On 7th September 2011, the sporting world was shook by the loss of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl ice hockey team, their Yak-42 aircraft crashing shortly after take-off and killing the entire playing squad and staff on board. The Kontinental Hockey League, Europe’s premier competition, was brought to a standstill, tributes poured in from around the globe and a great city lost its pride and joy.
Lokomotiv were champions of Russia in 1997, 2002 and again in 2003, and after only losing in the conference finals last season were set for a successful campaign this time around. Instead their season ended before it began, the tragedy taking place as the team headed to Minsk for their opening KHL game against Dinamo. For the citizens of Yaroslavl it was unthinkable, a hammer blow to the heart of a city proud of its hockey heritage and left with no team to represent them, their heroes gone in the blink of an eye and a cloud of uncertainty hovering over their future.
Within days announcements were made – Lokomotiv would continue as a club, they would drop into the lower leagues for a year and assemble a squad ready to return to the KHL in 2012. League officials pledged to keep hockey alive in Yaroslavl, and in December the recovering club will play its first match of the new campaign.
In the meantime, support for the club’s roots has exploded – the youth side has packed out the city’s secondary arena for home games, and there is a determination amongst the fans that their side will not disappear. The next generation will be ready in time, and there will be a city ready to support it.
Across town near the historical centre, Shinnik Yaroslavl are the city’s footballing representatives. They cannot boast the pedigree of their hockey counterparts – their highest top-flight finish was 4th in 1997 – but possess a stadium capable of holding over 20,000 spectators and are based in a city crying out for a side to take over the mantle of sporting success. However, their average attendance so far this season is a measly 4,000, and this with the side performing better than last year.
The source of the problem is not easy to pinpoint – the stadium is far more central than Lokomotiv’s Arena-2000 on the outskirts on the city, football is a sport widely recognised as the most popular in Russia, and after a disappointing campaign last season, manager Yuri Gazzaev has the team playing well – a win at relegation-threatened Orenburg on Thursday the latest in a run which has seen just one defeat in nine matches. The arrival of the FIFA World Cup in 2018 has brought with it a rennovation of Shinnik Stadium which will double the capacity, and yet the city’s interest in its football club is minimal at best.
In such situations, there is always the suggestion that the fans are unable to relate to the players, and in a sense it is understandable in Shinnik’s case – just five of the 28-man squad have come through the ranks at the club, and of those only captain Roman Voidel and defender Aleksandr Sukhov make regular appearances. There is undoubtedly a desire for homegrown talent to come through, especially among the more hardcore sections of the support, but it is far more practical for Shinnik to feed off the scraps left by other First Division sides and pick up Moscow rejects than to invest in its own youngsters.
Furthermore, there seems to be little interest in a side with no major signs of potential – even if Shinnik manage to overhaul the double-figure gap between themselves and the leading pair of Mordovia Saransk and fallen giants Alania Vladikavkaz to achieve promotion, it would take a miracle for them to achieve anything more than the narrowest of survivals in the top flight. Even with their hockey club in an extreme state of flux, the prestige of Lokomotiv alone makes the citizens of Yaroslavl far more likely to spend their roubles at the ice rink. Even in the VIP section at Shinnik, goalless draws are greeted with sighs of resignation rather than frustration, and the general sense of apathy is one which infiltrates the club and its fanbase.
Whether the only way for Shinnik to attract interest is through an Anzhi-style takeover or shock promotion remains to be seen, but what is clear is that in the wake of tragedy, Yaroslavl is in need of heroes. Lokomotiv will return, but in the meantime there is a sports team-sized void in the city, and all Shinnik has to do is step into it.