Lessons from history as Kunlun starts a new year

Source: Club Press-Office



In the history of hockey, clashes between China and Croatia have not often taken top billing. However, this was not the first time a team from the People’s Republic had taken to the Zagreb ice. The nations have been frequent rivals in the lower divisions of the IIHF World Championship and when Croatia hosted Division 2B in 2013, China – complete with a Belarusian head coach, Evgeny Lebedev, was there.

The tournament did not go all that well for the Chinese roster, with two wins in five games leaving the team fourth out of six. The head-to-head meeting with Croatia ended in a 5-2 defeat, undone by three unanswered goals in the second period.

Fast forward to 2017, though, and Medvescak and Kunlun were ready to renew that old international rivalry on the club stage as our team made its first journey into Central Europe in search of vital points to bolster our playoff push.

If recent history did not give much grounds for hope, there was at least the reassurance that the Red Star roster is very different from the team that dressed for the 2013 championship. In KHL action, no team is obliged to select exclusively from its own citizens and, as head coach Vladimir Yurzinov has often pointed out, the multi-national presence in Beijing is playing a key role in establishing a club that can transform Chinese hockey into a truly professional sport.

In Zagreb, meanwhile, a similar process has been on-going for the past few years after Medvescak decided to play cross-border hockey in the Austria EBEL tournament and then the KHL, giving local Croatian talent a higher level to aim at. The knock-on effect has already been felt in the national program – of the six meetings between Croatia and China, the first four were victories for the Orient; the last two, since Medvescak’s international adventures began, have been won by Croatia.

On the ice, the game rarely took flight. Maybe it was the after-effects of the New Year break, or maybe Kunlun’s long journey West had left it jet-lagged, but opportunities were hard to come by at either end for much of the first two periods. And, sadly, when a good chance finally arrived it came to the wrong end for our guys. Seconds into the final stanza, Colby Genoway intercepted a slack clearance on the Kunlun blue line and his pass picked out Francis Pare unmarked in front of Tomi Karhunen’s net. The experienced Canadian, a Gagarin Cup winner with Magnitogorsk in 2014, had time to pick his spot and fire over the goalie’s glove to open the scoring.

It proved to be the game’s only goal. The third period proved livelier than what had come before, but none of the 11 shots could find a way past Drew MacIntyre in the home net. Sean Collins went one-on-one but missed out; Tomi Sallinen burst through late on but found the goalie’s pads from close range. At the other end, the post denied Medvescak an empty-net goal – it was not a night for forwards to shine. Karhunen finished with a solid 32 saves, but no victory. MacIntyre faced 28 shots for his shut-out. A 1-0 scoreline is an improvement on a 5-2 loss, but the end result is the same.

The European tour continues with a trip to Slovakia, where Slovan Bratislava awaits. Like Medvescak, Slovan is some way adrift of the playoff spots in the West. But Milos Riha, a much-loved figure on the KHL circuit, demonstrated that he will not allow his players to give up and masterminded a 2-0 victory over Amur while we were playing in Zagreb. On Thursday, Red Star needs to rise to the challenge and get back on the winning trail as the season enters its decisive phase.