Avangard Omsk took the ice for the first time since the tragic death of 19-year old Alexei Cherepanov on Monday, honoring their fallen teammate with a courageous 5-3 victory over Dynamo Minsk before a subdued crowd of 10,000 in Omsk.
In a solemn pre-game ceremony, Avangard captain Alexander Svitov and Cherepanov’s linemates Anton Kuryanov and Alexander Popov, who’d played on the same line with the young star since he broke into the league as a 17-year old during the 2006-2007 season, carried a giant banner with Cherepanov’s name and number “7″ from the team’s bench to the end of the ice, where it was slowly raised to the rafters of Omsk Arena. Fans lit candles, held banners and lifted their Avangard scarves overhead as a tribute to their hometown favorite. Large banners bearing his photo hung at either end of the rink, the young forward looking down on the proceedings with his characteristic smile while his teammates struggled to hold their emotions in check. “It’s good that they’ve hung up a photo where Alexei is smiling,” Popov would tell Championat.ru after the game. “He always smiled!”
A moment of silence followed, the hollow tick of a metronome echoing throughout an otherwise soundless arena. And finally his parents, Andrei and Margarita Cherepanov, sitting on either side of Omsk Governor and Avangard Chairman Leonid Polezhayev, were saluted by players and spectators alike.
When goaltender John Grahame let a floating shot from the blue line bounce over his shoulder and fall behind him into the net only two minutes into the game, it seemed like the emotional trauma of the past week would be too much for the team to overcome. But Kuryanov and Jaromir Jagr — playing an inspired game on a line with Cherepanov’s former line mates — combined to set up Pavel Rosa for a power play goal just two minutes later, helping to stir the crowd from its somber state.
It had been decided prior to the game that no music would be played during breaks in the game, leaving the building eerily silent, the silence broken only by occasional chants of encouragement by the fans. So quiet was the arena that it was possible to hear clearly the shouts of players and coaches on the ice and behind the bench throughout the game.
Popov added a shorthanded marker early in the second to give the Hawks the lead, but Dynamo Minsk, stuck in last place in the league and not willing to take pity on the disadvantaged home team, refused to concede, tying the score at two at 14:06 of the second period. Jakub Klepis gave Avangard another lead on the power play with two and a half minutes to go in the period, but Dynamo tied it again twenty-one seconds into the third on a 5-on-3 power play.
It looked like Jagr had put the Hawks back the lead when he batted home his own rebound midway through the third, but, in accordance with European rules, the play had already been blown dead because his initial shot struck Minsk goaltender Matush Kostur in the mask. But Jagr fed Kuryanov at the side of the net a short time later, and he was able to put the puck past Kostur from the unlikely angle, pointing heavenward as he celebrated his accomplishment as if to share it with the boy he’d celebrated so many goals with over the past two and a half years. Dmitri Pestunov added an empty net goal with 15 seconds remaining, assuring the solemn victory in Cherepanov’s honor.
“This was a difficult game for us today,” Avangard head coach Wayne Fleming said in the post-game press conference. “But it was also a very special day for us. We had to work and work hard against a Dynamo Minsk team that came to win. At the end of the first period, we probably could have scored five goals, and they had kind of a strange one go in early in the game. But we stayed strong, we stayed together, and we continued to believe in ourselves and in the memory of Alexei Cherepanov.”
As if written in a script, when all was said and done, Cherepanov’s linemates had each earned a goal and an assist, while his captain, Svitov, and mentor, Jagr, finished with two assists each. For Minsk, Sergei Demagin, who was briefly a member of the Rangers organization when he signed an AHL contract this summer, had two assists of his own.
At the end of the match, candles once again lit the stands in Cherepanov’s memory. A highlight reel of his most memorable moments, accompanied by what was said to have been his favorite song, was played on the video screen over center ice. On the ice, his teammates, emotionally spent, watched and wept. As they left the ice, their captain saluted the fans, pointing to the “7″ each player wore on their chest, making it clear they had played the game only for him.
You can watch either the full game, including the pre- and post-game events, or just the on-ice highlights at Sportbox.ru. Additional photos from the game can be found at the Avangard web site or from the KHL.
The tribute video shown on the jumbotron at the end of the game is below, or you can download a higher quality version from the Avangard site.
Finally, late yesterday I updated the previous post with a link to download an episode of the Russian TV show Overtime, which dedicated its broadcast to Cherepanov. A streaming version is now available on RuTube for those who don’t want to download the large file. The show opens with the highlight reel above, and includes interview footage from a 2006 feature on Cherepanov. Warning: there is a close up of Cherepanov in his casket at around 11:55, and footage of Jagr saying goodbye at the cemetery at around 12:40 that I found particularly difficult to watch.
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