Alexei Dementiev, a Russian hockey agent and former scout for the Ottawa Senators, is driving like a madman through the notoriously foul Moscow traffic to get us to the arena on time. The Tuesday night game is being billed as a biggie – Dynamo Moscow, featuring locked-out NHL hotshot Alexander Ovechkin, against “Siberia,” the nickname for the Sibir Novosibirsk team.
“Game is sold out – hope you have a ticket,” he tells me. I had mistakenly assumed I could nail one at the ticket booth and go into a low-grade panic.
He laughs: “Don’t worry. Games never sold out in Moscow.”
Well, indeed. We roll up to the aptly named Minor Arena in the Luzhinki Sports Complex that was the centre of the American-boycotted 1980 Moscow Olympics. There is no crowd outside and not much of one inside. At best half of the 8,700 seats are occupied (Toronto’s Air Canada Centre, home of the Maple Leafs, has 18,819 seats for hockey).
The Minor Arena says a lot about the state of the Kontinental Hockey League – the KHL – Russia’s NHL equivalent and the league that is soaking up dozens of NHL players, including Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals and Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins. The KHL, like Dynamo’s arena, is having trouble attracting paying fans. In an interview, Malkin, who now plays for Metallurg Magnitogorsk, says “a complex of marketing efforts are needed to summon fans to the stands in Moscow. You see, Moscow offers too many events and amusement and people often simply do not choose hockey.”
The arena, a handsome though run-down neo-classical building, was constructed in 1956 and is wholly inadequate for a team of Dynamo’s status and potential drawing power. In the 1980 Games, it was used for volleyball competitions and had no roof.
There are no corporate VIP boxes inside, nor any souvenir stands or concessions, save a cafeteria that serves vile snacks. On the plus side, attending a hockey game in Russia won’t bankrupt you. My skinny hot dog, Snickers bar and bottled water come to about 100 rubles, the equivalent of $3.25. A game ticket costs about $10.
A family of four would be hard-pressed to shell out much more than $50 for tickets and snacks and that’s a key part of the KHL’s problem. Russian hockey arenas are not pleasure domes designed to shake down the fan for everything he is worth, all the better to pump up team revenues and profits. None of the 20 KHL teams in Russia (there are six in other countries) makes a profit. “Hockey in Russia is a social project,” Dementiev says.
I ask a young Russian hockey journalist, Maria Rogovskaya, of the sports website championat.com, why the arena is more than half empty and she explains that the crowd might have been thinner if Ovechkin were not on the ice. “They are coming because they have only one chance to see NHLers play,” she says.
The fans try hard to pump up the volume, but there aren’t enough of them to get the job done. The requisite young cheerleaders add a dash of flash but seem incapable of holding the fans’ attention. The entertainment between the periods consists of two small remote-control dirigibles, covered in advertising, that hover lazily over the rink.
Both teams are lazy in the first period, but I enjoy the passing plays in the big rink – the KHL rinks are about four metres wider than the NHL ice. Dynamo, the winner of last season’s Gagarin Cup, the equivalent of the Stanley Cup, are expected to crush the opposition. But Sibir’s defence proves remarkably strong and Ovechkin’s sniper shots don’t find their mark. The players come alive in the third period and the Siberians take the game 3-2 in overtime.
The Sibir players are delighted that they’ve humbled mighty Dynamo and its prized import, Ovechkin, a two-time NHL most valuable player. “I’m really happy,” says Kristian Kudroc, 31, the Slovakian Sibir defenceman and Tampa Bay Lightning alumnus.
I ask if he has any regrets joining the KHL after careers in the NHL and in Finland. “The NHL is the top league but the KHL is raising the level of play very quickly,” he says, adding that even the pay is decent.
He’s right, in the sense that organized hockey over here almost collapsed along with the Soviet Union and is only now making a comeback. But it’s got a long way to go before it reaches the stature and sustainability of the NHL.
At the moment, the league occupies a never-never land between social service and commercial product, doing neither particularly well. “I’d state that level of play in Russia has grown substantially during the last seven years,” says Sergei Gonchar, the Ottawa Senators defenceman who, like Malkin, signed up for Metallurg. “Perhaps it’s not NHL calibre yet.