Before the Karjala Cup got underway, Russia’s decision to send its U20s to the tournament sparked controversy. Once it was over, those who claimed the Russian Hockey Federation was disrespecting the tournament looked rather foolish. Igor Larionov’s juniors proved more than capable of doing a man’s job, winning all three games to lift the trophy. Thursday’s first period against Finland — three unanswered goals in the host’s net — set the tone. The teenagers showed great character to score a late goal on Sweden, forcing a shoot-out that was decided by Yaroslav Askarov’s solid goaltending and Vasily Podkolzin’s skilful winner. Then, in a winner-takes-all showdown against the Czechs, Askarov got his first international shut-out in a 3-0 win.
Rodion Amirov continued his trail-blazing season with a goal in each of his first three international appearances. Nobody has done that before for team Russia, with only Alexander Popov, Roman Lyubimov and Pavel Poryadin scoring on their first two international appearances. The Maple Leafs prospect is also far younger than those three — just one month past his 19th birthday. Who knows, maybe we just wrote the first chapter of another Red Machine legend.
Another of Russia’s goalscorers in Helsinki was Yegor Afanasyev, who found the net twice in three games. That’s a big boost for CSKA, which acquired the Predators prospect on loan as his NHL club looks for him to continue his development in Russia. Unusually, Afansyev made his international debut without playing in the KHL: after leaving for the USA early in his career, the 19-year-old never played even at youth level in his homeland, and has so far featured in two JHL games since linking up with the Army Men. A solidly-built winger, he looks well-placed to continue his progress when he gets a chance on Igor Nikitin’s roster this season.
The success of Russia’s juniors on the international stage is not such a surprise when you look at the impact young players have made in this season’s KHL. Although barely a third of the regular season is done, the 2020-2021 campaign has already seen 91 U20 players — more than any other season — get game time in the league. The previous best was set back in 2009-2010. The youngsters are also on track to score more goals than before — the current record is 103, this season’s tally is 42 and counting — and could easily make more appearance (434 games up to now, against a record of 1,714). Not surprisingly, the average age of players in the KHL is lower than ever, dropping below 27 years for the first time. And 163 players have made their debuts so far this season, against a record of 215 in the 2013-2014 season when two new clubs came into the league.
The Karjala Cup was not the only international action this weekend. In Krefeld, the annual Deutschland Cup went ahead with Germany, Latvia and Germany B in action. However, with Dinamo Riga involved in KHL games and head coach Bob Hartley opting to remain with Avangard, this was an experimental Latvian roster. Only one player, Gunars Skvorcovs of Kunlun Red Star, had seen recent action in the league, although there were several familiar names in action, such as Martins Karsums, Andris Dzerins, Arturs Kulda and Rihards Bukarts. Germany had one current KHLer in its roster — Korbinian Holzer, a 32-year-old defenseman, signed for Avtomobilist last week and is set to make his debut for the Yekaterinburg club when the season resumes. However, he could not help his country to win its home tournament: the Germans came out on top of the three-team group, but lost 3-2 to Latvia in the final. Frenks Razgals, once of Dinamo Riga, scored two including the overtime winner.
There was good news for the KHL’s imports this week. After months of hard work behind the scenes, our foreign players were reunited with their families at last. The combined efforts of the KHL, the Ministry of Sport, the Russian Interior Ministry and the Border Service found a way to resolve the bureaucratic headaches posed by the current coronavirus restrictions, and the first family visas were issued. Late on Thursday, a specially chartered plane arrived in Ufa, carrying the families of Salavat Yulaev’s Finnish contingent: Teemu Hartikainen, Juha Metsola, Markus Granlund, Sakari Manninen and fitness coach Matias Sarvela. The families of players and staff at SKA, CSKA and Ak Bars are also on their way and the rest of the league will be close behind.