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World junior championship: Can Russia break its curse? Ufa may be the answer

Russia's Nail Yakupov

Sports – especially hockey – are a breeding ground for all sorts of superstitions. Surely you’ve heard a bunch of them. Some players always lace up their left skate first, some don’t talk to the media before the game, some have to tap their goalie’s pads a certain number of times before the puck drops.

It is widely believe that whatever country hosts an international tournament is cursed. Stupid, right? Come on, Canada, back me up.

Of course, it makes little or no sense in the context of World Juniors. However, the last team that won the gold medal on home soil at the IIHF world championship was Team USSR back in 1986. So 26 years of failure would make you believe in all sorts of things.

And if you’re modern Russia, that scares you. Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian team has been unable to deliver at home on any level.

The first international tournament post-Soviet Russia ever hosted was ironically in Ufa with 1996 European Hockey Championship. That was the predecessor of the U18 IIHF world championship, which came into being in 1999.

Russia won the tourney by a goal differential (let’s not get into the schematics too much), Ufa native Andrey Zyuzin was named the MVP and went on to get picked by the San Jose Sharks second overall. Future Calder Trophy winner Sergei Samsonov was also on that team along with Maxim Afinogenov, Andrei Markov and Oleg Kvasha.

So far, so good. However, four years later St. Petersburg hosted Russia’s first IIHF world championship. The city built a brand new rink that held 13,000 people – a big deal for Europe, and even a bigger deal 12 years ago – while Team Russia was able to bring home the big guns: Maxim Afinogenov, Alexei Zhitnik,  Sergei Gonchar, Alex Khavanov, Igor Kravchuk, Dmitri Mironov, Andrey Markov, Valeri Kamensky, Andrei Kovalenko, Viktor Kozlov, Andrei Nikolishin, Oleg Petrov, Alexei Yashin, Alexei Zhamnov were able to join the team and Pavel Bure (rings any bells?) captained the mob.

Russia finished 11th. Ouch.

A year later Moscow hosted the world juniors. Alex Svitov, Anton Volchenkov, Denis Grebeshkov, Stanislav Chistov, junior superstars Pavel Vorobiev and Mikhail Yakubov, and Ilya Kovalchuk are on the team. They finished second in round robin, losing to Team Finland and tying Switzerland. Yes, they had ties 11 years ago.

Russia lost to Sweden  in the quarter-finals 3-2 and finished seventh. Six months later Kovalchuk was drafted first overall, Svitov would go third and Chistov fifth overall. Russia would win two of the next three world juniors. Neither of them at home.

International hockey comes back to Russia in 2003 when Yaroslavl gets to host the U18 world championship. The home team featured two noteworthy kids in full-face masks. One of them is Evgeni Malkin, the other – Alex Ovechkin. Again – no dice. Russia comes in third.

In 2007 Russia wins the U18 worlds in Finland with a really young team that featured Evgeni Dadonov, Alexei Cherepanov, Maxim Goncharov, Dmitri Kulikov, Kirill Petrov, Nikita Filatov and two current Stanley Cup champions Andrei Loktionov and Slava Voynov. Except for Dadonov and Cherepanov, everyone came back the next year to Kazan, Russia.

Team Russia looked strong, they made it to the finals and met Team Canada. The tournament usually runs in early April, so Canada rarely sends their best players to go. In fact, in the history of the tournament they made it to the finals just three times. That was their third time.

Ryan Ellis, Tyler Myers, Matt Duchene, Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, Cody Hodgson and Brayden Schenn lit up Team Russia in front of the home crowd 8-0 and won the gold. Comments are redundant here.

A few weeks later Moscow hosted the men’s world championship and they hit the ground running, but again lost to Finland in overtime in the semifinal. Canada beat them easily in the final en route to the gold again.

And now Ufa hosts world junior tournament. Strictly speaking – the town’s first major international tournament, unless, of course, you count 1996 European Championship and two games of 2007 Canada-Russia Super Series. Russia hosts its second world juniors in modern era (the Soviet Union hosted the tourney three times). Frankly, again they have the first overall pick at their disposal – Nail Yakupov.

One may overestimate or underestimate Russia’s power. However, the hosting team curse is clearly there. Unless, of course, you choose not to believe in it.

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