develop our relationship with the NHL. How? For example, by putting on a great festival of hockey for Latvia. We would like our clubs to play each other more often, at least like things were twenty years ago.”
The game itself turned out to be a tough one for the Riga men. It was even for the first ten minutes, then the visitors opened the scoring, and no matter what the Latvians tried they just could not beat Ilya Bryzgalov. The hosts finally got their only goal of the game just past the halfway stage, after Bryzgalov had been replaced by Jason LaBarbera.
Riga’s goalies were given a torrid time, Mikael Tellqvist and Chris Holt between them saving 39 shots and conceding three times. Indeed, Holt was named as Dinamo’s player of the match.
“It’s true, I kept the puck, the one which Mark Hartigan fired into the Phoenix net. I collect all important pucks,” said Chris. “I agree it’s a bit of a silly habit, but that’s what hockey players are like. We felt good today. Maybe our opponents looked better physically, and tried to force us into a battle of strength, but that’s the Coyotes’ main advantage, and it showed, say, in play near the corners. In the other parts of the game the teams were pretty close. Our opponents’ third goal was a bit lucky. If that hadn’t happened, we would have had a great chance to equalize and win in overtime. It’s good that both teams respected each other and gave the fans an excellent display.”
After the game, unnoticed by most of the journalists, emerged Phoenix’s new defenseman Maxim Goncharov, who spent last season in CSKA colors and is no stranger to Riga.
“It was good playing on familiar ice but representing a different league. I didn’t spend that much time on the ice, but the team got a whole new feeling and experience of the game in a European arena. Our mission was to win. Dinamo gave us some problems, in that we had to play a completely different game. And for restricting our opponents to just 16 shots we have to thank our defensemen, and of course all of our guys. In this game I was paired with Ed Jovanovski, and it was a pleasure to play with him as a partner. Will this combination be used in the NHL? We won’t know until the coach tells us his choices for the lines after the opening game against Boston.”
Afterwards the coaches of both teams were in fine spirits and their thoughts were already returning to their respective regular championships.
“It was an interesting game,” thought Julius Supler. “For our young players it was valuable experience, and the spectators were given a great spectacle.”
Dave Tippett said he had been trying to give playing time to each player during their unusual preseason, and remarked on the differences between North American and European hockey.
“Our physical strength is the ace we hold. Here on a bigger arena we had to get our range. I don’t want to say Americans play or skate faster than Europeans, but on our rinks there’s less open ice, more mistakes, and events develop faster.”
On the whole both teams, and perhaps the spectators too, got everything they could from the game.
The Dinamo management expressed their gratitude to the KHL for their experience in organizing the event, the 111th match between clubs from different sides of the Atlantic.
“We had some work to do,” said Dinamo general manager Normunds Sejejs, “but it was worth every bit of it! We had a good look at where we are, where the NHL is, we saw the differences. On the ice the minor things are decisive – how you skate with the puck, how you win the hefty challenges. We live and learn, and I hope that this will give the Riga players the impetus to really fulfill their potential. As for the defeat… It can’t be helped. We’ll win next time!”
Margita Sprancmane, special for khl.ru