Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Saint Petersburg, Russia - 2012-13 SKA Saint Petersburg Ilya Kovalchuk Jersey

Founded 312 years ago on this date in 1703 by Peter the Great, Saint Petersburg (Sankt Peterburg) is the second largest city in Russia with a population of 5 million. From 1713 to 1728 and again from 1732 to 1918 it was the capital of Russia until the communist Russian Revolution of 1917. It is also the northernmost city in the world with a population of over a million.

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Saint Petersburg

The city was founded when Peter the Great desired a better seaport and won the territory from the Swedish Empire, who controlled the area at the time.

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Peter the Great

After the Russian victory, the Peter and Paul Fortress was built, the first brick and stone building of the new city from which the city got its name.

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The Peter and Paul Fortress, birthplace of Saint Petersburg

In the 1860's, following the emancipation of peasants in Russia, the city saw large growth, which saw Saint Petersburg surpass Moscow in population as well as becoming one of Europe's largest industrial cities. Additionally, it developed a major naval base, river and sea port.

Following the outbreak of World War I, the government renamed the city Petrograd, meaning "Peter's City" in order to remove the German words "Sankt" and "Burg"

In October of 1917, the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, stormed the grand Winter Palace, the official residence of the Russian monarchy dating back to 1732, which led to the transfer of all power to the Soviets and gave rise to the Communist Party. When the city was threatened with bombardment and invasion by advancing German troops, the Soviets transferred the capital to Moscow to keep it away from the border, as was the case in Petrograd.

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The Winter Palace, home of the Czars

On January 26, 1924, five days after the death of Lenin, the city was again renamed, this time to Leningrad.

During World War II, German forces laid siege to the city from September of 1941 until January of 1944, one of the longest, most destructive and lethal sieges of a major city in modern history, with over a million civilian casualties, mainly from starvation.

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Citizens fleeing German bombardment during the
devastating siege of Leningrad during World War II

In 1991, after the fall of communism and the breakup of the Soviet Union, the city reverted back to its original name of Saint Petersburg.

It is considered the cultural center of Russia and is home to The Hermitage, one of the largest art museums in the world and one some 200 museums in the city. Additionally, there are about 8,000 architectural monuments, 50 theaters and many parks in Saint Petersburg.

It's main hockey club is SKA Saint Petersburgh, with SKA standing for Sports Club of the Army, written as CKA in Cyrillic. The team was founded in 1946 with the name Kirov LDO (Leningrad Officers Club). It underwent several name changes until changing to SKA in 1959. Like CSKA Moscow (Central Red Army), SKA belonged to the Soviet Ministry of Defense sports club system with its roster stocked with Leningrad Military District officers.

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SKA Leningrad were relegated for the 1947-48 season, but earned an immediate promotion back to the top level in their first try. Their return to the top level did not go well, and the club was once again demoted to the second division, and again won the right to return to the top division for 1950-51. This time they were successful in staying up, and remained in highest level for the next 40 years. The team remained in the top division until 1991, never having won a Soviet Championship League title thanks in large part to the dominance of CSKA Moscow.

Their first taste of success would wait until 1968 when they were a finalist for the USSR Cup, a season long knockout competition which ran concurrently with the league regular season. The club earned their first hardware in 1970, when they won their first Spengler Cup, defeating the Czechoslovakian team Dukla Jihlava.

The team repeated their Spengler Cup success with another victory over Dukla Jihlava in 1971 and then completed arguably the best season in club history with a bronze medal in the Soviet Championship League and a runner up finish in the USSR Cup.

Their next success would arrive with their third Spengler Cup victory in 1977 at the expense of Dukla Jihlava once again.

SKA Leningrad's next good result in the Soviet Championship League came with another bronze medal after the 1987 campaign.

