Russian ice hockey club AK Bars is feeling the heat after dumping its cheerleading team to promote a more ‘family-friendly’ atmosphere at games – with critics calling the move a backwards step.
Based in the city of Kazan in Russia’s Republic of Tatarstan, AK Bars will start the new Kontinetal Hockey League (KHL) season without the support of its ‘Bars Angels’ dancing group.
Explaining the decision to Russian channel Match TV, the team’s press service said they held pre-season events without the cheerleading outfit, also citing the departure of the lead girl to Moscow as another factor and the possibility to free up space in the stands.
However, coming after Russian MMA icon Khabib Nurmagomedov – a devout Muslim – called scantily-clad ring girls ‘the most unnecessary people’ in his sport, the news had aroused suspicion that AK Bars was taking its cue from the UFC superstar.
Tatarstan is home to one of Russia’s most important Muslim communities, with more Muslims than Orthodox Christians.
The club denied that Dagestani fighter Khabib’s comments were anything to do with its move to ditch their cheerleaders, stating it had “made the decision earlier” and was taking a more friendly-oriented direction – but admitting the girls’ disappointment at being dumped.
“When we told them about the decision, of course, the girls were upset. But we’ll meet with them again and present them with some valuable gifts,” an official was quoted as saying.
But those words haven’t quelled the criticism from some quarters, including from upset former Bars Angels leader Rigina Barieva – who departed for Moscow before the step was taken.
According to Barieva, team officials were worried about jealous wives angry at their husbands being more interested in attractive girls waving pom-poms than the pucks flying around on the ice.
“The arguments were that supposedly other people’s wives don’t react very well to beautiful girls. Therefore, the club decided to abandon the services of the support group altogether,” Barieva said of the new dancer-free set-up.
“Naturally, I didn’t like it. Even though I’ve already left Bars Angels, I’d very much like the group to live. The group there is very good, strong, the girls are beautiful…
“At least they could have said in advance!… But there was no such announcement. Just in the middle of August, before the start of the season, they said: ‘Goodbye’… All the girls are very upset and didn’t expect this.”
Barieva dismissed the idea that cheerleaders were a source of “debauchery” or not family-friendly entertainment.
“On the contrary, women only supported us,” she said.
“Even the last season, there were times when I couldn’t dance. And women from the stands shouted to me: ‘Rigina, go on stage! Why are not you dancing? Because of this, we’re losing!’”
The former dancing queen pointed out that the decision was “not made throughout Tatarstan” and was specific to AK Bars – and urged clubs elsewhere “not to touch” their cheerleading groups.
One fellow former dancer dismayed with the move was hockey TV presenter-turned-Instagram favorite Ulyana Trigubchak, previously an ice girl at KHL club Salavat Yulaev in Ufa.
She took to Instagram to vent her anger, writing: “It was the 21st century, [but] we rolled back into the past as best we could…
“You tell me one thing: what kind of family values are these that because of going to hockey the family can break up?
“Or do you think that a man will no longer find where to look at other girls? Should they gouge their eyes out now? Or do you think other people’s husbands don’t look at my posts?” Trigubchak added, sharing a range of images from her own cheerleading days.
“When I was an ice girl and went out for a walk in the foyer during a break, both husbands and wives came up to me to take pictures. Or such a situation often happened: the wife took a picture of her husband with me and… nothing terrible happened!
“Often enthusiastic letters were sent to me directly in the spirit of ‘my husband and I go to the matches to watch not only hockey, but also you.’”
Taking her anger one step further in a lengthy post, Trigubchak even referenced the return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan.
“And against the background of what is happening now in Afghanistan, such decisions by AK Bars are generally some kind of cringe,” fumed the blonde.
“Tatarstan, will you soon put on a burqa for everyone? Or are you waiting for the arrival of the Taliban?”
AK Bars – minus their cheerleading team – are due to get their new KHL season underway against Jokerit at the Tatneft Arena in Kazan on Thursday.