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Alexander Medvedev. (YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Alexander Medvedev. (YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images)

Eric Duhatschek

KHL looks to co-opt NHL's business model Add to ...

They gathered, for the first night, at the Hockey Hall of Fame and used that tried-and-true format - the Hot Stove discussion - to launch the world hockey summit. Everybody who was everybody in the world of hockey showed up, or was on their way, including a couple of intriguing guests from Russia - Alexander Medvedev, president of the Continental Hockey League (KHL), and Slava Fetisov, the league's chairman.

Medvedev's league is about to enter its third season and despite many growing pains along the way, and the frustration of not being able to repatriate the crème de la crème of Russian players, is becoming a more viable option with every passing season.

There have been issues with safety (the death of New York Rangers' prospect Alexei Cherepanov); and stability (Lada Togliatti folded; Moscow Dynamo, one of the proudest franchises in the Soviet era, was merged with MVD, the police team). The business model remains a work in progress, with ticket prices so low that they cannot possibly sustain the salaries being paid, which has required owners to adopt a George Steinbrenner mentality - of winning no matter what the cost.

Eventually, enhanced TV dollars and co-opting some of the other revenue streams that drive NHL growth may make the financial numbers work.

Indeed, Medvedev, the deputy chairman of oil giant Gazprom and chairman of the board for SKA St. Petersburg, believes the NHL model is something worth co-opting.

His team pays the biggest salaries and has recruited most of the top available talent. Paradoxically, he is also a strong proponent of fiscal restraint, insisting that contracts be honoured so that the tradition - in the old Superleague days - of too many missed pay days on too many under-funded teams is mostly now a thing of the past.

This past summer, Medvedev's team landed goaltender Evgeni Nabokov, formerly of the San Jose Sharks, and defenceman Denis Grebeshkov, who split last season between the Edmonton Oilers and Nashville Predators.

Nabokov was second in the NHL in victories, Grebeshkov a useful hand on defence. Nashville seems as though it is not a destination of choice for Russian-born players. The KHL's biggest coup thus far, beyond signing the aging Jaromir Jagr, was convincing Alexander Radulov, an in-his-prime young star, to go home and skip out on the Predators.

The KHL made an unsuccessful push for Ilya Kovalchuk, but according to Medvedev, was happy with their summer of recruiting.

"I know these people are not coming just for the money," Medvedev said in an interview Monday night. "If the game is not good enough, they will not come.

"Obviously, we have some advantages with regard to taxation of the incomes, which gives us advantages in this [financial]respects. But I am sure that we will see players in their best age come to play in the KHL, if not this season, but next season."

This year's KHL season kicks off in early September and for the first time in years, two touring NHL teams, the Carolina Hurricanes and Phoenix Coyotes, will play exhibition games in Russia against St. Petersburg and Dynamo Riga.

"In spite of the [economic]crash, the league is in good financial state because we are raising more money from broadcasters and advertisers," said Medvedev, while acknowledging that gate receipts are still lagging far behind NHL levels.

"It's different because we cannot charge a lot of money for tickets. It will grow when the level of income of ordinary people grows. But we can't jump up with the prices."

For Fetisov, Monday's session was a homecoming of sorts, given that almost a decade ago, he became only the second Russian player inducted into the Hall of Fame in the player category.

"The third year is the most important because in the first year, we built the league in a rush," Fetisov said. "The second year was more stable, but lots of distractions, with Olympics and world championships. But we had a great playoff.

"We opened the junior league last year. We will extend this to about 50 teams around the country, which will give us a good future. Now, in our third year, we have to build up - in every category. The relationship with the rest of the world; between the clubs. But it's a great project and it's heading in the right direction."

Medvedev is here to participate as a panelist during Wednesday's discussion about hockey's long-term international agenda, which will include a debate about the NHL's future in the Olympics, which happen to be coming to Russia in 2014. It will be an interesting debate, given that it will also include NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, a long-time adversary in the futile attempt to sign transfer agreements between the two leagues. Thus far, the NHL has resisted any and all overtures for a commitment to the Olympics, and probably isn't going to concede the matter this week either.

But after a stutter-step start, the KHL looks as though it is finding its legs. Even if attempts to bring the Swedish club team AIK Stockholm into the KHL fold failed this year, Medvedev imagines a day when the KHL expands beyond the Russian borders and become an integrated European league.

"We're faced with certain resistance to expansion, but I believe it's inevitable," Medvedev said. "Instead of fighting for limited amount of stars and very good players, it's better to create a system that will create more such players."

Follow on Twitter: @eduhatschek

 

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