While it won’t take the sting out of the defeat suffered in the gold medal game, the Russian U-20 squad that competed at the 2020 World Junior Championship can leave the two-week tournament with their heads held high knowing the silver-medal finish marks the best result for the nation at the tournament in the past four years.
And two weeks prior to the event, The Hockey News’ publisher Graeme Roustan had the opportunity to speak with one of the minds behind Russia’s silver medal-winning side. In Russia to moderate a panel at the World Hockey Forum, Roustan sat down with Roman Rotenberg, first vice president and GM of Russian Hockey. A rising star on the international hockey scene, Rotenberg appears at No. 85 on The Hockey News’ annual People Of Power and Influence List and spoke about the growth of the game in Russia, globally and the power of the Russian hockey brand during his conversation with The Hockey News.
Find below a sneak preview the discussion, which will appear in the annual Money and Power issue that hits newsstands on Jan. 13, 2020.
Graeme Roustan: The first thing I want to ask is what you’re doing to grow the business of hockey in Russia.
Roman Rotenberg: We’re trying to get more fans involved with hockey. We’re working on that every day, and, of course, once the national team is succeeding, we get more people to watch our game on TV and we have more fans. We have different projects, like the Red Machine national-training program, which has a mobile-phone application and video coaching. It’s like a nationwide training program for kids. We just launched it with the older age groups. So now we have a unified system, and the kids love it. And they love the Red Machine, we have our own clothing line, the Red Machine clothing line, we have an online store, and we’re thinking about producing hockey equipment under the Red Machine brand in Russia. The Red Machine brand is something that unites everybody in Russia. Especially after the 2018 Olympic win in Pyeongchang, everybody feels like the Red Machine is back. The country won its first Olympic gold medal since 1992, so the Red Machine brand has a winning culture behind it, and in Russia there’s no other brand like it right now.
GR: That’s great if you have a strong brand like Red Machine. It appeals to not just hockey people but to everybody.
RR: The potential of this brand is huge. But we need to do a lot of investment. We just started this brand in 2015. The first reaction from fans was, “Why do you have to name our national team the Red Machine again?” But I think for kids and the young generation, it’s important to have a brand behind the official national teams so they can relate to them. We’re aiming for a winning philosophy, and the example of winning games from the past, we have to relate to that. Education is big part of our philosophy when doing this national program, we want the players to also get an education, and we’re discussing that on the government level. Other countries, like Canada, the U.S., Finland and Sweden, the big hockey countries, this has already been part of hockey for long time: players not only play hockey but they also got an education. But in Russia there was a different system: you either played hockey as an occupation or you studied. You couldn’t do both, and that’s why you get a lot of players that after they finish their career, they really can’t do anything for society. They don’t have a role in society, and they get lost sometimes. We should, first of all, prepare people for life so that even if they don’t play professional hockey, they can be lawyers or business people. That’s the difference that we’re making right now.
GR: Is the growth of hockey outside Russia something that’s on your mind?
RR: Yes, 100 percent. All my life, I’ve been travelling, and I’ve been playing hockey since I was a kid. I grew up in Finland, so I know the culture there. I tried out many, many times in Canada. I played some tournaments when I was younger in the U.S. And I see some good examples around the world when it comes to hockey development, like the U.S. National Team Development Program. Then there’s the Canadian approach, and there’s the Finnish approach. And now we have China, which is a new market for everybody. I’ve been a part of that development, and the problem is there’s no way to drive it, there’s no driver for the development of hockey in China. There’s no one person to take it further. And especially with the potential in China, 1.3 billion people, can you imagine if every person in China bought a hockey stick or hockey skates? That’s a huge amount of money that could be good for hockey development. But that’s theory. In reality just 8,000 people in China play hockey. It’s a market of 1.3 billion, but only 8,000 people are playing. Of course we want to develop Russian hockey, but we’re also interested in developing world hockey. Because when more people are playing hockey, there are more fans, and it’s potentially also income for us. So we want that.
GR: Do you see a bigger purpose for all the hockey federations around the world?
RR: Hockey unites everybody. Canada knows that if there is no Russian hockey team, there’s no Canada-Russia hockey rivalry. You were brought up believing Russia-Canada was the best game, the best hockey game you can imagine. Through hockey we can unite people, and we can solve many, many problems.