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30 Nov, 2008 13:04

Kazan chase hockey crown after football triumph

AK Bars. If you're wondering what that means, it might be a good idea to learn Tatar first. The two-time Russian champions took their name from Tatarstan's traditional symbol – the Snow Leopard.

Although the club has a long history by ice hockey, dating back to the fifties, it only became a powerhouse in the sport at the turn of the current century.

As with most success stories in Russian sport, some thanks must go to the authorities.

“Kazan is a city that loves sports. There are many clubs here that claim the country's top trophies,” AK Bars coach, Zinetula Bilialetdinov, says.

“Football, field hockey, basketball, water polo, not to mention AK Bars. These teams are successful because the Tatarstan government dedicates a lot of time and resources into the development of sport,” Bilialetdinov said.

This Continental Hockey league (KHL) is in its inaugural season. It’s primary aim is to one day being rival America’s NHL.

Lots of Russian stars have already returned home to compete in the KHL and even some North American players have made Russia their residence.

In other words, the KHL has had a great start and the league is as competitive as the organisers hoped.

The inclusion of the foreign legion makes it compelling viewing from Moscow to Minsk.

But AK Bars goalkeeper and former New York Islander Wade Dubielewicz says it’s the locals who have been doing most of the grafting – despite his 90 per cent save rate.

“The Russian guys are the core group we use to win hockey games, while the imports are more of the supporting cast,” he said.

If anything counts in sport these days, money does. It can make or break a club.

But spending cash unwisely can sometimes result in immediate success with no thought to the long term. This isn’t the case in the republic of Tatarstan.

With the world student games taking place here in 2013, new sporting facilities are springing up like mushrooms.

AK Bars player, Oleg Petrov, says the club’s youth teams have everything to grow new stars for the main squad. 
“The main thing is that kids are playing hockey,” he said.

And that investment seems to be paying dividends for the snow leopards as the Kazan men currently sit second at the mid-season stage.

But anything less than a championship title will be a bitter disappointment for Bilyedinov and Co.