Such a long time ago – and yet there is something about it that rings with familiarity today.
A man called Dennis Murphy says it was nothing more than a crazy notion that jumped into his head while on a flight to Los Angeles in 1970.
What about a new league? he wondered. One that could take on the NHL.
He began talking up the crazy idea with others and they quickly came to the conclusion that the NHL could indeed be challenged. As Murphy told Ed Willes in The Rebel League: The Short and Unruly Life of the World Hockey Association, the Vancouver Province sportswriter’s delightful 2004 book, “We felt their weakness was their arrogance and selfishness.”
The WHA was both a great success and a great failure, but it nonetheless changed the landscape of North American professional hockey forever – as much in Canada as in the United States.
Today, however, hockey is a global sport. And just as the WHA was entirely dismissed and ridiculed right up until Bobby Hull was handed that huge $1-million cheque in Winnipeg, so, too, has the Kontinental Hockey League been considered nothing more than an annoying fly in a room where all entrances and exits are controlled by the NHL.
The KHL came close to landing its very own Bobby Hull last week.
Ilya Kovalchuk, who has had the misfortune to play in two markets – Atlanta and New Jersey – of limited hockey interest, is said to have given serious consideration to KHL overtures to bail on his New Jersey Devils and stay with SKA St. Petersburg.
According to the Devils, he has now agreed to return to New Jersey for this truncated season of discontent, but before returning he and fellow Russian star Pavel Datsyuk insisted on sticking around for this past weekend’s KHL all-star game.
It seems there is a certain amount of reluctance among Russian players to let go of something that has had more appeal to them than the NHL would care to consider.
While hardly the star player Kovalchuk is, Nashville’s Sergei Kostitsyn openly expressed his desire to stay on with Avangard Omsk. “I would be happy to stay until the end of the season if I could,” he said on the team’s web site. “It’s just turned out excellently for me here. The atmosphere’s awesome, all the right conditions are there, the fans are unbelievable.”
Other Russian players have apparently expressed similar views, praising their team, league and fans.
Most Western hockey fans think of the KHL as little more than an unhappy alternative for players locked out of the only league in which they could ever aspire to play. The North American small collective memory of “Russian hockey” runs from the dour, unsmiling robots and military oppression of ’72 to the terrors of air travel today, starkly underlined by the tragic crash 16 months ago that wiped out the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team.
The continuing shivers of that crash notwithstanding, it is important to know that Russia in 2013 is not the Soviet Union of 1981, which happened to be the only other time this sportswriter was there before the world junior championship decided earlier this month in Ufa.
The memory from way back then is one of abject misery: unhappy people living in a darkened, dreary world where most spare time was spent lining up for goods often gone by the time you reached the counter of the precious few shops available.
You could not call today’s Russia “thoroughly modern.” You might, however, think of it as “overly modern.” The streets are overly lighted and overly filled with new cars – including BMWs, Lexus, Land Rovers. The shopping is sumptuous and flagrantly fashionable. The markets overflow with produce and flowers and variety. New, massive malls seem everywhere. Transportation on Aeroflot, the Russian airline that has previously been so damned, is the equal – comfortable Airbuses, good meals, friendly service new airports – of North American carriers.
In a country where there is ever-expanding disparity between the very rich and the very poor, it is grand indeed to be among the very rich – which is exactly where professional hockey players lie.
There is also the matter of taxes, the bane of so many overpaid NHLers. There must be a reason why French actor Gérard Depardieu was so delighted last week with the offer of a new passport and address from Russian president Vladimir Putin. “I love your country, Russia,” Depardieu is reported as saying, “its people, its history, its writers. I love your culture, your intelligence.” He didn’t bother mentioning its negligible tax rates on the very, very rich.
Rinks are modern, fans are fanatical and knowledgeable, as was shown each time the Russian juniors took to the ice in Ufa. If, as the criticism goes, some KHL rinks are half-filled, what then is the difference between that league and the NHL teams in Florida, Texas and elsewhere?
As for the quality of hockey, who can say? Where is that NHLer absolutely humiliating all opposition in the European leagues? Where, a prospective KHLer might well ask with a sigh of relief, are the NHL headhunters and enforcers? Being a star hockey player in your own country has its benefits, not the least being your own language and an absence of the sticky, rather racist NHL tags of “enigma” and “floater” and “non-team player.”
As for being branded greedy and slammed for a lack of respect for duly signed contracts, what is there to say about that at the end of this revolting and ridiculous NHL lockout?
Perhaps there remains a weakness in such arrogance and selfishness.
It annoys some North American fans to think that Russians could stand among the game’s greatest stars, but the facts are there for the checking. The current MVP of the NHL is Evgeni Malkin, the player voted most valuable by the players is Datsyuk. The most dynamic NHLer since the last lockout has been, undeniably, Alex Ovechkin.
Ilya Kovalchuk is up there, too – if only he played in a market that noticed.
They notice in Russia. And though it did not happen this year, the day is surely coming when a significant star decides to return home – or simply stay at home. And it may, just as Bobby Hull did more than 40 years ago, be the beginning of something the NHL will have to come to terms with – no matter how reluctant it might be to admit there might be real competition for the players it considers their very own.