Staying alive in the top ranks of international hockey isn’t easy, especially in a country with fewer than 10 million people. And though Belarus is passionate about hockey, developing talent at home is crucial when you’re trying to keep up with other European programs.
From Ruslan Salei to the Kostitsyn brothers to Mikhail Grabovski to New Jersey Devils rookie Yegor Sharangovich, Belarus has produced some notable talent over the years. But the key to surviving on the international stage may be its Team Belarus program.
Much like USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program, the Team Belarus initiative brings together the best teenagers in the land. And like the Americans, the Belarusians boast both an under-17 team and an under-18 squad.
Originally formed for the 2011-12 season and the 1994 birth year, that first hothouse project saw teens play for a team called RTSOP Raubichi in the nation’s third tier, the Vysshaya (“Higher”) League. In 2016-17, the program was renamed Team Belarus. The under-18s have since moved up to Extraleague B, the nation’s second-best circuit, while the under-17 squad plays in the Vysshaya. (There also used to be an under-20 version, but it no longer exists.)
Playing against men back home, Team Belarus’ under-18s are obviously in tough on the local scene, but the results have been impressive. They didn’t make the playoffs this season, but they didn’t finish last, instead tying for fifth among seven teams. “It turned out to be quite beneficial,” said coach Dmitry Shulga through a translator. “The guys practised their skills playing against much older players, who are also more experienced and make more mature decisions. They managed to get some experience, overcome their fears and show their character. It helps the guys to grow technically, tactically and psychologically.”
Left winger Sergei Kuznetsov is an alumnus of the program and now skates in the USHL for the Youngstown Phantoms. Through a translator, he also extolled the virtues of Team Belarus, particularly his time playing up a year with the under-18s. “It has made me feel more confident playing in the USHL because I’ve played against older guys,” he said. “It’s a good team. The older players back home helped by sharing their experience with me. I loved the team’s atmosphere.”
A big benefit of the program has been its impact on Belarus’ success at the world under-18s, where the national team once again competed in the top tier this year after making the quarterfinal in the previous two tournaments. (The 2020 tourney was cancelled due to the pandemic, so no one was promoted or relegated.) Simply surviving at that level has proven rather cutthroat of late. Consider that Slovakia, a nation that has medalled at both the under-18s and world juniors, was relegated to the second tier of the under-18s in 2019.
This year, Belarus was in the same pool as Sweden and Canada. That may sound intimidating, but playing against those programs, as well as Team USA and Russia, in past tournaments has been a positive for the players. “It’s a big deal for my country to compete against those guys,” Kuznetsov said. “They’re the kings of hockey.”
Heading into the tournament, which was held in Texas, Shulga acknowledged the challenge the traditional powers presented, but he also saw an opportunity for his players to see how they stacked up against the best. He planned to rely on the old coaching mantra of one win at a time, but he also wanted his squad to play aggressively. “Our game will depend on the opponents we will face,” he said. “But I think it will be fast, attacking and
Along with team success, the Belarusians have also seen individuals thrive in the program. Sharangovich is a Team Belarus grad, as is Florida Panthers second-rounder Vladislav Kolyachonok, the two-way defenseman who captained the country’s previous world under-18 entry. After Team Belarus, he went on to play for the OHL’s Flint Firebirds and is now skating in the AHL for the Syracuse Crunch after starting the season in the KHL with Dinamo Minsk.
“When the guys start playing hockey, they have their own dreams,” Shulga said. “In order for their dreams to come true, it is important to see that players who are a bit older than they are have already succeeded. Then they understand that their efforts won’t be in vain. If the institute of national teams brings up players who make it to the NHL draft, this incremental growth will serve as a beacon that helps develop younger players. Each of them dreams of playing in one of the strongest leagues in the world, and when they see there is a route ahead of them, it’s easier to follow it.”
And while there were no sure things on this year’s squad, getting to play on the world stage gave Team Belarus’ players a chance to shine in front of a huge crowd of NHL scouts.
Because the pandemic has brought such chaos on the 2021 draft class, scouts were billing this year’s world under-18s as the most important ever. Some of Canada’s players were seeing their first organized action all year after the OHL cancelled its season, while Finnish players on
Helsinki-based clubs like Jokerit and HIFK hadn’t been allowed to play since November. With all that as a backdrop, Team Belarus had to be on its toes all tournament. But if the program has proven anything in the past few years, it’s that the Belarusians have been up to the challenge.