Vyacheslav Leshenko helped Russia to silver at the world juniors (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
In the drive to produce more elite talent and win more tournaments, Russia will hot-house the best under-18s in the nation and have them play against other junior teams this season.
Though Russia has been great at the world juniors, it's been five years since the hockey power even medalled at the world under-18s and even then, it was just a bronze. The United States has dominated the latter competition thanks to its National Team Development Program, which hot-houses the best under-18s and under-17s in Michigan, where the two squads concentrate on strength training and playing older competition.
Now, Russia is getting in on the act.
In a move orchestrated by several different sporting bodies in Russia, an under-18 team will be established for the 2015-16 season that will mirror the U.S. NTDP. The squad's first challenge will be the Ivan Hlinka tournament, which takes place in August in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
During the season, the team will play against competition in the MHL, which is the KHL's junior circuit. This is very similar to the NTDP, which plays a large swath of games against United States League teams. Since USHL teams have players who are 19 and even 20 years old on their roster, the NTDP gets challenged by more physically mature opponents (the NTDP kids also play against top college teams such as Michigan and North Dakota, furthering the challenge).
According to Russian Hockey Federation executive director Dmitry Kurbatov, the program will put an emphasis on big-picture goals (translated from an official statement on the federation's website):
"Our main objective is not only a victory in the junior tournaments," he said. "We are laying the basis for future generations of elite players, the backbone, which will draw youth and national teams."
The Russians are not the first to buy into the successful U.S. national team model. Slovakia's Orange20 program has brought together the best under-20s in the nation since 2007-08 and had them play against actual men in Slovakia's top league, the Extraliga. For years, it seemed like too much of a jump, since Slovakia fared no better internationally and the kids were routinely getting hammered in the Extraliga. But at the 2015 world juniors, Slovakia shocked the field by winning bronze over Sweden in Toronto, so there is finally fruit being harvested.
The new Russian U18s will be based out of Moscow's Novogorsk training center, which has gone through a big facelift recently.
"We want to provide comprehensive training," said Russian Hockey Federation VP Roman Rotenberg. "It includes not only the teamwork on the site, but also high standards of health services, technologies and methods of recovery, anti-doping, scientific support, and so on."
The next big-picture question is how this affects the flow of young Russian talent to North America in the future. Many of the players taken in the recent CHL Import Draft were Russians with 1998 birthdays, including top selection Vladimir Kuznetsov (Acadie-Bathurst) and third overall pick Dmitry Sokolov (Sudbury), both of whom have already committed to coming over. Will the chance to play for a Russian national team all season staunch the talent drain to North America? It has certainly been a great motivator for the U.S. NTDP recruits.
"The aspect of representing my country appealed to me," said 2015 Arizona Coyotes pick Christian Fischer, who just completed his NTDP career. "Putting on the USA jersey is something special."
Though the Ivan Hlinka may be coming up too fast for the new Russian initiative to have an impact – I'd still have Canada as the favorite – it will be interesting to see how Russia fares at the world under-18s in the spring. The Russians haven't won gold at that tournament since 2007 and for a competitive nation, that's far too long.