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A Giant crumbles: The Fall of Moscow Dynamo

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Jamie Bell - TSN.ca Staff
4/22/2010 1:33:03 AM
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As a hockey fan imagine for a moment that after being eliminated from the playoffs this spring, the Montreal Canadiens ceased to exist? 

Imagine if Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment decided that they were fed up with missing the playoffs for the past five seasons and decided to mothball the Maple Leafs? 

Or imagine if suddenly the Detroit Red Wings announced that they were merging with the Dallas Stars?

Those scenarios sound unfathomable to fans on this side of the Atlantic, however it appears as though that is exactly what is about to occur with one of the most storied club teams outside the NHL, Moscow Dynamo.

While Dynamo will not be the first KHL team to fold this season, (Lada Togliatti also ceased to be earlier this year) they are certainly the most decorated.  Established in 1946 and the winner of nine national titles, two Spengler Cups and one IIHF European Champions Cup, Dynamo is considered as one of the truly elite hockey teams in Russia's history.  They have produced such legends as Valeri Vasiliev and Alexsander Maltsev and more recently the likes of Alex Kovalev, Alexei Yashin and Alexander Ovechkin.

Ovechkin maintains such a love for the team that he continues to wear the number 32, the same number he wore with Dynamo, under his Capitals gear.  For Ovechkin, who still skates with the team during the summer months to stay in shape, the loss of his boyhood club is a cruel blow.

"In Russia, they're probably the same as Montreal -- it's a historic team, a great organization," Ovechkin said Wednesday prior to the Capitals' victory over the Canadiens in Game 4. "I can't believe there's going to be no more Dynamo. It's too bad."

It's a sentiment that is echoed by Dynamo supporters around the world.

Since attending his first game with his father in the mid-80s, Dmitry Chesnokov has been a diehard Dynamo fan.  Chesnokov, who is a contributor for Yahoo!'s Puck Daddy, is a rarity on this side of the pond; a transplanted Russian working in the North American hockey media.  His interviews with Russian-born stars for Yahoo! have given the hockey community some insight into the thoughts of individuals who may not always feel comfortable expressing their emotions in English.

Chesnokov was the first to break the news in North America of Dynamo's collapse earlier in the week.  Since then the story has spread with the information that Dynamo is in financial ruin and that a merger with fellow KHL side HC MVD is on the way.  For those who have dedicated their lives following Russian hockey, it is a hard pill to swallow.

"There is a feeling of disbelief and denial," Chesnokov told TSN. "No one wants to talk about it as being true, [people are] dismissing it, saying someone will save the club."

The team has been on a slippery slope over the last few months.  After finishing fifth in the KHL with 101 points, Dynamo was upset in the first round of the playoffs by rivals Spartak.  Swedish-born prospect Linus Omark was allowed out of his contract with the team to sign with the Edmonton Oilers while former Detroit Red Wings' forward Jiri Hudler was released.  Former NHL defenceman Danny Markov was also released and one time New York Islander Mattias Weinhandl has reportedly joined SKA St. Petersburg. 

According to Chesnokov several other players have found new teams while the entire Dynamo coaching staff was fired at season's end.

Dynamo captain and two time NHL All-Star Alexei Zhitnik said in an interview that Dynamo's players were dismissed 10 days ago with a suggestion by management "to stay in touch" to find out about new developments.  All in all, the information that has emerged paints a picture of a very dysfunctional organization on the brink of extinction.

On a personal level, the news is devastating for Chesnokov as he is carrying on his family's tradition with his passion for Dynamo.

"My grandfather was a fan. My father, cousins, uncles, my brother are all fans. I am a fan. Dynamo is one of the reasons I love hockey," Chesnokov told TSN.

Although hockey fans in Winnipeg and Quebec City understand the pain of having their team stripped away, neither side had the history or the winning legacy of Dynamo.  As in most situations of this ilk, the central issue appears to be money, but as most things are when dealing with the KHL, it may not be that simple.

"Hockey in Russia is not business but is more of a social program," explained Chesnokov. "People pay between $5 and $20 to see a game. The bulk of the money comes from sponsorships. And Dynamo's sponsors decided not to invest in the team anymore. Dynamo's revenues cannot sustain the expenses the team has. As strange as it sounds, the oldest club in Russia does not even have its own arena."

The question remains as to where does the blame lie for allowing a team with such a rich history to go under?  Ovechkin does not feel that the responsibility falls on the shoulders of any one person in particular.

"It's a hard situation I didn't talk to the owner or the guys there," Ovechkin admitted. "If it happens, it's not going to be one guy's fault. It'll be all the people who own Dynamo. They won't give out any money any more I think."

Chesnokov feels as though a great deal of responsibility should fall on the league itself.

"The KHL is different from the NHL in that the league does not represent individual clubs, the league doesn't really have an interest in keeping certain clubs in the league.  If a club goes under, so be it. That's the philosophy."

Details on the potential end of a Russian institution remain a bit sketchy.  While HC MVD continues to compete for the Gagarin Cup against AK Bars Kazan, there is now some speculation that the merger may be in jeopardy thanks to the success that HC MVD have found in the playoffs.  If the merger does not occur, the club itself may simply disappear.  That is something that its supporters are trying to prevent.

"The fan base is very vocal and is trying to appeal to people with power to try and save the team," said Chesnokov.  "Hockey fans throughout Russia, even those who are not Dynamo supporters, have been trying to help any way they can. Fans feel that Dynamo is just too big to fail. But recent history and the economic crisis taught us that no one is too big to fail."

While the team may be looking for a saviour, they should not be counting on Ovechkin to bail them out from their current predicament.  While the sniper laments the potential loss of the team he once proudly played for, he will not be the one to save them from financial ruin. 

"What can I do? If I say don't do it, who is going to listen to me?"  Ovechkin stated.  "It's a pretty hard situation for them, but I think they can find a way to rebuild and be good."

That optimism is what keeps fans of the club going.  There is plenty of speculation that the Dynamo will eventually rise again from the ashes of the current club.  Meanwhile Chesnokov admits it will be difficult trying to cheer for the new merged team.

"The talk is to try and save the brand, but it is proving to be impossible," Chesnokov said.  "A Dynamo-MVD team is not Dynamo. It is a new team with new rules and traditions. The logo will change. The brand is as good as dead."

"Imagine having a team named ‘Montreal Nordiques' that emerged in order to save the Quebec franchise. I don't think anyone would be able to say that it would work. The Canadiens are the Canadiens. They cannot be anything else."

A decision is expected to be announced at the conclusion of the Gagarin Cup.  With the sides tied at two games apiece as of late Wednesday evening, there remains time for a miraculous resolution to Dynamo's apparent dire situation.  At this point that may be all that Chesnokov has to hold on to.

"Not having them in my life, not having to worry about how they are doing is something I am not prepared for," admitted Chesnokov.   "I don't know how not to feel those things. There will be a huge void. But the hope is the last to die."

Dynamo Moscow (Photo: AFP/AFP/Getty Images)

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(Photo: AFP/AFP/Getty Images)
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