So much of the news from Russia’s Continental Hockey League (KHL) over the past few years has been bad. Last year’s Lokomotiv Yaroslavl plane crash, which killed all but one passenger. The heart-attack death of New York Rangers teenage prospect Alexei Cherepanov, while playing for Avangard Omsk during the 2008-09 season. Disputes with foreign players over having their contracts honoured.
Embarking on its fifth full season, the KHL is a more mature league now, but given its far-flung geography, has no one-size-fits-all character, says Barry Smith, who coached SKA St. Petersburg between 2008 and 2010 after winning five Stanley Cup championships as an NHL assistant with the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Detroit Red Wings.
“There are so many different personalities of the league because each city is so different in what they offer and what the possibilities are,” Smith said in a telephone interview.
“It’s almost like the old days in Canada, where every town had a factory or business which ran the team.
“It’s very similar there. If you go to Magnitogorsk or Severstal, it’s steel. If you go to Neftekhimik, it’s chemicals. Traktor is heavy machinery. None of the teams make money. There’s no business model that says, ‘if we sell this many tickets or land this many sponsors, we’re going to break even.’ They’re not even close.”
Smith’s former team, SKA St. Petersburg, officially announced that the New Jersey Devils’ Ilya Kovalchuk will join their lineup Tuesday, while Metallurg Magnitogorsk have brought back Evgeni Malkin (Pittsburgh) and Sergei Gonchar (Ottawa Senators), who played for them during the 2004-05 lockout.
For NHL players considering the move to Russia, there will always be risks to weigh: the cost of insuring their NHL contracts, the uncertainty over plane travel, the calibre of medical attention, in case of injury.
According to Slava Malamud, the Washington-based correspondent for the Russian sports daily, Sport-Express, the KHL is “slowly becoming more professional. They learned the hard way after Cherepanov’s death. They had to come back and introduce the rule about defibrillators in every arena.”
“They learned from these disasters and mistakes,” Malamud added. “Obviously, the Lokomotiv crash. Now they’re trying to run team travel in a more centralized fashion. The NHL can have the luxury of teams managing their own travel. Russia cannot have that luxury because there are teams from small, industrial towns that are fully subsidized by taxpayer money or local companies – and they would cut costs at every corner. So they have to rule it from the KHL offices and set standards on how the teams must travel.”
On the ice, Smith described the product as “very good. There are a lot of players over there that could play here and don’t, because they’re making good money. They’re not going to come over because it’s home.”
“The coaching is good too, but you have a lot of different flavours – two North Americans [Paul Maurice and Tom Rowe], three Finns, the Czechs have always been there, and you have your Russian coaches. Every place will be different, depending upon whether it’s an old Russian coach, or a Finn coach or whatever.”
As for crowds, they can vary wildly from city to city.
“It goes with location,” Smith said. “The Siberian teams draw very well. St. Petersburg draws well. The Moscow teams don’t draw well. It’s too difficult to get there. Traffic is chaos. Too much to do in Moscow.
“You go to Kazan – separate city, big-time crowds. You go all the way out to Khabarovsk, seven time zones away from St. Petersburg, they get good crowds.”
To Smith, the most difficult adjustment for North American-born NHL players would “probably be the language and the [Cyrillic] alphabet. It makes communication very tough.”
“Also, your families,” Smith added. “It’s not fair to bring your families to the KHL. You go away for a three or four-game road trip, what do they do with the down time? It’s really hard. You need translators. You need drivers. You need people to help you in your daily life.”
In 2004-05, one of Russia’s wealthiest teams, Ak Bars Kazan, recruited North American NHL stars such as Dany Heatley, Brad Richards and Vincent Lecavalier.
Malamud does not think KHL teams will be nearly as aggressive this time around.
“Ak Bars especially became a cautionary tale against loading up with the big names, because they lost in the first round,” said Malamud, who also noted that there is a team, Vityaz, coached by former NHLer Andrei Nazarov, that is the KHL answer to the Charleston Chiefs of Slap Shot fame. Vityaz is usually a KHL bottom feeder, but leads the league in merchandise sale because its brawls are featured around the world on YouTube, Malamud said.
Why, then, he wondered, would a player with Sidney Crosby’s concussion history put himself at risk to play against a team known primarily for its goon tactics.
“For the KHL to become what it is today, it needed to overcome the ingrained perceptions of what Russian hockey should be, which were basically Soviet perceptions,” Malamud said. “They had to copy the North American system, because there really is nothing in between.
“Despite the fact that they talk tough about the NHL in the press, what they’re trying to build is NHL Light. Or NHL 2.0.
“They’ve built the foundation around the NHL model and now, they’re just adding things on to it. They’re trying to stabilize the franchises. They have a central office that controls the league and establishes transfer rules. They have a disciplinary department, à la Brendan Shanahan and Colin Campbell. They introduced the draft. They introduced the junior league, the MHL. They created the VHL, which is basically a farm league, like the American Hockey League.”
For all the improvements – on the ice and off, in marketing, in TV, in new media – Malamud says KHL gate receipts lag far behind the NHL.
“They can sell out every game and still not make any profits because Russian [worker] salaries are low and the ticket prices are very low as well,” Malamud said. “In Magnitogorsk, where Malkin plays, there is absolutely nothing there except hockey. They have this incredibly successful team but for the first game of the season against Dynamo, the defending champions, and they can’t sell it out.”
Nor will NHL players enjoy the same comfort and luxuries that they do in the NHL, Smith says.
“Players in the NHL, they don’t even have to brush their teeth,” he said. “Everything’s there for you. Everything’s picked up for you. Everything’s packed. When you go overseas, you’re packing yourself. You’re carrying your bag. You’re going through the airport. You have to wait in line and get a ticket. Your travel is totally different. It’s pretty primitive.”
THE KHL IN A SNAPSHOT
The Continental Hockey League was established in March 2008 "to promote the successful development of hockey in Russia and other countries in Europe and Asia" when the FHR (Hockey Federation of Russia) officially handed over all rights to stage the national championship to the KHL.
The four divisions of the League are named in honor of famous players and coaches: Vsevolod Bobrov, Anatoly Tarasov, Valery Kharlamov and Arkady Chernyshev. It is currently a 26-team league, featuring clubs from Russia, Latvia, Kazakhstan, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
The KHL plays a 56-game regular season (four against opponents in their own division and two games against opponents from other divisions). In the play-off series the best 16 teams of the regular season - eight from the Eastern Conference and eight from the Western - compete for the Gagarin Cup.