Lights, music, action! Opening night in Beijing

Source: Club Press-Office



There’s nothing quite as nerve-jangling as opening night. Whatever the event, from the most modest amateur group to the biggest-budget blockbuster, it’s the culmination of months of effort, passion, hope and ambition. And finally, it’s time to put all that to the test. Can we actually do it? Will anybody come and watch? And if they do, will we persuade them to come back again?

The first question had been answered in Khabarovsk: victory in Kunlun’s first ever game proved that a hockey team in China was more than just a gimmick. The second question was answered by a crowd of almost 8,000, the biggest of the day in the KHL and more than the 7,200 who watched Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, one of Russia’s most enthusiastic hockey towns. Moreover, the numbers were not inflated by giveaways and promotions: the club’s marketing division opted not to use freebies to attract support, arguing that few people value what they get for free but many will follow a financial investment in a team with an emotional investment. Supporters, not just spectators, is the plan.

As for the third question, that was all about the action on the ice … and both teams played a full role in serving up a cracker of a game to introduce top-level hockey to China. Fans who previously watched Asia League games, or caught performances of China’s national team, could not fail to be impressed with the speed and skill on offer. Hockey newbies, watching the sport for the first time, were surely swept up in the drama of a high-scoring game and the satisfaction of a home win.

It didn’t take long to introduce the first new sporting hero to the Beijing crowd. Anssi Salmela needed less than four minutes to find the opening goal. His fellow Finn, Miika Lahti, fed him at the point where he deked an Admiral defenseman and advanced into the circle before firing a low shot that beat the goalie on his stick side. Admiral tied it up through Vladimir Tkachyov in the 11th minute, but the home team was in no mood to compromise and rattled up two unanswered goals before the first intermission.

Vadim Pereskokov got the first on 18 minutes, consolation for a young player who missed out on his Red Star debut in Khabarovsk due to a mix-up with his paperwork. His goal also rewarded a group of fans in the home sector touting a Russian flag. Kunlun’s first ‘Russian’ goal in the KHL was greeted with a happy chant of ‘ROS-SI-YA!’ from a section of Beijing’s expat community. Barely two minutes later it was 3-1, with Salmela involved again. Shaping to shoot, he wrong-footed Admiral’s short-handed defense with a pass to Lahti on the right-hand face-off spot. Lahti shot, and Max Warn was on the spot to turn the puck past Igor Bobkov.

Two successive power plays early in the second helped our team open up a 5-1 lead. Tuukka Mantyla, the hero of Khabarovsk, struck again before Warn got his second of the night. But for all the joy of a commanding lead, top-level sport is all about the contest. Admiral was not about to sink without trace and rallied thanks to two goals from Dmitry Sayustov to end the middle session at 5-3.

It didn’t amount to a crisis as we looked to play out the game, but it did demand a final flourish in the third period. And so, fittingly, Salmela delivered the coup de grace to wrap up the win, moving impressively along the blue line until a shooting lane opened for him to fire past replacement goalie Nikita Serebryakov. With assists from Warn and Lahti, it was a Finnish finish to a fine evening’s work for Kunlun.

So, has Kunlun’s debut turned Beijing’s spectators into supporters? The signs are promising: home-made placards in honor of Zach Yuen and Rudi Ying suggest the crowd has already found its local heroes. Three-point hauls for our flying Finns, Salmela, Warn and Lahti, make for instant fan favorites, and the Russian contingent also has successes to cheer. From disparate parts, from all over the world, Vladimir Yurzinov is forging a highly competitive team.

We’ll have to wait for confirmation, though. Apart from the upcoming three-game road trip, Kunlun’s next 11 home games will be in Shanghai; demand for the state-of-the-art facilities of the LeSport Arena is high and in the coming months the Olympic venue is fully booked. But, come the winter, we can hope to see those fans back with their team, while the memories of a triumphant opening night will live on far beyond the upcoming autumn weeks.