Locating Moscow or St. Petersburg on the map might not pose too much of a challenge for the average Canadian hockey fan. Ufa and Omsk, the two Russian host cities for the Canada/Russia Super Series, aren't quite as familiar.
Ufa, which lies 1,169 kilometres southeast of Moscow in the Ural Mountains, has produced its share of hockey talent over the years. Since the Soviet Union fell in 1991, five players from this river port city of 1.1 million have cracked NHL rosters.
The most successful was defenseman Igor Kravchuk, who logged 699 games with six clubs: Chicago, Edmonton, St. Louis, Ottawa, Calgary, and Florida. Kravchuk did even better internationally, capturing a record four Olympic hockey medals (matched only by Soviet goaltender Vladislav Tretiak and Czech forward Jiri Holik), including two golds (19).
One of Kravchuk's teammates at the 1987 Canada Cup was fellow Ufa native Alexander Semak, who scored the overtime winner in game one of the best-of-three final – a 6-5 overtime thriller – before Canada rallied to clinch this series with two straight victories on classic Mario Lemieux goals. Semak played 289 games for New Jersey, Tampa, the Islanders, and Vancouver in the 1990s before finishing up in Russia.
Meanwhile, defenseman Andrei Zyuzin will continue to do Ufa proud when he suits up for the Chicago Blackhawks, his sixth NHL club, in 2007-08. Forward Vadim Sharifijanov (New Jersey, Vancouver) and blueliner Nikolai Tsulygin (Anaheim) also had brief NHL careers.
What do all of these players have in common? They all wore they jersey, at one time or another, of their hometown club, Salavat Yulaev, which still seeks its first Russian Super League title. Its chances for next year may have improved with signings like former NHLers Oleg Tverdovsky and Alexander Perezhogin.
Omsk, a major oil-producing urban centre in southwest Siberia, already boasts a Russian Super League title from 2004 and its team, Avangard, was arguably the world's best in 2005 during the NHL lockout. Avangard, led by Jaromir Jagr and Maxim Sushinsky, defeated Finland's Karpat Oulu to win the inaugural IIHF European Champions Cup in St. Petersburg that year.
Interestingly, Omsk has attracted plenty of Czech talent besides Jagr. The late, legendary Ivan Hlinka, who coached the Czech Republic to Olympic gold in 1998, took the reins behind Omsk's bench in 2002-03, while Pavel Patera, a top Czech scorer who briefly played for Dallas and Minnesota, wore Avangard's red hawk logo on his chest for three seasons.
Some noteworthy Omsk-born players include forward Alexander Svitov (a former NHL first-round pick who spent time with Tampa Bay and Columbus), forward Andrei Taratukhin (a Calgary prospect), defenseman Viktor Blinov (a 1960’s Olympic and world champion), and defenseman Yuri Shatalov (who played two games in the 1972 Summit Series).
As far as Russia is concerned, it hopes that Alexei Cherepanov will emerge as one of the best players ever from Omsk. The same goes for the New York Rangers, who chose the young star 17th overall in this June's NHL draft. The 18-year-old winger racked up 29 points in 47 games with Avangard last season, and he's expected to spark the Russian offense during the Super Series.
Regardless of the result, Ufa and Omsk are sure to join Moscow and St. Petersburg as parts of Canadian and Russian hockey history, and earn their place in the ever-growing Canada/Russia rivalry.