Not Your Father’s Soviet Junior National Team


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As the UNITED STATES prepares to face-off against RUSSIA to open the quarterfinal round at the 2014 IIHF WORLD JUNIOR CHAMPIONSHIPS, it is interesting to note some of the things that have changed radically since the former times of the old Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

It was not all that long ago that the official mouthpiece TASS, the acronym for “Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union”, loudly accused the Buffalo Sabres of “piracy” immediately following the defection of ALEXANDER MOGILNY to the National Hockey League club at the conclusion of the 1989 IIHF World Championships in Stockholm, Sweden. Of course, the widely read SOVIETSKY SPORT ran that delightful piece entitled, “The Golden Calf And The Horse Thieves From Buffalo”, on the heels of the 20-year-old Mogilny bolting the U.S.S.R. senior national team in Scandinavia. But all that public acrimony and political jockeying for Cold War position is a thing of the past, to be sure.

Nowadays, the star offensive player on Russia junior national team head coach MIKHAIL VARNAKOV’s squad at the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championships in Sweden is none other than MIKHAIL GRIGORENKO, the 19-year-old center who has spent this entire season skating for the very same Buffalo Sabres in the vaunted National Hockey League.

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Soviet Union left wing MIKHAIL VARNAKOV (19) of Torpedo Gorky and Canada center BRENT SUTTER (27) of the New York Islanders meet during the 1986 IIHF World Championships held in Moscow. Varnakov appeared at four major international tournaments (26 ga, 13 go, 20 pts) for the U.S.S.R. over the course of his playing career, which ended in 1993 after a season spent with German club SC Riessersee. Small but speedy, which was very typical for Soviet forwards of his era, Varnakov formed an effective troika for Torpedo Gorky with center Vladimir Kovin and right wing Alexander Skvortsov — a unit which did well for the U.S.S.R. national team against the National Hockey League All-Stars in the 1979 Challenge Cup series that was held at the famed Madison Square Garden in New York City.
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And the standout defenseman on Varnakov’s Russian side at the IIHF Junior World Championships in Scandinavia just so happens to be the mammoth NIKITA ZADOROV (6’5″ 227 lbs), the 18-year-old blueliner who made seven appearances and netted one goal for the Buffalo Sabres at the start of the 2013/14 NHL season before being assigned to the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League in the Canadian junior system.

No doubt, the results on the scoreboard are not quite what they used to be since the Soviet Union formally dissolved at precisely the same time that the 1992 IIHF World Junior Championships were being conducted in Germany. Including the final victory (a 5-0 shutout) for the so-called Commonwealth of Independent States over the Americans at Kaufbeuren that winter, the old U.S.S.R. won twelve of thirteen matches with the U.S.A. at the annual tournament for the world’s premier players under 20 years of age. Nikita Khrushchev can bang his shoe on the table at the United Nations in heaven as much as he likes but this sort of complete domination has, very much like the sovereign state last led by Mikhail Gorbachev, ceased to exist.

The series between Russia and the United States at the annual IIHF World Junior Championships has been remarkably even ever since these two nations first met in the Swedish city of Gavle on January 2, 1993. The Americans triumphed 4-2 on that occasion in Scandinavia and, altogether, boast five victories from the eleven WJC contests to date. As further evidence of the competitiveness that now exists in the games between the two countries at this junior international level, more than half of the Russia versus United States engagements (six out of the eleven) have been settled by one goal or less.

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As former Buffalo Sabres scoring star Alexander Mogilny did for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics once upon a time, Russia center MIKHAIL GRIGORENKO (25) is making his third appearance at the annual IIHF World Junior Championships this winter. The 19-year-old native of Khabarovsk, who has skated in 18 NHL games (2 go, 3 pts) for the Buffalo Sabres so far this season, has totaled seven goals and 17 points in 17 career contests for Russia at the annual IIHF World Junior Championships. Mogilny, who was also born in the far eastern Russian city of Khabaraovsk, amassed 18 goals and 35 points in 20 career WJC matches during the late 1980s.

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