That success would have to suffice for some time, as the political upheaval which arrived with the dissolution of the Soviet Union would affect the club's finances and resources as the changes in Russian society and it's sporting landscape sorted themselves out over the early part of the 1990's. This instability saw the team relegated for only the third time in it's history, as they were relegated following the 1990-91 season.

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A badge from their days as SKA Leningrad

Another affect the breakup of the Soviet Union had on the team was the name of their home city Leningrad changing back to it's historic, original pre-1914 name of Saint Petersburg in 1991. From then on, the club would now be known as Hockey Club SKA Saint Petersburg.

SKA Saint Petersburg logo, SKA Saint Petersburg logo

The team spent the 1991-92 season in the second division and joined the new International Hockey League for its debut 1992-93 season. In the aftermath of the Soviet Union, the landscape of Russian hockey was rather unstable, and in the IHL ceased after just four seasons, being replaced by the Russian Superleague in 1999.

While several teams were able to rise to the top and win championships with the loss of dominance by CSKA after its systemic advantages were lost following the fall of communism, SKA was not one of those. In the 12 years of the RSL, six different clubs won championships but Saint Petersburg was unable to win even a single playoff round.

The Kontinental Hockey League arrived in 2008-09. The club's fortunes began to look upwards, beginning in 2010, when they won their fourth Spengler Cup.

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SKA Saint Petersburg celebrate their 2010 Spengler Cup

Playoff success arrived in 2011-12 with the team making it to the conference finals before winning the Continental Cup as the team with the best regular season record at the conclusion of the 2012-13 regular season as they posted a 36-2-11-3 record for 115 points, 11 clear of second place. While they did advance to the conference finals again, the club lost in six games to the eventual champions Dynamo Moscow.

Finally in the 2014-15 season, the team finished second overall in the KHL and then defeated Torpedo Novgorod 4-1, Dynamo Moscow 4-1, Continental Cup winners CSKA Moscow in seven games before claiming their first championship in 69 years when they beat Ak Bars Kazan 4 games to 1.

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After never winning a domestic championship,
SKA Saint Petersburg won the 2015 Gagarin Cup

SKA were captained by former NHL goal scoring leader Ilya Kovalchuk, who was named the MVP of the Gagarin Cup Playoffs.

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SKA captain Kovalchuk hoisting the Gagarin Cup
for the team's first championship in 69 years

Other notable players to have skated for SKA include Maxim Afinogenov, Alexi Kasatonov, Darius Kasparaitis, Evgeni Nabokov, Alexi Ponikarovsky, Vladimir Tarasenko, Alexi Yashin, Valeri Zelepukin and Sergei Zubov.

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Evgeni Nabokov in goal for SKA during their 5-3 exhibition game
victory against the Carolina Hurricanes in 2010

Their home games are held in The Ice Palace, which holds 12,300 fans and has hosted the IIHF European Champions Cup from 2005 to 2008. In 2011-12, SKA averaged 10,126 fans, becoming the first Russian club to average over 10,000 fans per game in a season. SKA also placed 6th overall in attendance in all of Europe and first in Russia.

Today's featured jersey is a 2012-13 SKA Saint Petersburg Ilya Kovalchuk jersey as worn by the NHLer early in the season while the NHL lockout was still in effect, foreshadowing his return to Saint Petersburg following his "retirement" from the NHL for the following season.

While in most leagues 68 seasons and no titles to show for it would be a cause for ridicule, not unlike baseball's Chicago Cubs, but the tilted system of Soviet hockey in favor of perennial champions CSKA (Central Red Army), 32 titles in 46 years and 13 in a row from 1978 to 1990, takes some of the heat of SKA as few clubs, other than perhaps Moscow Dynamo, were winning any championships either.

Of note, with the expansion of the KHL beyond the borders of Russia, the league no longer customizes player jerseys with the names on the back in Cyrillic, changing to English in 2011-12.

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Today's video section is highlights of SKA Saint Petersburg winning Game 5 of the Gagarin Cup Finals to win their first championship in 69 years.

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