Putin ally to transform Russian hockey club

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A billionaire acquaintance of Vladimir Putin asked to run a lowly ice hockey club in the premier's native Saint Petersburg said Tuesday he intended to use his state ties to build a world-beating side.

The secretive energy trader Gennady Timchenko revealed in a rare interview that he was invited to serve as president of the army-based SKA club by the boss of Gazprom -- the natural gas giant that sponsor the KHL hockey championship.

Timchenko told the Sport Express daily he accepted the offer at the start of the season because the team "has not won anything for decades".

A quick turnaround would make SKA into a second Saint Petersburg success story after Gazprom took the struggling Zenit football club and turned it into a European powerhouse whose games are attended by Putin and Russia's ruling elite.

The 59-year-old head of the Gunvor energy trader said he intended to start on the same road by using the defence ministry and ruling United Russia party to ensure the team had enough enough training facilities and hockey rinks.

"We are negotiating these issues with a number of (state) agencies, including the defence ministry," Timchenko said.

"We have already agreed with United Russia that during the first stage, we will build four new skating rinks for our kids in the city," he added.

An equally rare photo of the billionaire revealed a silver-haired man with a small smile on his stern face wearing the team's logo on the left breast pocket of his dark suit.

Timchenko was a relative unknown until his Cyprus-registered company expanded under the 2000-2008 Putin presidency to become one of the world biggest private commodity traders.

Russia's Finans magazine has estimated his fortune for the start of 2011 at $8.9 billion -- more than double the previous year's figure.

Timchenko has vigorously denied any suggestion that his fortune was in any way related to his personal ties to Putin.

Putin last month confirmed that he knew Timchenko from the days the two spent time building their careers in Saint Petersburg.

But he stressed that he never "stuck his nose" in Timchenko's business.

"I assure you -- because I know that many people write about this -- that they created their company and started working with absolutely no involvement on my part," Putin said in answer to a question from a group of Russian writers.

© 2011 AFP

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