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Dynamo St. Petersburg shut down, won’t play in 2020-21 ZhHL season

Pro women’s hockey under threat in Russia

All-Star Game by Women’s Hockey League opens 2018 Week of Hockey Stars in Astana, Kazakhstan Photo by Sergei Bobylev\TASS via Getty Images

Dynamo St. Petersburg of the Zhenskaya Hockey League (ZhHL) will not be competing in the 2020-21 season as a result of insufficient funding, the club announced on July 2. All of the players are free agents now.

Sergey Cherkas, who is the general manager of Dynamo and as well as the franchise’s junior men’s team, made the following statement to TASS on July 4:

“Funding is being optimized. We have decided that the Youth Hockey League and the Higher Hockey League will remain teams, and the women’s team will not play next season. But we do not refuse to return it in the future.” (translated through Google)

In other words, due to financial constraints — likely exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic — Dynamo’s women’s team is being shut down while the junior men’s team (MHL) and HC Moscow (KHL) will operate in 2020-21. The Ice Garden has reached out to Dynamo for a statement via email but has yet to hear back.

This leaves seven teams in the ZhHL.

Dynamo finished second-to-last in the ZhHL in the 2019-20 season with a record of 9-15-2-2; the team went 20-11-2-3 in 2018-19 and lost in the 2019 Final to Agidel Ufa.

Cherkas’ statement to TASS suggests that the women’s team could return in the future, but it appears that there are no plans in place for when that might be. Per the team’s site, Yelena Malinovskaya, Aneta Tejralova, and goaltender Valeria Merkusheva all left the team via free agency prior to this development. Merkusheva, 20, represented Russia at the 2019 IIHF Women’s World Championship in Espoo, Finland. Tejralova, 24, is a defender and member of the Czech national team that was an alternate captain on Dynamo in 2019-20. She was also the team’s leading scorer with 15 goals and 16 assists in 36 games.

With the team shut down for the 2020-21 season, it’s unclear how many more of Dynamo’s players will find new homes on the ZhHL’s remaining seven teams. Unfortunately, Dynamo isn’t the only team in Russia that might have its plug pulled.

In April, Sport24 reported that Agidel itself and SKIF Nizhny Novgorod are also in danger of closing their doors for the 2020-21 season as a result of financial constraints. The Russian oil company Bashneft has reportedly not paid into the “Social Targeted Programs Fund” that Agidel depends on since January. As is the case for Dynamo, the junior men’s teams and senior men’s teams associated with Agidel and SKIF are not considered nearly as vulnerable — or perhaps the more appropriate term is expendable.

Relocation is another option on the table for Agidel, though the players are strongly against it. In May, they wrote an open letter to the head of the Republic of Bashkortostan Radiy Khabirov for help to avoid what the letter calls a “decision entails the destruction of the team in the near future.”

The team that is likely on the sturdiest financial ground in the ZhHL is KRS Shenzhen Vanke Rays, the 2020 champions. KRS joined the ZhHL last year after the CWHL (Canadian Women’s Hockey League) folded. The team is owned by KHL club HC Kunlun Red Star, which in turn is owned by Billy Ngok. He founded the private equity company Golden Brick Capital Management and China Environmental Energy Holdings. He’s an outspoken supporter of the women’s game and is invested in its growth in his home country before the Beijing Olympics in 2022.

At this stage, the 2020-21 ZhHL season is standing on thin ice. Dynamo may just be the first domino to fall.