August 20, 2009
When you think of a "fan appreciation" day, what is the first thing that comes to mind?
Bobbleheads? Potato heads? Some beach towels? Player autograph sessions? What would you, as a fan, ultimately want?
One hockey club in Russia decided to take the concept one step further.
A little over three years ago, a Dynamo Moscow fan named Pavel Gurov met with Dynamo PR manager Artem Dorozhkin and asked him to pass on a proposal to the club president Mikhail Golovkov: Dynamo fans vs. the team they love, as part of the preseason training camp for the professionals.
Surprisingly enough, Golovkov agreed and the tradition of fan appreciation days started.
The rules have remained the same for these games: no hard checking, no raising the stick above the ankle, for every penalty taken by the pros the fans got a penalty shot. For the pros it was just another skating exercise. But for the fans it was once in a lifetime experience.
Applications from fans wishing to participate poured in to the fan club. The best of them were selected and the team participated in the first annual Hockey Fan Tournament, winning all games against fans of other teams. The bonding between fans and the club was strengthened when the Dynamo president attended a few games of the tournament rooting for the Dynamo fans' team.
This year's festivities were the best since the games between fans and the club started.
The first team delegated a few players to the fans, including Philadelphia Flyers' prospect Denis Tolpeko(notes). The team mascot, Wolf, also laced them up for the fans. Also, every 10 minutes or so of the game, a few of the fans got to play for the club alongside their idols.
But the best surprise was not announced until the day of the game. Montreal Canadiens defenseman Andrei Markov(notes) and former Buffalo Sabres forward Max Afinogenov put on their jerseys and joined the fans' team on the ice.
An offer to play for the fans was extended to Alexander Ovechkin(notes) for the second year in a row. But Alex politely declined, citing personal training schedule and the fact that he doesn't start on ice exercised until September. But the Dynamo alumni Ovechkin still found some time to be present in the crowd for the game. It was packed inside the Novogorsk Dynamo training facility.
Andrei Markov constantly tried to find Afinogenov with a sleek pass to allow Afinogenov to score. The first half (the game was two halves 30 minutes each), surprisingly enough, finished with the fans leading the pros 5-3!
The two previous games in 2007 and 2008 finished with the pros' wins 17-2 and 10-2 respectively.
During the game Afinogenov, was urged by fans to sign with Dynamo in the KHL. The club made him an offer earlier. But regardless of Afinogenov's decision, he admitted to having had fun.
"It was the first time I played with fans on the same team! It was so great! It's a good thing. This needs to continue. I feel great!" Afinogenov told Sovetsky Sport after the game.
The game ended with another pros' win, 17-10, with Dynamo's first-team goalie Eremeev playing for the fans for 20 minutes or so, to try and keep the score respectable.
But the fans won the postgame shootout, 2-1, with Afinogenov scoring.
I can only imagine the bond between teams and their fans that can develop after days like these. For hours following the game fans and their idols talked, took pictures, got autographs.
Hockey fans aren't like other fans. And some hockey clubs realize it.