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Evgeny Malkin (L) of Metallurg Magnitogorsk and Jekabs Redlihs of Dinamo Riga look on during their Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) match in Riga October 22, 2012. (INTS KALNINS/REUTERS)
Evgeny Malkin (L) of Metallurg Magnitogorsk and Jekabs Redlihs of Dinamo Riga look on during their Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) match in Riga October 22, 2012. (INTS KALNINS/REUTERS)

ERIC REGULY

Even with locked-out NHL stars, KHL still a mess Add to ...

If there is one thing that unites the owners, it’s their willingness to suffer losses for the greater cause. But what is that cause?

The answer, it appears, is a mix of corporate social responsibility and the deft kissing of Kremlin butt.

Again, take SKA Saint Petersburg. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, Russia’s second city suffered massive deindustrialization and soaring unemployment. The team and its arena rotted away for lack of money. Many of Gazprom’s senior executives come from Saint Petersburg and launched a mercy mission. The company bought the team from a group of local businessmen in 2008, revived it and sexed up the off-ice entertainment. “They have dancing girls, cheerleaders, great game-show music, laser shows on the ice, everything,” says Dementiev, the KHL agent in Moscow. “They sell out every game.”

Kochevrin, the KHL commerce vice-president, explains that Gazprom’s rescue of Saint Petersburg was an exercise in “marketing and corporate-social responsibility … the company had to give something back.” The implication is that Gazprom, which enjoys a gas-export monopoly and made a net profit of almost $45-billion (U.S.) in 2012, can afford to air-drop a few rubles into the community. Call it guilt money.

Balyakov, the deputy minister, is somewhat less subtle in his analysis of the hockey owners’ motivation. “They want to show the prime minister that they are doing something for Russian sport and culture,” he says. “I cannot say it’s a bad thing.”

Pleasing Putin and his No.2, Dmitry Medvedev, has never been a bad strategy for Russia’s money men. For his part, Tretiak approves the use of Russian hockey as a social tool. “Ice hockey is not just a sport, it is for the health of the nation,” he says. “It has a big social role so that kids do not just hang around in the streets.”

Off to its best start

The KHL loves the NHL lockout. Tretiak is thrilled to see some of the Russian NHL players in action in their home country before the Olympic team is assembled for the Sochi 2014 Olympics. He predicts that the NHL will not stop them from breaking away to join Team Russia in the middle of the season. “Anything can happen, but most [of the NHL’s Russian] players have said they will go,” he says. “I don’t think the NHL will spoil it.”

The KHL is thrilled because the star presence of Malkin (who was the NHL MVP for the 2011-12 season), Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk and Nail Yakupov is luring fans. Some KHL games are being carried on the ESPN3 network, boosting the Russians’ exposure in North America.

The KHL would be even more thrilled if the NHL players and owners cannot break the stalemate, forcing the NHL to kill the entire season. If that were to happen, the NHLers would stay put on Russian ice. If the KHL is really lucky, a couple of the NHL players will break their contracts and come home for good, though that is unlikely given their lavish salaries (Ovechkin has threatened to quit the Capitals if any new collective bargaining agreement slashes his income; Malkin says he’s going back to Pittsburgh when the lockout ends).

There is no doubt that the KHL is off to its best start since it commenced play in 2008. Even Yaroslavl, a team that was on hiatus last year, and which is devoid of superstars, has managed to put the plane crash tragedy behind it. Under coach Rowe, the team went on an early winning streak and was, in early November, ranked second in the KHL’s 14-team Western Conference.

But no one – not Tretiak, not the KHL’s commerce men, not Putin’s hockey-savvy ministers – is under the impression that the KHL is about to displace the NHL as the most glamorous, watchable and financially sustainable league any time soon. It will be years, perhaps decades, before the clapped-out arenas are replaced, before the league generates decent revenues and before salaries rise to the point that every Russian hotshot’s dream is to stay put instead of bolting to the NHL.

After the Dynamo-Sibir game in Moscow, Nikita Zaitsev, the lanky defenceman who scored Sibir’s winning goal, was under no illusion that the KHL is the place to be. “All young Russian players want to play in the NHL,” he says. “It’s the best league in the world.”

An agent later told me that Zaitsev was bound to get drafted by the NHL. Watching him play that evening, I agreed; he was dazzling. As soon as the NHL lockout ends, the talent flow will reverse itself and the KHL’s biggest problem – how to keep first-rate players in a second-rate league – will return.

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