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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Meet the ice hockey team playing 2,200 kilometres from home

Stadium problems for Russian side Avangard Omsk have meant they are playing in Balashikha, a long way from their home turf

Kirill Semyonov with his Avangard teammates are having to play home matches 2,200km away from their actual stadium. Reuters
Kirill Semyonov with his Avangard teammates are having to play home matches 2,200km away from their actual stadium. Reuters

For fans of Siberian ice hockey club Avangard, attending a match takes singular devotion: games are held three times zones away from their home city because their own arena has been deemed too unsafe to use, forcing them into exile.

Avangard, a team in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), was uprooted after discovering structural defects this summer at its arena in the Siberian city of Omsk.

Left with few options weeks before the season, Avangard settled on a 6,000-seat arena in Balashikha, a monochrome industrial city some 2,200km away near Moscow that made headlines last year - for the stench of its landfill.

The surprise move uprooted players and staff and upset the local fan base in Omsk, a city of 1.17 million. It also raised doubt about the team's ability to draw a crowd so far from home.

"We're facing a tough situation and we have the choice whether to look for excuses or look for solutions," said head coach Bob Hartley, a Canadian who led the Colorado Avalanche of North America's National Hockey League (NHL) to their second Stanley Cup title in 2001.

Avangard said in July that it had encountered "unforeseen difficulties" during renovations at the 10,000-seat Omsk Arena, which was inaugurated in 2007. The team has not revealed the extent and the nature of the damage but hinted the decision to move was linked to safety.

Avangard Omsk face racking up the miles to see their side in action. Reuters
Avangard Omsk face racking up the miles to see their side in action. Reuters

In Balashikha, workers have scrambled to prepare Avangard's new arena for the team's arrival, hastily building locker rooms and a gym, and setting up the coaches' office.

Days before the first home game, workers were still laying carpet and giving the walls a fresh coat of paint.

"There were some uncomfortable moments," team captain Evgeny Medvedev, who played one season in the NHL, told Reuters after Avangard's first home game on Monday, a 4-2 win over Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk that drew a energetic crowd of 5,116.

"But what can we do? We are soldiers. We fight where we are deployed."

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The move brings Avangard closer to Moscow, simplifying travel for away games given that the bulk of the KHL's teams are based in western Russia. But it has given Avangard a logistical headache.

Canadian forward Maxime Talbot said some players had already rented apartments in Omsk and were hurrying to relocate.

"The situation is not ideal, but we have to deal with it," said Talbot, who in 2009 scored the Stanley Cup-winning goal for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Avangard, which was founded in 1950 and has played in the KHL since its inception in 2008, is now trying to bridge the geographic gap with its fans and assuage their discontent.

The Arena Balashikha. Where Avengard Omsk are having to play. Reuters
The Arena Balashikha. Where Avengard Omsk are having to play. Reuters

After Monday's win, Avangard players unfurled a banner that read "Omsk, we're together." The club insists Balashikha, a city of 470,000, is a temporary home and has dedicated this season to the fans left behind in Siberia.

"People are upset in Omsk," said Andrei Litvinkin, a 31-year-old native of the city. "But no one will be happy if the arena falls apart with the fans inside."

Russia has grown increasingly wary of the state of its public buildings since a fire at a mall in the Siberian city of Kemerovo in March caused its top floor to collapse, killing more than 60 people.

Avangard says it has signed a one-year agreement to play at Balashikha Arena, but it remains unclear whether the team's exile could endure.

"This is a season of away games," said Viktor Migunov, a 22-year-old fan with Avangard's crimson logo tattooed on his right calf. "We don't recognise any other arena. Avangard is Omsk. And it won't be anyone else's team."