Given its rich hockey history, it’s hard to believe that Russia hasn’t won the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament – now named the Hlinka Gretzky Cup – since 1995, when the tournament was held in Yokohama, Japan.
The Russians have shown through their first three games at this year’s event that this may change.
With convincing wins over Finland (7-2), the Czech Republic (3-0) and the United States (8-3), Russia finished first in Group B with a perfect 3-0 record. That has put the Russians into the semi-finals on Friday, when they will face Sweden in Edmonton. The Hlinka Gretzky Cup is split this year between Edmonton and Red Deer, two cities in the Canadian province of Alberta. Friday’s other semi-final will be between defending-champion Canada and the United States.
Russia’s success has been due in large part to a core group of players that head coach Vladimir Filatov has been working with since 2016.
Among them are three forwards who form Russia’s second line – centre Ilya Nikolayev, right-winger Vasili Podkolzin and left-winger Danil Gutik. The trio has combined for 13 points in the first three games.
“Gutik is the very creative guy,” says Filatov of the 6-foot-3, 179-pound left-winger. “He finds a way to do something creative, something interesting on the ice. Ilya Nikolayev is a really good centreman; as a centre, he’s trying to fix all the mistakes by his linemates. And Vasili Podkolzin is a really good player and he’s a leader. We have a good line here with those three guys.”
The three players are quite familiar with one another and have been growing up together in the Russian system. Gutik, Nikolayev and Podkolzin have been coached by Filatov at national team level for two years, since they cracked Russia’s under-16 team. Gutik and Nikolayev also play club hockey together with the junior club Loko Yaroslavl (Russia includes five Loko Yaroslavl players), while Podkolzin is a member of SKA-1946 St. Petersburg.
The three 2001-born players also suited up as linemates at the 2017 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge in British Columbia, Canada in November, combining for 15 points in Russia’s six games. Filatov was head coach of that Russian team as well.
“I have played with Gutik a lot, we know each other really well and when we play football or basketball, we understand what each other is doing,” says Nikolayev, the 6-foot, 190-pound centre. “And Vasili is a really good player too so we have a really good line; I really like to play with the boys.
“Vasili is a really good hockey player. He plays with his head, he understands hockey, and that really helps when we are trying to decide what we will do on the ice. He’s a tough player. He wins battles and obviously he’s a good leader because he can motivate boys on the bench or on the ice and the guys really like him.”
Podkolzin, who stands 6-foot-1 and weighs 183 pounds, likes the play of his Russian team so far and wants to keep it going. Podkolzin was one of only two 2001-born players on Team Russia at the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship (Russia lost to the United States in the quarter-finals) and says that he and his teammates want a successful finish at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup, the biggest U18 tournament leading up to next spring’s U18 Worlds.
“Basically, everything for the team right now, I cannot tell you anything about my play,” says Podkolzin. “We want to win this one. This is a big international tournament and I know that it attracts a lot of scouts and their attention. But it’s everything for the team and I don’t pay much attention to my own statistics and to everything around this tournament.”