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The Russian kids are alright

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Russia kicked butts and took names at the Karjala Cup while everyone else just wondered why they’d bothered to go.

IHOCKEY-EURO-CUP-SWE-RUS Photo by VESA MOILANEN/Lehtikuva/AFP via Getty Images

It all began when the Four Nations junior tournament usually held in November was cancelled. That’s when Russian Hockey decided to send their junior team to the Karjala Cup — a senior men’s national team competition and part of the Euro Hockey Tour. There was much consternation.

Could Russia have consulted first? They could have. They could have been conciliatory, even neighbourly, and discussed their plan with the other three teams: Finland, Sweden and Czechia. The moon could turn pink and the sky yellow too. Russia pissed off the other countries, particularly host Finland, exactly as they expected to, and they blandly smiled and held formal press conferences to introduce their “senior men’s national team” as they kept calling them. They just never backed down.

Finland meanwhile, acted like this:

The hockey gods did not smile on that petulance. The Finns and Swedes, who had set up U20 and J18 camps for the same period as the Karjala Cup, had to cancel them both at the last minute when, while the initial Coronavirus tests for arriving players were all negative, some tested positive a few days later, and everyone was sent home.

So, while the Czechs had sent a team with a few junior prospects on it, as they struggled to find players with their top league shut down temporarily, Finland and Sweden had opted to not have anyone come in from Russia (or were prevented by travel regulations). They both iced teams from the SHL and Liiga only.

The results:

Finland over Sweden 3-2
Russia over Czechia 3-0
Czechia over Finland 2-0
Russia over Sweden 2-1 (shootout)
Russia over Finland 6-2
Czechia over Sweden 3-1

Russia went undefeated to finish first, with the mixed Czech team second, and the two properly formed men’s teams dead last, with only the one win between them. Someone had to win their game against each other, so they couldn’t both be winless.

All that Finnish petulance must be leaving a sour taste in their mouths now.

The sad fact is, none of the one-sided war of words was about hockey. This was just the usual political and cultural tensions between Finland and their next door neighbour who used to be their imperial masters. (Russia, not Sweden, who also were their imperial masters, but a lot longer ago.) It’s not exactly difficult to understand the broad strokes of the tensions between the two countries. Imagine if Canada lived next door to a nuclear power run by a megalomaniac? I mean one good at hockey, obviously.

Jokerit leaving the Liiga in 2013 to join the KHL and all the trouble that’s gone on with that team and the Coronavirus has likely left Finnish hockey people fed up with cause. Jokerit is currently being forced to play a road trip in Russia where they have had more positive tests after having 20 or so from the trip before. They’ve been playing with an undersized roster for two games, and now their choice is to keep playing, because hockey is safe to play if the Russian authorities say it is with a bland smile, or forfeit the games. And they’re already half a dozen games behind the other teams because they aren’t allowed to play in Finland when they should be all in quarantine, so they have a packed schedule for the second half of the season.

Jokerit has added three players from Liiga teams on try-out contracts to try to get a full enough roster to continue in the KHL. They can’t do what the Russian teams do — fill the team with junior-aged players — because theirs are in quarantine after several of them contracted the virus as well. Mikko Lehtonen hasn’t played since the team’s recent return to Finland where they all quarantined, so we have to assume he is one of the infected. Note: Lehtonen was back in the lineup for the Tuesday, November10 game, so in the absence of information we are left to wonder if he is now better or if he was quarantining and was never sick.

Finland, with a population smaller than Toronto’s, nonetheless shows the same Coronavirus case decline and then surge like Canada has been experiencing, and they have very similar rules about travel and quarantine. They defer to their health authorities, and they’re trying to play their hockey season with limited fans in a way that’s safe. They likely see the Russian approach as dangerously lax. Well, they only have to look at Jokerit’s experiences to see that.

It’s not unreasonable to see the fairly infuriating bland Russian smiles and their intractable stubbornness over Jokerit’s situation and just decide everything a Russian does is wrong. Not for a Finn. But ... here’s the thing. The U20 team was a great idea. Not because they spanked all comers and won every game. But because with the KHL a nest of disease, and all the junior players about to be sent to WJC camps anyway, they were the ideal level of national team to be playing right now.

Why even bother having national team competitions at all? Why travel and risk more infections? The only point to any of it is getting ready for the WJC in December, a bubble tournament that looks to be as safe as the NHL playoffs were. The Karjala Cup used a bubble format, and that part went very well for the hosts. The problem was the Swedes and Finns ended up with a D-team version of their national squads facing some kids who cared enough to play hard.

The top four scorers at the Karjala Cup (all Russians) were:

Vasili Podkolzin 1G - 4A - 5Pts
Yegor Afanasyev 2 - 2 - 4
Rodion Amirov 3 - 0 - 3
Yegor Chinakhov 2 - 1 - 3

They’re followed by a host of players with one goal and two assists that includes two Czechs, one Swede and two more Russians.

The two other Leafs prospects were Artur Akhtyamov, who sat as backup to Yaroslav Askarov for Russia, and did not play, and Axel Rindell, who was pointless in three games for Finland (they only scored five goals in those three games, it’s not like one mid-pairing defender was going to change that).

The Russian juniors were more than man enough for the men’s teams of their neighbours. They were fast, creative, offensively focused, and they came to what is often a fairly dull tournament to prove something. They were impressive, and the Leafs’ 15th overall pick was very impressive along with them. It’s easy to be that free and easy when you have the best goaltender in the tournament by a large margin. But Team Canada is waiting for them in Edmonton for the WJC, and they won’t be dull like a team full of Liiga lifers who would rather have had the week off.

If this is an indication that new coach Igor Larionov can unlock the potential that has always been there in the Russian junior teams, maybe the Canadian Red Machine has an opponent coming for them who can beat them.

Meanwhile at the actual senior level, the EHT moves to Russia for the Channel One Cup in December. It won’t have anyone’s junior teams, as they’ll already be in Edmonton, so it will remain to be seen if it even happens, and if it does, who goes.

Most observers expect Mikhail Abramov to join the Russian junior team in Edmonton, so the Leafs should have three members of the stubborn and cocky Russian team to cheer for.

Game One, Goal One:

Game Two, Important Goal Two:

Game Two Shootout Goal:

Game Three, Goal Three: