x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

For Russian ice hockey teams, the UAE is the perfect fit

Avangard are the latest Russian team to tour the Emirates during their bleak mid-winter and the scope for friendlies is the next step.

AJMAN // On a lush grassy field in the middle of nowhere, amid a mass of muscles and mullets, a stout little man called Anatoly Bardin stands smiling. Sporting shorts, a T-shirt and a large dark-brown coiffure, he speaks in Russian, folding his tanned arms before laughing loudly. His team, Avangard from the south-west Siberian province of Omsk, are one of the most popular ice hockey sides in Russia, yet here, under the Middle Eastern sun, they are trying to play football. The squad, complete with glistening tattooed torsos, may appear to be relaxing during their 10-day mid-season break in the Emirates as they whoop and jeer every strike ? and subsequent miss ? at goal. But there is a serious undertone to the trip. Ice hockey is big business in Russia, the largest country in the world and home to more than 140 million people: the average salary of an Avangard player is said to be in the region of US$100,000 (Dh367,000) per week. Bardin brought his team to the UAE to build fitness, build team-spirit and, ultimately, build a side capable of pushing for the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) title. The general manager, who is a former professional referee, usually takes his team to Germany, but after inspecting the Emirates in November recognised the benefits that warm-weather training in this region could provide his team. "This year's calendar includes the Winter Olympics, which means the season will be even more hard and testing on our players' bodies," says Bardin, standing on the edge of the pitch alongside head coach Igor Nikitin. "By coming to the Emirates, and especially the beaches, the guys can be far from the ice and forget about the cold and the ice-based training. "At home, we have been doing ice training, but by coming here we are able to do some fitness work on the beach ? cross country, football, swimming. It really helps the players a lot because it not only keeps them fit, but also allows them to rehabilitate their muscles." Any advantage Bardin was hoping his side could take back to Omsk has been partially negated by the fact Avangard, it turns out, are not the only KHL team to recognise the attraction of the Arabian winter: five teams in total opted to spend their mid-season break in the Emirates. Last year's champions Ak Bars Kazan and Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk returned for the fifth successive year, while Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod and Atlant Moscow Oblast each visited for the first time, deciding to spend seven days in Dubai in February. Avangard were the only group from the quintet to stay, for 10 days, in the more secluded emirate of Ajman. "The teams, we talk to each other all the time, but we have not seen any of them since we have been here ? the Emirates is not such a small country, you know?" says Bardin, gesticulating slowly with his large, weathered hands. "And, anyway, we did not come here after receiving recommendations from other teams, we came because the flight is short, weather is warm and facilities are great. "The players come to the camp with their wives and children. You know, throughout the season, it is rare for them to get to spend much time with their families because they are always travelling and moving around. When they are here, the players all eat together and get a good opportunity to bond as both a team and as a family." Nour Aldin Moawad, the general manager of Hat-trick Sports and Tourism Services, has been bringing former Soviet-based sports franchises to the UAE since 1999. The Palestinian's first foray saw him organise a warm-weather training camp for Russia's Spartak Chukotka, a now defunct football club from an isolated Arctic region nine time zones away from Moscow. Since then, Moawad has been involved in the organising of winter training camps for several sporting clubs, including a Russian ladies' volleyball team and, more recently, football's 2008 Uefa Cup champions Zenit St Petersburg. "This month has been hectic because I have had four ice hockey teams here at once," says Moawad, who was not involved with Ak Bars' trip to the Emirates. "Most of them are staying in Dubai, but Avangard are in Ajman and I live in Sharjah so it involves a lot of travelling and trips to the airport. "In January when the winter break is taking place, we get so many football teams: Zenit, Bunyodkor, Pakhator, Lokomotiv. I have had six or seven at the one time before ? it gets very busy. But the hockey teams are a lot easier to organise than football because the football teams train twice a day and they want to play friendlies, whereas the hockey teams don't." That, however, could change. With the Emirates Ice Hockey League closing out its first season with five teams, Bardin is keen to agree a partnership with the competition and hopes next year to compete in exhibition games while here. "This time, we did not need training on ice so there was little need to speak to any of the UAE teams," he explains. "We have plans for next year and, as our break will be shorter, our camp will be used for training and match practice. If we are able to set up a deal with the local teams, we would be keen to play some friendly matches on the ice."

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae