Andy Potts Andy Potts
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When Torpedo plays in Sheffield on Sunday, the game will bring back memories of an unlikely Russian connection for one of the legends of Sheffield hockey. Mike O’Connor, an uncompromising Canadian-born defenseman, was part of the Steelers’ Grand Slam winning roster of 1995/6 and is still involved with the club as Commercial Manager. Before that, though, he was with the Durham Wasps when Alexander Kozhevnikov, twice an Olympic champion with the USSR, unexpectedly arrived to play in the British League in 1990.

It wasn’t a long stay in England: Kozhevnikov, quickly dubbed ‘Sasha K’ by the Durham public, played just 11 regular season games for the Wasps but still managed to amass 47 (25+22) points. Even in a league renowned for high scoring, that was an impressive return – as befits a player who spent the bulk of his pro career in the Soviet top flight with Spartak and Krylya Sovietov. By 1990, with the first Soviet stars getting the chance to play abroad, Kozhevnikov took his chance.

“I came to Durham from Sweden,” he recalled. “I had offers to go to Canada or to Britain but at that time I was already struggling with several injuries. I didn’t know if I could play much longer, so I chose England. I wanted to see their country, their hockey.”

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‘Learning English was tough – even other Brits don’t understand people in Durham!’

Today it’s not unusual for imports to talk about the difficulties of adapting to a new culture, on and off the ice. Three decades ago, with no internet and far less opportunity for international travel, the differences might have been greater still. Durham, a sleepy college town in a fast-disappearing coalfield, was very different from Moscow. Certainly, Durham’s ramshackle home rink – leaks in the roof, no perspex around the boards – had little in common with Moscow’s state-subsidized ‘Palaces of Sport’. The game, too, was structured differently. “Hockey in Britain at that time relied on private sponsors,” Kozhevnikov added. “It was mostly an amateur sport, a lot of the guys had a second job or ran their own business away from the game. There were a few pros and the team was built around them. The imports were expected to drive everything forwards.”

World and Olympic Champion, Kozhevnikov never had a chance to join the official Triple Gold Club. Uniquely, his third ‘gold’ was the little-known Castle Eden Cup, a four-team competition played out by the fierce local rivals in the north-east of England, watched by a furiously partisan crowd. Kozhevnikov coolly converted Durham’s first penalty in the shoot-out in the final and instantly won over the Wasps fans.

“Those little cup competitions meant a lot to the fans,” he said. “If you won one of them, you were already a hero for the season.” And getting along with the locals proved straightforward, despite a language barrier.

“The people in Durham have a character a bit like Russians, open-hearted people who love to go out, to relax, but who aren’t afraid of hard work either. I was the first Russian to play in the British championship, it was a bit of an eye-opener for them, something very new. It might take a couple of days for people to get to know you, but after that you were one of them. The guys used to take me to the pubs, to the music bars. It was an interesting place to live and to play.

“But learning English was tough. They have an accent which is almost like the Scottish accent and people speak fast – even other Brits don’t understand them! But when my family and my kids came over, they loved that the house was always full of visitors.”

“All in all, it was a really interesting experience and, if things had worked out differently, I would have been happy to stay longer.”

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‘Sasha was a special player’

Injury prevented O’Connor from playing with Kozhevnikov but, as club captain, he was still very much part of the hockey scene in Durham. He certainly left an impression on the Russian, even if they never took to the ice together. “O’Connor was a good player, he was quick. He was the club captain, a leader, a warrior and he went on to play a big role for Team GB,” Kozhevnikov added.

And O’Connor was similarly impressed with his exotic new team-mate.

“He was a special player, he’d won it all – Olympics, World Championships. It was a big thrill when we heard he was joining us,” the Ontario-born blue liner said. “If it was anyone else in the league at that time, I wouldn’t have believed it but somehow in Durham [owner] Tom Smith and his son Paul managed to do these things on a regular basis. How they got him here at that time is anyone’s guess – he could have gone anywhere and earned more money.”

With skills and experience far beyond that of his team-mates, it wasn’t always easy for Kozhevnikov to fit into the club. “Sasha tended to do his own thing,” O’Connor added. “George [Peternousek, Durham’s head coach] was a very rigid coach, everything done to the whistle, 30 seconds, then line change, then 30 seconds, then line change. But Sasha did it his way, it was almost like the coach was beneath him. All the same, he certainly performed on the ice and he made the rest of us better. His distribution was fantastic, he had such a high hockey IQ and he had the confidence to go out there and do it.”

Playing alongside Kozhevnikov helped raise the level of players in Durham and it was perhaps no coincidence that the GB team that reached the 1994 World Championships included O’Connor, fellow naturalized Canadian Rick Brebant and Durham-born duo Ian and Stephen Cooper. “You get better when you play with better players,” O’Connor stated baldly, adding that Britain’s current climb up the world rankings has coincided with a similar crop of high-quality imports in the Elite League. That’s helped nurture the talents of the Steelers’ Brit Pack, including Ben O’Connor, a chip off the old block in defense.

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'Riga was a fantastic game, Torpedo will be a good test'

As a GB fan and someone working to promote Elite League hockey, O’Connor is hopeful that next month’s tournament – and this weekend’s high profile warm-up games – can help to boost the British game still further.

“[GB’s success] does create more media interest and over time that will impact on clubs. People will start wanting to watch their club, wherever they might be, and the extra exposure for GB will help everybody in our league and at lower levels. It all helps to get people to watch the game, to get involved. We’ve got really good support here in Sheffield, it’s turned into a real hockey town.

“And GB has had great preparation. When they played Dinamo Riga earlier in the season it was a fantastic game and they did very well to beat them. This weekend will be a good test. Torpedo will be fast, it gets our guys up to that level in terms of speed and thought.”

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Andy Potts Andy Potts
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