Ready for the first games

10 August 2023

Dragons set for pre-season action

It’s time for the first pre-season action of 2023. The Dragons are in Togliatti for this weekend’s Lada Cup, with Viktors Ignatjevs sending his team onto the ice for the first time since he stepped up to the head coach’s role.

It’s a four-team, round-robin event in Russia’s Motor City. Our first game is against the host club on Friday evening, then we face Neftekhimik on Saturday before finishing against last season’s VHL champion Khimik on Sunday.

Lada, back in the KHL after a few years away, promises to be an intriguing opponent. In the KHL era, this one-time Russian champion has tended to be an outsider. However, Oleg Bratash has a solid-looking roster this term and will be expecting to push his team into the playoffs. To do that, he’ll likely be in direct competition with Neftekhimik, a club that has regularly found itself in direct competition with Kunlun. We’ll be up against a former #1 NHL draft pick in the form of local boy Nail Yakupov, who returned to Nizhnekamsk this summer for the first time since the lock-out of 2011/12. Then comes Khimik, whose head coach Igor Grishin had a spell behind the bench at Spartak last season.

It’s a pre-season engagement that evokes memories of our club’s first ever hockey action. Back in 2016, KRS took part in the same competition for its very first official games. The Dragons made a winning start, beating Ugra in overtime, edging Avtomobilist 2-1 and thumping Lada 4-0. Only a 0-3 defeat against Barys denied our guys gold in their first ever competition.

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Brett Bellemore in action vs. Lada during Dragons’ first KHL season

A return to Togliatti is not the only echo of our rookie season. Brett Bellemore, who played on defense in that playoff team, is back at the club as an assistant to Ignatjevs. As a player, Brett was a key figure. He missed just one game in that 2016/17 season. He had 15 (4+11) points and returned for our second season. The second stage did not last so long: after 14 games, he left the club in October 2017, recognizing that the recruitment process for the Beijing Olympics was already underway and he, like several others, had played his part in establishing pro hockey in our country.

But that’s not the end of the story. Like many players coming to the end of their playing careers, Bellemore moved into coaching. His final season as a player was in Denmark in 2018/19. Then he began picking up coaching experience. He spent the last two seasons as an assistant coach in college hockey in his native Canada before returning to the pro game with the Dragons. He’ll be focusing on coaching the defense this season.

Brett is not the only familiar face to rejoin the team. Goalie Jeremy Smith, already established as a club legend, returns on a three-year deal. The 34-year-old is another hugely-experienced player who is branching into coaching: at the end of last season, he worked as goalie coach for team China, helping Paris O’Brien and Sun Zehao during our World Championship tournament in Tallinn. Over the next three years, we can expect to see Smitty take on a mentorship role for the prospects in our system.

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