A few weeks ago I interviewed the General Director of Nizhnekamsk Neftekhimik Hockey Club – Rail Yakupov. During our conversation he talked about Tatarstan’s local hockey derbies and how special it feels for the fans in attendance as they get to witness one live.
On the 3rd of November 2018 it was my turn to experience a hockey derby as the mighty Kazan Ak Bars (the Snow Leopards) came to town.
Ak Bars are the big boys of the KHL and last season’s Gagarin Cup Champions.
A gambling man would not have favoured Neftekhimik’s chances of victory on this day.
As I was walking the streets by the arena before the game it was evident that the crowd was split 50/50. I spoke to many Ak Bars fans that were actually native to Nizhnekamsk. I even met families where the parents were Neftekhimik supporters but their children were fans of Ak Bars.
The game began with a disappointing first period for the Neftekhimik Wolves. Kazan’s Albert Yarullin scored the first goal of the game after less than three minutes.
At the beginning of the second period, the same thing happened. Less than three minutes after the end of the first intermission, another Ak Bars goal was scored by Vladimir Tkachyov.
Things were not looking good for Neftekhimik. Something needed to be done, and fast!
Neftekhimik’s starting goalkeeper Ilya Ezhov was given the rest of the night off and replaced by Andrei Makarov.
Suddenly things started to improve for the Wolves in the last few minutes of the second period. Two goals just three minutes apart, made the Neftekhimik fans in the crowd erupt. Goals by Juuso Puustinen and Pavel Zdunov gave hope to the Wolves and tied the score at 2-2 going into the final period.
In hindsight, that second period was some of the most hard-hitting and fast paced hockey action I’ve ever seen live. The desperation and pressure on the Wolves to claw their way back from a 0-2 deficit was met with a burst of determination and hunger that showed Neftekhimik in all their glory. They refused to quit or accept a seemingly inevitable defeat.
Every fan in attendance was on the edge of their seat with anticipation and excitement. However, the third period was goalless. The overtime period failed to give the fans any goals either, despite the fact that Ak Bars were playing with a one man advantage after Neftekhimik’s Mikael Ruohomaa was sent to the penalty box.
The winners of the derby were decided via a penalty shootout! Ultimately, the winners were …. NIZHNEKAMSK NEFTEKHIMIK!!! A number of saves by Andrei Makarov, and the decisive penalty goal by Andrej Nestrašil secured the victory. The Wolves had defeated the Snow Leopards.
The 3rd of November 2018 will forever be imprinted on my memory. It was the first time I had seen a live hockey derby in my adopted home of Tatarstan, and it was also the first time I had watched a live penalty shootout.
Amazing! Simply amazing!