Today, our tour of the European pro hockey circuit takes us to the undisputed king of the circuit, the Russian based Kontinental Hockey League. Everything about the KHL is bigger, from the vast territory the league covers, to the player salaries and the number of teams that play out for the Gagarin Cup. In 2010-11, twenty-three teams from four countries and two continents will compete in the highest level of hockey east (or west) of North America. Despite its international reach, the KHL is definitively a Russian hockey mecca, naming their four divisions after prominent former members of the great USSR teams of the past. In the West, teams compete in the Bobrov and Tarasov Divisions, while the Eastern Conference teams compete in the Kharlamov and Chernyshev Divisions.
Bobrov, one of the fathers of hockey in Russia, was an elite football player who also played bandy, and on a trip to England for soccer games he and his teammates happened upon a hockey game and were immediately transfixed. An elite striker in international football, Bobrov soon became an elite left winger in international hockey, and competed at both the Summer and Winter Olympics as a result. In his later life, he was the head coach of the USSR team in the 1972 Summit Series, as well as other World and Olympic championship squads in the 1970s. Tarasov was also a player turned coach, but he was much more famous for his coaching than his playing. He was the coach for nine World Champions, eleven European Champions, three Olympic Champions, and seventeen USSR championships. Kharlamov is described as the top Soviet player of all time, putting fear into opponents at every international competition, and famously slashed by Bobby Clarke of Canada during the 1972 Summit Series, breaking his leg. Kharlamov died in 1980 in a car crash, after winning eight World Championships, two Olympic gold medals, seven European championships and eleven USSR titles. Arkady Chernyshev was best known for helping found the Soviet hockey school, as well as coaching multiple championship teams at the international level as well (11 World Championships, 4 Olympic golds).
It's this traditional Russian hockey history that stands out as the KHL tries to become hockey's top international league. The league continues to try and find ways to appeal beyond Russia, and the latest promotional method is to abandon the use of Cyrllic lettering on the jerseys for the upcoming season, which I find unfortunate.
|Championships (most recent)
|Alatau Sports Palace
|Kuznetsk Metallurgists Ice Palace
|Ice Sports Palace Sibir
|Salavat Yulaev Ufa
|Ak Bars Kazan
|HC Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk
|Neftekhimik Ice Palace
|Yekaterinburg Ice Palace
|Traktor Sport Palace
|Atlant Moscow Oblast
|Ice Hockey Center 2004
|Arena 2000 Lokomotiv
|Ice Palace (Cherepovets)
|Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod
|Trade Union Sport Palace
|HC Dynamo Minsk
|CSKA Ice Palace
|HC Spartak Moscow
|SKA St. Petersburg
|Ice Palace Saint Petersburg
The championships are so skewed due to, well, Communism. The best athletes were centralized in Moscow under the watch of the Soviet hockey school, and CSKA and Dynamo took on the majority of those elite players. It's interesting to see that CKSA hasn't added a record 33rd title to their collection since Boris Yeltsin was elected chairman of the Russian SFSR in 1989. The new Russia has been much more de-centralized, with only Dynamo Moscow winning championships since that date (though they did win 7). Kazan, Magnitogorsk, Ufa and Yaroslavl have all accomplished a lot of gains since the USSR collapsed, and if Andrei Medvedev has his way, SKA St. Petersburg will join that group in the coming seasons.
The short history of the KHL has been defined by money, expansion, aggressive pursuit of players, and unfortunately, tragedy. Proud, uber-wealthy Russian owners saw great potential in building upon the foundations of the Russian Super League, trying to keep Russian talent in Russia (or demanding high compensation for losing them), and building a league that became the top grossing pro sports league outside of North America. To accomplish this, the league needed both high profile talent and visibility outside of Russia, and they have taken bold steps to achieve those goals. The Alexander Radulov case, where he left the Nashville Predators with a year left on his entry level contract to sign a 3 year deal with Ufa, for significantly more money than what he would have made in the NHL. The 'poaching' of players under contract was seen by Russian owners as fair game, as they claimed the NHL had been doing that to Russian players for years, citing cases like Evgeni Malkin's defection to Pittsburgh as another high profile example. Very shortly after the Radulov signing, the NHL and KHL worked out an understanding that they would not sign any players that were already under contract.
