The Kontinental Hockey League continues to re-invent the hockey system of Russia and Eastern Europe, through expansion into five different countries and the establishment of the franchise system. While a lot of attention is being paid to the senior level, which seems to be changing the national structure of not only Russia, but Latvia, Belarus, Slovakia, and others into the future, it is perhaps at the youth level that the biggest impact is occuring. The complete revolution of the hockey system is well under way.
The Minor Hockey League (MHL) will enter its third season this coming year. It was launched a year after the launch of the KHL, with the requirement of every KHL club to eventually field their own MHL affiliate. The league is an U22 league, mainly featuring players aged 17-21. It is also important to note that the league is not KHL exclusive: there were 3 VHL affiliates in 2010-11, 4 independent teams and the farm team of Yunost Minsk of the Belarussian Extraliga. The VHL is Russia's second league, which is also in the process of becoming a full affiliate league for the KHL. Only two KHL teams did not have a MHL team in 2010-11: Barys Astana, the lone Kazakh team, and HC Yurga, who were the lone expansion club in the KHL last season.
The early results seem encouraging: a majority of the players who were part of the gold medal winning World Junior Championship team in Buffalo came from the MHL, and progress is being made in both participation as well as audience. Going to junior hockey games is not a common occurence throughout Europe, not like the level it is at in Canada and even the United States, but the MHL seems to be gaining a foothold. A recent press release stated that the total attendance for the league increased to 700,000 in 2010-11 from around 450,000 in 2009-10.
NHL teams may be starting to take notice as well. In 2010, Maxim Kitsyn was the only player taken in the NHL Entry Draft that had significant ice time in the MHL. In the most recent draft, six players with significant ice time in the league were taken: Nikita Kucherov (in the second round), Maxim Shalunov, Yaroslav Kosov, Nikita Nesterov, Daniil Sobchenko and Alexei Marchenko all played most of their 2010-11 season in the league.
This coming season, the MHL will be expanding: it will field a full 32 teams, and also launch a second division (MHL-B). Eventually, the hope is to have 52-56 teams total in the circuit, which will work on a relegation-promotion basis. The league will expand to include a MHL team for the new Slovakian club Lev Poprad, as well as Barys Astana and Yurga's junior teams, making the league have clubs in five different countries. Two new Latvian clubs will be entered in the MHL-B league, an independent hockey school based out of Riga, as well as a second Dinamo Riga affiliate. As of the above linked press release, 11 teams were confirmed for MHL-B in 2011-12, with hopes of 20 total by the start of the season.
For North American fans, a parallel might be drawn to the minor league system of major league baseball. There was some talk of allowing younger players into the MHL-B than were allowed in the main league, making it a U18 circuit with a schedule that finished the season in time to play in the U18 WJC's every March/April. With the international makeup of the system, that's probably a wise plan.
It's still quite early in the history of the KHL, but the bold ambition of the league is quite refreshing. It was Russian initiative that also led to the creation of the World Junior Club Cup, the first edition of which will be held in Omsk in late August/early September. Teams from eight different countries, including four MHL clubs, will participate in what organizers had hoped would be a battle of league champions, but has not quite worked out that way so far. The idea was hatched at the World Hockey Summit last August in Toronto, and will see the following teams:
- Malmo Redhawks - J20 SuperElit (Sweden)
- HC Energie Karlovy Vary - Czech U20 league
- EJHL All-Stars - Team composed of players from a Tier III Jr. A league in Northeastern USA
- Fort McMurray Oil Barons - AJHL team from northern Alberta (top Canadian Jr. A league)
- Tatranski vici - Lev Poprad's MHL expansion club (Slovakia)
- Dinamo-Shinnik - MHL club of Dinamo Minsk (Belarus)
- HK Riga - MHL club of Dinamo Riga (Latvia)
- Krasnaya Armiya - MHL club of CSKA Moscow; 2010-11 Kharlamov Cup Champions (Russia)
The Champions Hockey League may be dead in the water, but we do have at least one new international club competition to look forward to this year.