International Ice Hockey Federation

Fed up with bottom-feeding

Fed up with bottom-feeding

At home and well-stocked, Belarus hopes to rise

Published 08.05.2014 20:07 GMT+3 | Author Slava Malamud
Fed up with bottom-feeding
That’s how Belarusian fans want to see the likes of Alexei Ugarov, Alexander Kitarov and Mikhail Grabovski: celebrating a goal. Photo: Jeff Vinnick / HHOF-IIHF Images
Some teams go for the gold, some hope to be a factor, and some are just happy to be there. For the hosts of the 2014 Worlds, none of the above applied lately.

Theirs is the perpetual struggle for survival. If barely avoiding relegation were an art form, the Belarus national hockey team would’ve built itself enough of a reputation over the last three years to be worthy of the Pesniary, the country’s all-time most popular folk rock band. Of course, an art form it is not, and that’s why the host nation will try its best to avoid a fourth straight 14th-place finish.

In the last two tournaments in particular, played under the current format, it was always the same story for the Red and Green: despite hanging tough against some of the favourites, it took a solitary, exasperatingly close one-goal win over Kazakhstan and Slovenia respectively to hold on in the top flight. At home, before the eyes of their hockey-crazy fans who have made the KHL’s Dynamo Minsk one of Europe’s best-attended clubs, this certainly won’t do.

To say nothing of the fact that the 2014 edition of the Belarus team will have no excuses, almost as all of the country’s best players will be available, ready and willing.


As usual, the Belarusians will be relying on their naturalized foreign-born netminders to take care of the “last frontier”. Vitali Koval, a native of Russia who plays there for Torpedo Nizhni Novgorod, is coming off a solid KHL season spent on a bad team and boasts plenty of international experience. He will likely have the inside lane for the starting job.

As for Andrei Mezin, another Russian-born goalie, experience is practically his middle name. The 40-year-old is a Belarusian legend, having come up with a heroic performance in the famous 2002 Olympic upset of Sweden. But the wily veteran, whose likeness was printed on a Belarusian postal stamp 12 years ago, has spent the last season as a backup on Avangard Omsk and only saw action in 16 games. His stats were nothing to write home about, but much of that can be attributed to Avangard’s porous defence and Belarus will hope Mezin can be relied upon in a pinch to provide some old-time magic.

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A bit of a wild-card in the mix is Canadian-born Kevin Lalande, who accepted Belarusian citizenship in 2012 and may finally get his chance to play in the World Championship this year. It has been a while, though, since Lalande’s days as a Dynamo Minsk fan favourite. After a forgettable season, it seems that “the Bisons” are ready to bid adieu to the goaltender. It would be interesting to see whether, after losing his job in Dynamo to the Minsk native Dmitri Milchakov, Lalande will also lose to him his national team berth.


Perhaps not Belarus’s strongest suit, the potential line-up doesn’t feature any household names. Dmitri Korobov, who had a solid season with the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch and made his NHL debut with Tampa Bay, is the player with the highest profile. Another AHLer, the Albany Devils’ Roman Graborenko, a promising puck-moving type, will also join the team.

The likes of Oleg Goroshko, Nikolai Stasenko and Vladimir Denisov are run-of-the-mill KHLers who can be adequate against some opponents but will need to play very smart and risk-free hockey against top competition if Belarus is to have any chance at all.


Despite offence being the deepest end of Belarus’s talent pool, the team has really struggled lately with putting the puck in the net, a feat it only managed to achieve 21 times in the last 14 World Championship games. This time around, though, all the best forwards with a Belarusian passport should be available to strut their stuff in Minsk.

We begin with Mikhail Grabovski of the Washington Capitals, the country’s only current bona fide NHL star, who began the season with a lot of promise but saw it derailed by injuries and inconsistent play. Still, he has great hands, will work hard in front of the net and is a terrific set-up man on the power play with tons on international experience.

Geoff Platt, another naturalized Canadian, was one of the few bright spots for Dynamo Minsk this year before being shipped off to Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, where he scored one of the prettiest goals of the Gagarin Cup playoffs.

The Kostitsyn brothers, Andrei and Sergei, bring ex-NHLer credentials and a lot of offensive-zone pizzazz, though playing on non-playoff KHL teams this year has been a trying experience for both. The same can be said of veterans Alexei Kalyuzhny and ex-Pittsburgh Penguin Konstantin Koltsov. Other tried and true KHLers such as Andrei Stas and Alexei Ugarov should also be available. With the possible exception of Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg’s Sergei Demagin, who is still recovering from an injury, this is the best Belarus has, so another goal-a-game performance is neither expected nor will be acceptable.


Glen Hanlon must have liked the Eastern European mentality coaching Alex Ovechkin and his Russian friends in Washington, because he’s been mainly seen around those parts ever since losing his NHL head coaching job. Hanlon’s first stint with Belarus came a few years ago and peaked at the 2006 World Championship in Riga, when he led the Red and Green to their best performance ever on this stage, reaching the quarter-finals and finishing sixth overall.

This feat earned Hanlon the Belarus Man of the Year honours, courtesy of the national sports newspaper Pressball. It surely eclipses the other piece of history Hanlon has made, being the goalie who conceded Wayne Gretzky’s first NHL goal. After ending his run in Belarus with the national team and Dynamo Minsk, Hanlon had done a stint in Slovakia before returning to the scene of his greatest coaching triumph. He is still loved and respected in Belarus, but failure to do well at home is not an option, and the pressure will be squarely on the Canadian coach’s shoulders.

Projected Result

Making the playoffs is the ultimate goal, and post-Olympic tournaments do offer more surprises than usual (see Belarus’s 2006 campaign), with North Americans often sending relatively weaker teams, so, after the expected shoo-ins Russia and Finland, the field in Group B is open. But, truthfully, not fighting against relegation again would be progress in and of itself. Limiting themselves to another agonizing win over Kazakhstan will not fly with Belarusians. In order for the home tournament to be a success, either Latvia, Germany or Switzerland, or any combination of the three, must go down as well.


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