The league's deep pockets and the lack of a formal transfer agreement has seen a great dropoff in the amount of Russian players pursued by NHL teams, whether via the Entry Draft or through free agency. However, what seemed like an attractive venture for younger Russian players like Radulov and Nikolai Zherdev has turned into a league dominated by older players who can no longer command elite salaries in the NHL. The league has attracted, and kept, Alexei Yashin, Sergei Zubov, Evgeni Nabokov, and even Czech star Jaromir Jagr. These players were all still NHL caliber when they left, but the rules of the NHL CBA left them with no better options. It is this ability to attract somewhat prominent NHL level talent to the league that seperates the KHL from every other European circuit. SKA St. Petersburg seems to be the current free spending club, as they have Yashin, Zubov, Nabokov, and now Denis Grebeshkov and Maxim Afinogenov. Plus, they were also the team that made the high end offer to Ilya Kovalchuk.
But there are disadvantages to playing in the KHL, areas in which the league is still growing. A horrendous lesson was learned on October 13, 2008, when young Omsk star Alexander Cherepanov collapsed on the bench during a game against Chekhov. The ambulance was not present, and the defibulator's battery had been drained, leading to massive delays in the ability to properly treat Cherepanov. Cherepanov's death lead to the indefinite suspension of Omsk's President, General Manager, and team doctor for alleged doping of Cherepanov, while Chekhov's President was also suspended indefinitely for the inadequate medical response. While improvements have been made by the KHL since Cherepanov's death, the recent death of 23 year old SKA forward Igor Misko of cardiac arrest gives reason for pause. No symptoms ever came to light under the team's medical testing, and while his death could perhaps be seen as something that could have happened anywhere, the fact that it happened in the KHL within two years of Cherepanov's death gives the league a terrible image.
If the KHL has their way, teams like Salavat Yulaev Ufa (in green) will play Ceske Budejovice (white) more often. Photo via Getty Images.
The KHL's goal is to become a truly international league, to not just be the top league in Europe, but to be a league that is followed by hockey fans across Europe (as well as northern Asia). There are currently twenty teams in Russia, and three in the former USSR states of Latvia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. Since its inception in 2008, the KHL has tried to lure teams from outside of the former USSR into some form of association with the KHL. In September 2009, at the IIHF's Annual Congress, KHL President Andrei Medvedev announced plans to launch United Hockey Europe, a 56 team pan-European league of which the current KHL made up one conference, and the second conference would be split between a Scandanavian division and a central European division. It remains a possibility, but Medvedev's biggest hurdle would be to get individual national hockey associations to abandon their traditional leagues to allow for teams to purchase franchises in UHE.
While UHE may be the ultimate goal of the KHL, they have shown a willingness to accept baby steps. Their courtship of HC Energie Karlovy Varly of the Czech Extraliga, of AIK Hockey in Sweden, Ouland Karpat of Finland, and EC Red Bull Salzburg in Austria are fairly well known, as is the attempt by Hradecky Lev to join the team this year after having an expansion bid accepted by the league. The team failed to gain permission from the Czech national federation, and then approached Propad in Slovakia, but eventually ran out of time to join the KHL for 2010-11. Meanwhile, the KHL hasn't shown an aversion to expansion within Russia, or former Soviet republics. Belarus hopes to add a second KHL team in the near future, with a goal of eventually having four teams. Ukraine has applied for, and been accepted, to have a KHL team in Kiev, but that has been put off until 2011-12 in order to get an arena secured. Lithuania has also been courted, and a team in the capital of Vilnius is a strong possibility. So is a team in Sochi, the 2014 Olympic city and Black Sea resort. Sochi is having a new arena built for the Olympics, and would mark the most southern team in the KHL if they were to join.
Meanwhile, Asian expansion, though not as strong as the European movement, is a strong possibility. Kazakhstan currently has only one team, but Kazzinc-Torpedo of the Russian Major League is a KHL expansion possibility as well. HC Yurga, out of the Russian city of Kahnty-Mansyisk, is evidence that the KHL still finds value in expansion east of Moscow. If you've clicked on the map, you may notice how lonely Amur Khabarovsk is out along the Chinese-Russian border, 3000 km from the nearest team, and eight time zones apart from Riga. The KHL is interested in putting a team further East than Khabarovsk, on the island of Sakhalin. Could such a move lead to an association of sorts with Asia League Ice Hockey? That's pure speculation on my part, but the geography at least makes a little bit of sense.