On Saturday, while the Gagarin Cup trophy enjoyed a day of rest at the Baikonur cosmodrome, Nigel Dawes did all the work – the legendary Barys forward conducted an open-air master-class for young hockey players and local fans of the game.
While the hockey star was imparting knowledge to the youngsters, those who are headed for the stars – the crew of the Soyuz MS-07 spacecraft - held the traditional pre-flight press conference.
Much in Baikonur is connected with the cosmos. From the city to the launch pad is about 25 miles, and the town is adorned with a rocket on a pedestal, a real Soyuz craft, a retired aeroplane, and other monuments to those whose labor drove the space industry in the USSR. The Cosmos permeates every level, from the “Starry Sky” restaurant in the center to the Space School, where children make miniature rockets and launch them in the school yard.
It was to this school, and an open-air rink, that Nigel Dawes came. He was greeted by fans of the local team, Legion 94, whose uniform resembes that of the famous old hockey club, Khimik of Voskresensk, although the Barys star was kitted out, appropriately enough, in a brand new 2018 All-Star Game jersey – a fashion first, as the garment had never been seen in public before.
Dawes was a magnet for the younsters, many of whom had traveled from afar and got up at five in the morning just to meet this hero of the Kontinental Hockey League.
“It's nothing - we often rise at six for the morning workout,” – smiled Talgat Akimzhanov, head coach of the children's school. “It's worth it for a Nigel Dawes master-class. It's a great event, and we thank the KHL for sending us the superstar that we all admire. The boys absolutely loved it.”
“Did they know who it was on the ice?”
“Yes, of course, we follow the KHL, suport Barys, and are big fans of Nigel in particular.”
While we spoke, Dawes was already working with the children, aided and assisted by Roman Aksenov, one of the leading trainers from the BeLikePro network (who create, among other things, the events for the Master Show super skills at the All-Star Game).
“Of course, in professional hockey, you first need to pay attention to nurturing the juniors and promoting hockey among the younger generation,” – Aksenov said. “This season the KHL has reached a truly cosmic level. This indicates a significant and dynamic leap for hockey.”
In addition to the two professionals, there was a further treat in store for the local youth – the hockey equipment firm, Bauer, made a gift to the city of 10 children's hockey sticks, so that the master-class can continue long after the star has gone.
For everyone who was on the ice, the given hour flew past, but Nigel Dawes found time to be photographed with everyone who asked, and he signed a multitude of sticks, jerseys and trading cards. One of the boys, feverishly searching for something to bear the forward's autograph, in desperation held out his phone. Dawes was a little taken aback at first, but then laughed and managed to find a white marker.
“We've been playing here in the city since 2008,” - said Legion 94 player Andrey Semyonov. “Two years on this rink. I played hockey as a child, and the love of the game stays with you for a lifetime. I support SKA, as they have Kovalchuk, Datsyuk... but I know Dawes, of course, and it is a great pleasure to have this chance to play with him. This is a very wise move by the KHL to stage this event – hockey has to be developed everywhere.”
Meanwhile, preparations were almost complete for the launch of the Soyuz MS-07 spacecraft, which will take into space a replica of the Gagarin Cup and a puck commemorating the tenth season of the League. Tomorrow is the launch day, so today was the traditional eve-of-the-mission press conference featuring the main and backup crew. Pride of place was given to the KHL's main trophy.
The press conference was in a small room crammed with least a hundred journalists, with the cosmonauts – already in quarantine mode – behind what appeared to be a plexiglass barrier. In addition to goodwill messages, there were questions about how the crew will celebrate New Year, and how they will mark the birthday of the commander, Anton Shkaplerov (no stranger to parties in space, as this is his third mission), and how the commander will vote in Russia's presidential election. There were questions on scientific experiments addressed to American Scott Tingle, who, like his crew-mate, Norishige Kanai of Japan, is on his maiden spaceflight.
And of course, they were asked about the Gagarin Cup, on proud display next to the crew.
“Yes, we are taking on board the puck and the mini-trophy,” – Anton Shkaplerov confirmed. “The puck is a special one commemorating ten years of the Kontinental Hockey League, and we, as cosmonauts and astronauts working in the space industry, are obviously very pleased that the strongest hockey teams compete for a Cup named in honor of the first man in space. I myself am a fan of hockey, and I love to watch it live, if possible, with my family and friends. I am sure that the Cup and the puck will have the most prominent positions, especially when they are playing games in the Championship. It's great that the puck we are taking with us will return to Earth and play a part in the final series of the Gagarin Cup.”
Shkaplerov, a CSKA fan, had said similar when he received the artifacts from KHL President Dmitry Chernyshenko, but here he added that he will be able to follow the action from space. He will still be in orbit when the puck will play its role in the Gagarin Cup final series.
To much applause, the crew departed the room. There was one more small but, for some, very meaningful part of the program left to perform. On the launch pad arrived a priest, Father Sergiy, who led the leaders of the Cosmodrome crew in a prayer. Tomorrow – the launch.