The date was March 4, 2014. The place was Tipsport Arena in Prague. The teams were Lev Praha and Spartak Moskva.
Vyacheslav Kozlov had just scored in the shootout for the visiting Red-Whites, slipping a backhander through the legs of Lev goalkeeper Atte Engren, who was playing in order to rest starter Petri Vehanen for the upcoming playoffs.
David Ullström had to score for Lev to keep the shootout going. He tried to get Spartak goalie Igor Shestyorkin, who would be drafted by the New York Rangers in June, to bite low, but ultimately, Ullström’s shot hit the pad of the teenage goalie, and it was over. Not just the game, won by Spartak 3-2 in that shootout. But it appeared to be the end of an era.
As Shestyorkin rose up after denying Ullström, he did not celebrate, but rather stood in his crease as his teammates saluted him. Shestyorkin, like his teammates, knew the writing was on the wall. It was the end of the era, at least for now.
It had really been written since about the mid-2000s. Spartak was hit by financial issues in the early 2000s, and in the summer of 2006 the situation was critical. However, a savior appeared in the form of businessman and Spartak supporter Vadim Melkov, who was determined to help find sponsors for his favorite club. Agreements were made, and the Moscow government agreed to cover the team’s debt.
In a tragic twist, Melkov passed away in a 2006 plane crash. Spartak’s savior, gone. The team took the 2006/07 season off. Though the team returned a year later, and even managed to pick up legendary goalkeeper Dominik Hašek in the late aughts, the financial situation was still iffy.
The team, despite this, marched on. In December 2013, Spartak were mired in a tough playoff race in the Western Conference, but suddenly, that didn’t matter anymore. The team’s primary sponsor, Investbank, had its license revoked for not complying on regulations, and the bank – and team – quickly went bankrupt.
All of a sudden, Spartak were in trouble of not even making it to the end of the season. The team sold key players such as goalie Jeff Glass and Deron Quint to wealthier teams for money, and wound up riding Shestyorkin, a teenager from the junior club, down the stretch, backing him up with fellow teenager Alexander Trushkov. They set a record for the KHL’s longest losing streak, at 19. The house of cards collapsed, and the players in Prague knew on that day that their team was gone (though the juniors did go on to win the Kharlamov Cup, defeating cross-town rivals Red Army).
The 2014/15 season started without them, though they did ice a junior team in the MHL which, in August, took home the Junior Club World Cup. Their financial situation seemed to be on the improve during the season of dormancy; despite a weak ruble, there was hope. By early April it was apparent that Spartak Moskva, the People’s Team, was going to return to the KHL in 2015/16.
Five hundred and four days after Shestyorkin denied Ullström in Prague, Spartak will return to action at 4:30pm Moscow time (9:30 am Eastern) on July 21, in a preseason tuneup against another team touched by tragedy, Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, who lost their team in 2011 to a plane crash. The game won’t take place in a majestic city like Prague or Moscow, but rather the quaint Finnish village of Vierumäki, located an hour and a half north of Helsinki. It may not be home for Spartak, but when the puck drops, the Red and White will be back where they belong, punching it out with Europe’s best teams.
Image (c) Александр Головко under CC 3.0 Via Wikimedia