Pre-season is building up, and Monday’s Russia-Canada battle in Sochi is attracting attention. But the Sochi Hockey Open also gave a chance for young sledge hockey players to join a masterclass – and show some of the KHL’s stars how it’s done. Elsewhere, Linus Omark added another flamboyant penalty shot to his highlight reel in Nizhny Novgorod, and two newly-appointed coaches talked about their latest missions.

Sochi Hockey Open – advantage Russia?

The first Russia vs Canada clash of the season is due in Sochi on Monday evening (1800, local time) as part of the Sochi Hockey Open. The match-up pits Russia’s ‘B’ roster against an experimental Hockey Canada team as Canadian head coach Willie Desjardins runs the rule over its European-based players ahead of February’s Olympics.

So far, the tournament suggests Russia might enjoy greater strength in depth: both national teams have played against host club HC Sochi, but with differing results. Russia powered to a 5-1 victory – inspired by a three-goal show from Lokomotiv trio Alexander Polunin, Pavel Kraskovsky and Yegor Korshkov. Kirill Kaprizov picked up two assists. Canada, meanwhile, went goalless through 60 minutes beside the Black Sea, and needed a deflected overtime goal from Jesse Blacker – recently signed by Kunlun Red Star – to finally beat Konstantin Barulin in the Sochi net.

The winner of the Russia-Canada game will face SKA in the tournament’s gold medal game on Wednesday. SKA topped the other group with 4-2 victories over Kunlun and Metallurg Magnitogorsk.

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A helping hand

Prior to the Sochi Hockey Open, the Bolshoy Dome also staged a sledge-hockey masterclass – and several stars from Team Russia joined in with youngsters from Russia, the USA and the Czech Republic.

Sledge hockey was one of the most successful events at the 2014 Winter Paralympics, also held in Sochi, and the excitement around the game has helped inspire a more positive attitude towards opportunities for people with disabilities. Meanwhile, as Russia’s players found, it’s also a demanding sport in its own right.

“When I watched from the sidelines, I didn’t think it looked all that difficult,” said HC Sochi’s Pavel Padakin. “But when I had a go myself I was amazed! When they sat me on a sledge I could hardly even move! Once I got the hang of it, I tried making a pass and fell off right away. These kids are incredible – after I’d skated for half an hour, I was hurting all over.”

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All smiles for new boy Markov

Andrei Markov began the week by confirming his move to Ak Bars. The 38-year-old defenseman, who left Montreal after 16 seasons in the NHL, reunited with head coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, who took charge of the young Markov at Dynamo Moscow in the late 1990s.

The General admitted that working with his old colleague was a big reason behind his move to Kazan, and added that the years had changed coach Bill. “He smiles a bit more now,” joked Markov in a press conference on his arrival in Russia.

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Omark’s penalty-shot stunner

Linus Omark has a taste for the flamboyant when presented with a penalty shot, and the Swede was strutting his stuff again this week at a pre-season tournament in Nizhny Novgorod. OK, it wasn’t a high-stakes shot – his Salavat Yulaev team had already won the game 3-0 and the shoot-out was an exhibition affair. But Omark still produced a beauty, reversing down the ice, flicking the puck over the blue line then turning to smash home his shot from between the hash marks.

As the tournament goes into its last day, Ak Bars leads the table, but Omark’s Salavat Yulaev and host team Torpedo could both claim top spot with victories in their final games.

Westerlund’s new challenge

Finnish head coach Erkka Westerlund became the first foreigner to step behind the bench at Salavat Yulaev – taking on his first job outside of Finland. It’s a new experience for the 60-year-old, but one that he is relishing, as he told khl.ru in an exclusive interview last week.

“Oh, I’m an old man, I’m not worried about the pressure,” he joked. “I just focus on my everyday work. I’m not going to focus on the result of any one match, there isn’t time. The main thing is building a team.

“We have an excellent team, the roster is 100% ready. But I’m only maybe 50-60% satisfied with our teamwork, with our interplay. But there’s still time to work on that. We’re looking to come up with something new and surprise the rest of the league.”

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Dwyer settles in Minsk

In Minsk, incoming Dinamo head coach Gordie Dwyer is back in the KHL after working with Medvescak last season. Not for the first time, a foreigner has been impressed with the Belarusian passion for hockey: now he’s hoping to give those fans something to cheer.

“Even when I first came to Minsk with Medvescak, I remember feeling that it would be good to work here some day,” he told khl.ru. “It’s a great set-up here, the city is wonderful, and it turns out that I’m following the path of several players who moved here from Zagreb.”

Dwyer’s Dinamo is set to rely more heavily on local talent, trimming the budget that once brought a roster full of imports to Minsk. That could mean opportunities for the likes of 19-year-old prospect Yegor Sharangovich, the team’s leading scorer in the Minsk Cup.

But there’s still a foreign accent, and the signing of Justin Fontaine – 197 NHL games for the Wild, 68 points there – is a big plus.

“I know that plenty of KHL teams wanted to sign him last year, but he wasn’t available,” said Dwyer. “He’s a powerful forward who can bring creativity to our offense. I think his experience and skills can bring a lot to Dinamo.”

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