First up, a raw Kunlun Red Star took on Pirati Chomutov at our temporary base in Liberec. Here, the emphasis was very much on Chinese talent: 16 of the players could be part of the Chinese national team when the 2022 Olympics comes around, with a scattering of international reinforcements to make up a full four lines. That meant calling up players from our VHL farm club and MHL youth team to produce an experimental line-up. There were six players under the age of 21 involved in a battle against a seasoned, professional men’s team from the Czech Republic. Several guys from the KHL roster, meanwhile, got a break. After all, it’s early days and this stage of pre-season is about conditioning as much as game time. There will be plenty of opportunities for skirmishes on the ice before the puck drops in September.
Our opposition in that first friendly was a stalwart of the Czech ExtraLiga. Pirati has a long history and added a distinguished footnote by taking part in the first ever clash between a Czech and a Chinese hockey team. But it took a long time before that combination produced a goal: late in the third period, with the game goalless, a 4-on-3 power play enabled Vladimir Ruzicka Jnr to feed Juraj Valah for the only goal of the night. Ruzicka Snr famously played in the Far East when he helped the Czech to Olympic gold in Nagano; Ruzicka Jnr now has an Oriental memory of his own.
For head coach Tapola, the game was all about assessing the depth of the KRS organization. And the Finn was not disappointed with what he saw, despite a narrow loss.
“We had a lot of young Chinese players and they did well against an adult team from a strong league,” he said. “They battled all game, they never slowed down, they never gave up. They tried to play as a team and even created some good chances. In the end, it was a tight game. We couldn’t take our chances on the power play, and in the end we took too many penalties. But overall it was a good game.”
Next up came a bigger challenge. KHL rival Avtomobilist swept aside Pirati with a 5-0 scoreline over the weekend. The Yekaterinburg team has invested heavily this summer, putting together a powerful forward line in a bid to challenge at the top of the Eastern Conference. As a result, it was time to wheel out some of our own big names – old and new – as we iced a team rather closer to what we might see in competitive action a few short weeks from now.
To Red Star’s credit, our team silenced that Avto offense – Nigel Dawes, Stephane da Costa, Dan Sexton and all – until the dying seconds. Taylor Beck’s goal against his former club looked like it would be enough to win a lively pre-season encounter. It took a late, late power play goal from Dawes to finally beat Sun Zehao. Sun, a 22-year-old goalie of great potential, was playing his first game against opposition of this caliber (last season he was on the roster for our VHL farm club, Heiliongjang, but did not make it on to the ice) and he made the most of his big chance.
Head coach Tapola paid tribute to the youngster after the game, while reminding him to keep his feet on the ground. “There were lots of good things that we could take away with us,” said the Finn. “The performance of our goalie, Sun Zehao, was definitely one of those, although, of course, he still has a long way to go in his career.”
Dawes struck again in overtime to give Avto the win, but Tapola saw positives and areas for improvement. “It was a good game and we had chances to win it,” the head coach said. “We couldn’t capitalize on some decent scoring chances and in the end we gave the opposition a chance.
“It feels like we’re not quite psychologically ready to win games: we’ve lost two games by the odd goal. That’s something we have to work on. Once the season starts, every game will be tough and the teams that have strong mentalities will come out on top.”