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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 ...

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.

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“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.

Sweeping change

Vladislav Tretiak, the Russian goaltender in the 1972 Summit Series, has a successful dual career as head of Russia’s Ice Hockey Federation and deputy in the Russian Duma, the lower house in parliament. He is gracious and engaged even though he is still shaken by the murder of a political colleague only five days before he met me at the Ritz-Carlton hotel near the Kremlin in Moscow.

His local constituency aide and fixer was gunned down in a fitness club in the city of Ulyanovsk, in the Volga region well east of Moscow, proving yet again that politics, like business, can still be a blood sport in Russia. He declines to talk about the killing, politely insisting that the topic is hockey and only hockey.

Tretiak, 60, is still unmistakably the goalie beloved by three generations of Canadian and Russian hockey fans. He is six-feet tall, probably 220 pounds, with a bit of a paunch. He still looks powerful even though he no longer hits the rink to keep fit. “Bad knees,” he says through an interpreter.

He represents the golden era of Soviet hockey, in the 1970s and into the first half of the 1980s, when the national team was the dominant force in the international game and the KHL’s predecessor league could still hang onto its best players. Tretiak’s teams won gold in the 1972, 1976 and 1984 Olympics. Between 1970 and 1983, they captured 10 world championships and, in 1981, the Canada Cup. During that time, he also won 13 league titles with CSKA Moscow, better known as the Red Army team, the shock troops of the Russian ice for decades.

A lot has changed since then, and not necessarily for the better.

In his youth, Soviet hockey was more than a national passion and a source of national pride; it was a training program instilled with military-style discipline that produced cracking great results. Tretiak entered the CSKA sports school at age 11 and trained three times a day to utter exhaustion. He remembers being weighed down with cruel equipment. “The stick was so heavy that it was difficult to hit the puck away,” he says. “In the third period, I couldn’t lift my legs because the shin pads were so heavy. They were stuffed with horse hair and it sucked up the water.”

The endless training produced some of the world’s best players and teams. CSKA was particularly strong, winning 32 championships in the post-war decades. If it spotted a young player it didn’t want to lose to a rival team, such as Dynamo, which was controlled by the KGB during the Soviet era, it simply drafted him into the army and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Its best players became stars and were well paid by Soviet standards, where ownership of a Lada was considered a rare privilege. “The hockey players were the first to drive foreign cars in Moscow in the 1970s,” says Ilya Kochevrin, the KHL’s commerce and communications vice-president.

In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed and so did Soviet Hockey League, as it was called, to be replaced by the sorry Russian Hockey League. With the Russian economy in free-fall – the country defaulted on its debt in 1998, shortly after the oil price collapse – the teams were starved of investment. “There were no salaries, no jobs,” Tretiak says.

Arenas fell apart for lack of maintenance and some doubled up as clothing and food markets – the ultimate dishonour for a once-proud league. Kochevrin estimates that two-thirds of the very best Russian players fled, most of them to NHL but also to leagues in Scandinavia and Germany, even little Croatia.

As the arenas crumbled, TV coverage became shabby and the top players fled overseas, fans disappeared in droves as the games turned into amateur shows. Alex Kravtsov, a Moscow PR man and one-time hockey fan, says “It was painful to watch the KHL games.”

Arenas turned into echo chambers. In the dark days of the late 1990s and into 2000 once-thrilling teams like Saint Petersburg could barely draw an audience. In a 12,000-seat arena, the team often had trouble drawing 500 spectators. “Just die-hard fans were there,” Kochevrin says.

Tretiak rolls out some grim statistics to illustrate hockey’s decline in Russia. The country has just under 400 covered hockey arenas left in operation. And Canada? Try 2,500. About 500,000 Canadians of all ages play hockey. In Russia, whose population is four times that of Canada, there are only 86,000 players and virtually no female players. “We don’t have the infrastructure,” he says.

Stuffed with Russia’s best, the NHL went through something of a renaissance in the last decade at the Russian league’s expense. The league, by then known as the Russian SuperLeague, was killed off in 2008, to be replaced by the KHL. The idea was to create a product that would restore the fan base within Russia, expand outside Russia, protect players and owners through proper legal frameworks and create profits for the teams’ owners.

A tough assignment. “No one believed it could become the sport of choice again,” Kochevrin said.

Buoyant mood

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.

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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