A tough assignment. “No one believed it could become the sport of choice again,” Kochevrin said.
The KHL is a sprawling mess of a league that has attracted as much bad publicity as good in its four-year history.
The maiden season got under way on Sept. 2, 2008 and the first disaster came only five weeks later, when a dazzling rookie Avangard Omsk player named Alexei Cherepanov – “the Siberian Express” – collapsed on the bench shortly before the end of a KHL game and died a few hours later. He could not be rushed to hospital for lack of an ambulance on site. The arena’s defibrillator was not working. He was 19 and a New York Rangers prospect.
His death reinforced the image that the KHL arenas were clapped-out holding pens whose emergency staff were uncaring or incompetent. Worse was to come. On Sept. 7, 2011, the charter aircraft carrying Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, the pride of Yaroslavl, a UNESCO Heritage city on the Volga River about 250 kilometres northeast of Moscow, crashed shorty after takeoff, killing 37 players and coaches.
The team vanished from the KHL for the season and is now being rebuilt under American coach and former NHLer Tom Rowe.
The KHL is in a more buoyant mood this year. There has been no disaster beyond the usual contract disputes with foreign players and the league is suddenly brimming with NHL talent, a few of whom just might stay in the motherland. The KHL is rebuilding organized hockey in Russia after two decades of shocking decay. Whether the mission will truly succeed is an open question.
There is no doubt that hockey is on the official agenda again, thanks to Russia’s overwhelming desire to win gold in the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, to avoid a repeat of the Cherepanov and Yaroslavl disasters and to Vladimir Putin’s new-found interest the game. The Russian president, who is 60, took up hockey only recently. He once compared his skills to that of a “cow on ice” but is said to adore the game and has recruited ex-KHL players to coach him.
But some of Putin’s own men admit that turning the KHL into a sustainable, fan-pleasing business will be arduous. Sergey Belyakov, deputy minister in the Russian ministry of economic development and an avid hockey player, thinks no one should expect miracles from the KHL in the near future. “The NHL has almost 100 years of history, the KHL five years,” he says. “It is not a commercial business and we have no history of making money.”
The KHL teams are controlled by an eclectic mob of state and private owners that make you wonder whether Russian pro hockey is business, charity or vanity project. Certainly, the ownership structure would be unimaginable in the NHL.
Take SKA Saint Petersburg. There is a direct line from Putin to the team. Putin is the head of government, which controls Gazprom, one of the world biggest energy companies and natural gas exporters, which in turn owns the Saint Petersburg team. If the same ownership thread were replicated in Canada with the Maple Leafs, the Leafs would in effect be a crown corporation. Dynamo Moscow is owned by the Russian ministry of internal affairs. Tretiak’s old team, CSKA Moscow, is owned by Kremlin-controlled Rosneft, Russia’s biggest oil company.
Various oligarchs, lesser tycoons, local governments and industrial corporations control or sponsor the other KHL teams, though the paucity of financial reporting makes it hard to tell who owns what exactly.
With the resurrection of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl this year, the KHL has 26 teams. Twenty are Russian. The other six are in Belarus, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Ukraine, Czech Republic and Slovakia. More foreign expansion teams are possible.
Moscow has four teams. The city’s hockey glut, atrocious traffic and competition from other forms of entertainment, from soccer to wild nights at the Hungry Duck, the notorious bar and nightclub where anything goes, means that the Moscow arenas almost never sell out. The ones in the smaller cities tend to play to bigger houses because competing entertainment is scarce but also because local sponsorship gives those cities a sense of pride in their hockey teams. Rowe says the Yaroslavl arena, which is big and modern and feels like a proper NHL arena, always sells out.
Most of Russian teams play in terrible stadiums that they do not own, depriving them of crucial revenue streams. The stadiums are too often small, dark, dirty, lack concessions and corporate boxes and generally are not alluring to fans. Tickets that cost $10 or less are too cheap to add to the bottom line. “In Chicago, it costs $20 just to park,” Tretiak says.
TV revenues are pathetic. The league runs KHLtv, a subscription channel. But it generates only about $4-million (U.S.) a year. That’s a bucket of popcorn compared to the NHL, which last year signed a 10-year, $2-billion (U.S.) broadcast agreement with NBC. The deal averages out to $200-million (U.S.) a year.