Traveling Russian team no stranger to long trips

It is approximately 5,000 miles from Moscow to Grand Forks, N.D., but traveling like they did for the first of a series of exhibition games in the United States is nothing new for players from the the visiting Russian Red Stars.

The Red Stars are players chosen from teams within the Molodezhnaya Hokkeinaya Liga, sometimes called the Youth Hockey League or the Minor Hockey League. Russia, Belarus, Latvia, Kazakhstan, Lithuania and Slovakia all have teams in the MHL, which spans nine time zones.

“Geographically, we are the biggest junior league in the world,” MHL commissioner Dmitri Efimov said from Moscow before the team traveled to the U.S. for the tour.

Efimov made it clear that the Red Stars have goals for the exhibition games.

“We are hoping these opportunities will better prepare players for future international competitions,” he said. “There is no doubt that some of these players will someday represent Russia in important international games.”

The Red Stars are scheduled for six games against college teams and another two against North American Hockey League opponents on a trip that runs through Jan. 5.

They resume the college portion of the schedule at Vermont on Dec. 27, and also have set games at Yale (Dec. 28), Northern Michigan (Dec. 30), Notre Dame (Jan. 3) and Massachusetts-Lowell (Jan. 5).

The MHL is in its third year of existence, and it is growing — from 22 teams in 2009-10 to 32 teams this year. The MHL is an under-22 league with a maximum of three 21-year-olds per team.

“Previously, many players were forced to retire from high-level hockey because there was nowhere for them to play,” Efimov said. “There were many very good players that graduated from school teams but they were not yet ready for the KHL.”

Many of the MHL teams are affiliated with the Kontinental Hockey League, generally regarded as the world’s second-best professional league. This affiliation has similarities to the one between the NHL and the AHL — there have been times that teams not making the KHL playoffs have sent age-eligible players to their affiliated MHL teams for their playoffs.

In the MHL’s inaugural season, the KHL’s Metallurg Novokuznetsk sent Dmitri Orlov, Sergei Bobrovsky and Maxim Kitsyn to their junior affiliate Kuznetsk Bears. Orlov now is a defenseman with the Washington Capitals, Bobrovsky a goaltender with the Philadelphia Flyers and Kitsyn a Los Angeles Kings draft pick that went on to play major junior for Mississauga of the OHL last year and has since returned to the KHL.

Those players helped the eighth-seeded Bears make it to the league final. Last year Red Army’s junior affiliate won the Kharlamov Cup (named after legendary Russian player Valery Kharlamov) after Sergei Gaiduchenko, Sergei Andronov and Mikhail Pashnin, who played the whole season for Red Army’s KHL team, were added to their lineup.

Before the KHL, the best league for older players was the Vysshaya Hokkeinaya Liga, referred to as the Major League. The VHL is now affiliated with the second tier of the MHL, which is comprised of 19 teams.

“The players in the MHL are very busy with play and travel, so a job or full-time schooling is not an option for them,” Efimov said. “A few continue to take classes but online courses are not nearly as popular in Russia as in North America.”

Attendance in the league is on the rise, especially where the MHL team provides the only game in town.

In the most recent NHL draft, six players with significant ice time in the league were taken: Second-rounder Nikita Kucherov, Maxim Shalunov, Yaroslav Kosov, Nikita Nesterov, Daniil Sobchenko and Alexei Marchenko all played most of their 2010-11 season in the league.

Last year, the Red Stars played Yale and Army along with three Canadian junior teams, with Yale being the only team to beat the Red Stars.

The tour opened with a 5-1 loss to North Dakota on Dec. 17, but the Red Stars are hoping to get stronger as the tour goes on. The travel and the unfamiliarity of players and coaches with each other will no doubt be a factor.

Efimov said he is appreciative of the efforts of Paul Kelly and the staff of College Hockey Inc. to assist with the tour. Efimov is aware that some players blossom late and is glad there is now a league for players to continue to develop.

College hockey fans can probably relate: Undrafted college players can be found across the NHL.

So is it possible that one of the touring Red Stars will find a spot in Division I hockey?

“It is a possibility, but the language barrier is huge,” said Efimov, who attended the University of Pittsburgh. “What we don’t want to see is a Russian player coming to North America and things not working out. There have been some very good players come to North America for junior and professional opportunities and, while many have thrived, for others things didn’t go well.”