Flyers Alumni Russia Tour: Feb. 18, 2017
8:55 p.m. (St. Petersburg)
We played the SKA/Gazprom team today at 12,300-seat Ice Palace in St. Petersburg. We were told the game was sold out, and the admission tickets were sold separately from the KHL game pitting SKA St. Petersburg against Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod in the evening. The game was televised, and we had players interviewed by the Russian sports broadcasting equivalent of ESPN.
We had some additions to our lineup from this game who were not with us in Kazan. For one, Andrei "the Tank" Kovalenko, who played a portion of the 1998-99 season with the Flyers during his 620-game NHL career, joined us in St. Petersburg. He hasn't changed a bit personality-wise: still quick to laugh and joke with the boys in English or in Russian.
We were also joined by Igor Butman. If the name sounds familiar, it's because he is a world-famous jazz saxophonist. In his youth, though, Igor was also a fine hockey player. At some point, a choice to be made between hockey or music. Obviously, the choice worked out wonderfully for Igor but, to this day, his still knows what do with a stick in his hands instead of a sax.
Prior to the game, longtime NHLer Alexei Yashin (playing for the SKA side) stopped by to visit the guys in our dressing room. His brother, former Colgate forward Dmitry, was on our roster for this game. Both are great guys.
One of the other players on the SKA side was Alexander Drozdetsky; a third-round pick by the Flyers in 2000. Alex's father, Nikolai Drozdetsky, was one of the top scoring forwards on SKA Leningrad (as St. Petersburg was then called), CSKA (Red Army) and the Russian national team. He led all players at the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo with 10 goals (14 points) in eight games.
Alexander Drozdetsky was a bit of a hockey prodigy himself as a junior star. Tragically, his dad died at age 38 from complications due to diabetes. He never signed with the Flyers -- although the organization tried several times to bring hin to North America -- reportedly because he didn't want to leave his widowed mother alone in Russia. He spent his entire pro career in Russia, becoming a solid player although not quite reaching the heights of stardom that had some scouts believing the sky was the limit with his potential. He retired in 2012.
The biggest names the SKA side, apart from Alexei Yashin, were Alexander Medvedev and Roman Rotenberg. Mr. Medvedev, a Gazprom executive, important force in the creation of the Kontinental Hockey League and the former president of the KHL is one of the most powerful and influential men in Russia. So, too, is the 35-year-old Rotenberg who is the deputy chairman of the KHL board of directors, first vice president of the Russian Ice Hockey Federation, the head of staffing on the Russian national team including founding its hockey analytics department, and the vice president and board member of SKA St. Petersburg.
The SKA team took it to us in the first period, keeping us hemmed in our end of the ice and jumping out to a 3-0 lead. One was on a penalty shot. Another was scored moments after a missed off-side by SKA at our blueline. The third was a second-or-third crack at a loose puck. Our goalie Freddy Cassivi, who was chosen as the MVP of our game in Kazan, was once again our best player. We switched goalies mid-game and Oleg Romashko came in.
As the game went on, we got better. For the second straight game, Lindsay Carson opened the scoring for us, cutting a second period gap to 4-1. In the third period, we started to take it to them. Chase Watson and Andrei Nikolishin (who nearly pulled off the "Forsberg postage stamp" on a penalty shot moments earlier) cut the gap to 5-3. A late penalty shot goal for SKA made it a 6-3 final score.
Almost to a man, those SKA guys were highly skilled with the puck and smooth skaters. They were the younger, faster club overall. We were disappointed to lose, but there was no embarrassment in getting beaten by the group they had on the other side. The disappointment is that we needed to have a better start to the game, because Freddy was under siege and played great in goal but we still found ourselves in a deep deficit. No one quit, though, and we made a game out of it.
The crowd at the Ice Palace was awesome. There were even a few Flyers fans in the stands; Russians who came decked out in Flyers jerseys and rooting us on. One of the fans is picture above.
Joe Watson could not help but get emotional thinking about how the packed house overseas to see a Flyers team play -- but most especially the sight of Russian fans wearing Flyers jerseys -- would have brought joy to the late Ed Snider.
Joe's usually booming voice started to trail off as he said, "This would have meant so much to Mr. Snider. I only wish I could call him up and tell him all about it... but... I can't."
After the game, we stayed at the arena to attend the KHL game between SKA and Torpedo. We had dinner in and watched the game from a private suite at the arena. The SKA roster most prominently features longtime NHL superstar Pavel Datsyuk and high-scoring Ilya Kovalchuk. The Torpedo side had former Flyers forward Nikolay Zherdev.
Joe's spirits lifted again during the warmups of the SKA vs. Torpedo game.
"You see the way they're warming up, boys? I love the way these guys are loosening up, getting themselves ready to play. It's a smarter use of the time how they do it. We should adopt some of that in the NHL."
The game itself, won 4-2 by SKA, was pretty good. It's always a treat to watch Datsyuk in particular, no matter what league he's playing in. But the thing that really impressed us was the non-stop energy of the crowd. The atmosphere was electric, even by European hockey standards -- where the crowds are often closer to soccer-style fan clubs with their team chants, songs, drum banging, etc. They also have a fantastic cheerleader squad, called the SKA Sisters, dancing in the stands throughout the game (both during our Alumni game earlier and during the KHL game).
All in all, it was a successful and fun day. The only thing we'd change is the final score of our game.