On Sunday, the 28th of May, Russia’s elegant Northern Capital hosted the victory parade for SKA Saint Petersburg, and nearly a quarter of a million fans, residents, and guests of the city flocked to the historic center to honor the 2016-17 Gagarin Cup champion.
Given the many decades of modest sporting results by teams from this city, the Petersburg public were understandably relishing the prospect of a second victory parade in three seasons, and could be forgiven for hoping the event will become a tradition.
Almost six weeks have passed since SKA sealed final victory in Magnitogorsk, but the public’s spirit showed no sign of being dampened by the delay. Indeed, on closer inspection, the choice of date for this celebration was entirely logical – following the season’s end, many players were on World Championship duty for their respective national teams, in some cases until the 21st of this month, and the 27th is marked on the Petersburg calendar as Day of the City, so it made sense to combine the victory celebration with the annual one.
The delay also meant the city had far more time in which to plan and prepare the event, with the happy result that the people were treated to much more than the usual open-topped bus stuffed with waving players, officials, friends and relations. Proudly leading the procession along the famous thoroughfare, Nevsky Prospekt, were four horses decked in finery of deepest red, followed by an armored personnel carrier decked out with the club badge. The personnel being carried was none other than Fire Horse, the SKA mascot, joyfully waving a flag. Then came a patrol of jeeps from which cheerleaders waved and blew kisses, then marched an army band, and finally, the buses bearing the conquering heroes.
And almost all the champions were present. The sole absentee, Vyacheslav Voynov, was only kept away by his physiotherapy program following the injury he sustained toward the end of the campaign. Another man on the Army Men’s wounded list, Andrei Zubarev, hobbled on crutches onto the bus, and somehow managed to climb into view and conduct the fans in bursts of singing and chanting.
Trailing behind the team bus were the academy youngsters, girls on stilts, and drummers, and this delightful ensemble, and the adoring thousands on either side, slowly but surely made its way to the end of Nevsky Prospekt and fanned out into Palace Square, already packed with tens of thousands of revelers who had been watching the team’s approach on giant screens. In contrast with the rain-soaked celebrations of 2015, this year the weather was mercifully dry, so the fans were able to turn the Square into a vast meadow of scarves, hats, banners and flags in the red, white and blue of SKA. Soon, the singing and shouting gradually changed into cheers and applause as the victorious players alighted from the bus and made their way onto a the stage
This season, SKA adopted a slogan: "Stars in our hearts and the Cosmos in our dreams.". Now, having won the trophy which bears Yury Gagarin’s name, the second clause in the slogan had changed: "The Cosmos is ours!"
The first official tribute came from Governor of Saint Petersburg, Georgy Poltavchenko: "Let's say a big thank you to all the players and coaches for this victory, and for turning Petersburg in the hockey capital of Russia!" No-one seemed in the mood to dispute his claim.
Presenting the gold medals and rings was a true legend of the game: triple Olympic champion, ten-time world champion, and IIHF all-time All-Star goalie Vladislav Tretiak, who, as the current head of the Russian Hockey Federation, had a strong professional reason to laud the 2016-17 champions: “On behalf of millions of fans, I want to congratulate SKA and thank the Petersburg Army Men for providing the players who formed the backbone of our national team at the 2017 World Championships.”
Each player received warm applause as he collected his gong from the great man, but the cheers were particularly hearty for plucky youngsters such as local boy Alexander Barabanov and goaltender Igor Shestyorkin, for the Dynamic Duo of Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk, for Andrei Zubarev, smiling from ear to ear despite the pain and the crutches, and for danger man Nikita Gusev. The prize-giving then took a twist as Tretiak was handed a commemorative ring from SKA.
The cheers grew into roars of delight when head coach Oleg Znarok received his medal and ring, along with his trusty assistant Pyotr Vorobyov, who ably took the helm when the boss was away in Toronto on World Cup duty.
Then came a gala concert, headlined – appropriately enough – by the popular band, Leningrad, although with a slightly unfamiliar sound, as some numbers featured a few of the SKA players on backing vocals.
Veteran forward Viktor Tikhonov reflected on the day’s events: "it's hard to describe the emotions. Support like this makes you appreciate being a player. Why have I extended my contract with SKA? Look at the support we have. That’s why I’m staying.”
The assembled media asked Alexander Barabanov about the champions’ ring. The youngster smiled and replied: "I have already put it away, so as not to lose it. This celebration gives off a great feeling. I’m very happy to be here, when the city is celebrating and so many people turned up to take part. My father and grandmother are here somewhere, and I have friends taking photos of the parade. After the final series I went to the World Championships, and from there straight to this victory parade – it’s been a real roller-coaster ride, but I’m really enjoying it all.”
According to first estimates from the authorities, around 200,000 people joined in the celebrations. They have waited a very long time for sporting glory in this part of the country, and now the men from Peter the Great’s capital join Ak Bars, Magnitogorsk, and Dynamo Moscow in that elite club of two-time Gagarin Cup winners. No-one has yet managed a third, but looking at the optimism, warmth and energy on display from the 2016-17 champions here this weekend, who would bet against them?