Although the sport is now a national passion, hockey as we know it now did not come to the Soviet Union until the 1940s. But, before that, the related game of bandy was hugely popular. Peter the Great first popularized bandy in Russia in the 17th century; he and his court would play on the frozen Neva River during St. Petersburg’s winters. The game was popular with those outside the Russian nobility by the 19th century. Bandy, which was also called Russian hockey, is played on ice with a ball instead of a puck. The sticks are made of juniper and the skate blades are longer than those on hockey skates. Bandy is still a national sport in Russia; Russia is a member country of the Federation of International Bandy.
During the Soviet era, they took to the new sport quickly. The Soviet national ice hockey team dominated at the Olympics year after year. When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, the Kontinental Hockey League was formed to replace the Soviet league.
The Kontinental Hockey League, whose member countries include Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and other FSU countries, is considered one of the best in the world. Popular Russian teams include Dynamo Moscow and Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. Sokil Kyiv has represented the city of Kyiv since 1963. In 1986, Sokil Kyiv became the first and only Ukrainian hockey team to compete in the prestigious Spengler Cup, where they won second place.
With the ongoing NHL lockout, many players who previously played in the US have come to the Kontinental Hockey League so they can stay in the game. Alex Overchkin of the Capitals is now playing for Dynamo Moscow. A rival team, Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, has gained two NHL players: Semyon Varlamov, who kept goal for the Colorado Avalanche, and Artem Anisimov, who played for the Columbus Blue Jackets. And, the team is coached by American Tom Rowe, who was a player for the NHL. Rowe has been tasked with rebuilding the team after the tragic loss of 37 players, coaches and support staff members in a 2011 plane crash. Tom Rowe said that honoring the legacy of the lost players is a motivational theme for the team and its fans. He told The New York Times, “It’s a small community, and people come up to us on the street, just thanking us for having a team back. It’s pretty neat, and we’re all honored to be a part of it.”