He shoots, he scores! Putin's hockey passion shapes Russian elite

Romain COLAS

Moscow (AFP) - When Vladimir Putin unveiled his new government this week, several top officials had something in common with the Russian president: a love of lacing up and hitting the ice for a hockey game.

Since Putin discovered a passion for hockey and founded the amateur Night Hockey League in 2011, prowess on the ice has become a sort of bellwether for Russia's political elite.

Few had heard of Mikhail Mishustin, the little-known tax chief, before Putin named him as prime minister in a sweeping political shake-up.

Unless, that is, they were followers of the amateur league, where Mishustin is a regular player.

"Since Putin laced up his skates, it is clear that hockey has become the most popular sport among senior officials and businessmen," Moscow-based political analyst Evgeny Minchenko said.

"It's now like golf in the United States."

Hundreds of amateur teams across Russia now take part in the Night Hockey League -- or NHL in a sly reference to the North American professional league.

Team members gather at night after work to let off steam on the ice and chat in the locker room. Most are just groups of friends, but in some cases the teams bring together some of Russia's most powerful and influential figures.

- Putin the MVP -

Putin of course does not play every week, but takes part in several gala matches per year, wearing No. 11 and often playing in the centre position.

A judo blackbelt, the 67-year-old has made sport and healthy living a central theme of his presidency. He reportedly fell in love with hockey at 58 and trained in the evenings after work.

His appearances at the gala matches are shown on national television -- his team inevitably victorious and Putin the most valuable player.

In the last match in December, played on a rink on Red Square, Putin scored more than half the goals to lead his team to an 8-5 win, helped by hockey legends like Pavel Bure.

In another match in Sochi last May Putin scored nine goals, though video emerged of him slipping during a victory lap and nearly faceplanting.

But more important than the number of goals Putin scores are the players who take part in the league alongside him.

Mishustin has played in the league's Premier team, made up of top government officials and staff, as well as being on the board of CSKA -- a Moscow team in the professional Kontinental Hockey League.

Longtime Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, who retained his post when Putin announced the new government on Tuesday, also plays with the president in the gala matches.

- Hockey Politburo -

In goal for many of those games is Alexei Dyumin, the 47-year-old governor of the Tula region in western Russia and Putin's former bodyguard. Dyumin has held several senior military posts and reportedly oversaw special forces operations during Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea

Brothers Arkady and Boris Rotenberg, childhood friends of Putin and now vastly rich businessmen, are also regularly on the ice. Arkady, who is also chairman of the Hockey Federation of Russia, won a multi-billion-dollar government contract in 2015 to build a bridge to Crimea.

Billionaire tycoon Gennady Timchenko, the board chairman of the KHL and under US sanctions over Crimea, is also a regular player, as is nickel magnate Vladimir Potanin.

"These are all members of the Politburo," Minchenko said, referring to the Soviet-era Communist Party organ that ran the USSR. Taking part in the games is "a clear symbol of closeness" to Putin, he said.

Political expert Andrei Kolesnikov said the league has become "like a masonic lodge... where people who are normally formal together can be very close".

Even the new US ambassador to Russia seems to have taken the message to heart. In a video released by the embassy a few days after his arrival this month, John Sullivan said he was a "lifelong hockey fan" and couldn't wait to see some of Russia best players in action.

"In fact, I may try to get on the ice myself now and again," he said.