Long before this week’s tragedy, most people in professional hockey could relate a sketchy tale or two about the Continental Hockey League.
Thugs robbing foreign players, pay packets arbitrarily adjusted for rocky performances, crummy food and worse hotels; some of the more harrowing stories rooted in fact, others apocryphal.
But the catastrophe that all but wiped out Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, one of the most highly regarded franchises in the KHL, takes the whisper campaign about what is widely recognized as the nearest alternative to the NHL to unprecedented levels.
At least one Canadian-born player is now saying he’s evaluating his future, and some player agents are musing that the KHL, which draws nearly a third of its rosters from foreign shores, will have a tough time attracting imports.
“I think people are going to be more cautious about signing over there, definitely,” said Matt Keator, a Massachusetts-based agent who represented the late Lokomotiv and Vancouver Canucks star Pavol Demitra.
“I know I’m going to be seeking a lot more assurances that teams are spending more money on player and transportation safety,” continued Keator, who has sent several clients to the Russian circuit.
California-based agent Scott Norton, who represents the highest-paid North American in the KHL, Barys Astana defenceman Kevin Dallman of Niagara Falls, Ont., is convinced the deep-pocketed league will maintain its drawing power in the long term, but allowed that there could be more immediate consequences.
“Obviously there will be some concerns, but like everything else, I think it will pass with time,” said Norton, whose clients are dotted around the league.
Another agent who counts several elite Czech and Slovak players in his stable – large numbers of athletes from the former Soviet Bloc countries play in the KHL – painted a stark picture of life in the 24-team league.
“I have never been a big proponent of guys going over to play in the KHL,” Allan Walsh said in an e-mail. “It’s not just the air travel. [New Jersey Devils winger]Patrik Elias almost died in Magnitogorsk during the lockout when he was stricken with hepatitis and his liver shut down. He was in a crumbling hospital packed with seriously ill patients and subpar medical treatment.”
And it’s clear that some players are feeling uneasy in light of this week’s air disaster.
Montreal-born forward Daniel Corso, who was Demitra’s road roommate for two years when both played for the St. Louis Blues, is on the Dinamo Minsk team that was supposed to play its season opener against Lokomotiv on Thursday.
Corso, one of the few dozen Canadians playing in the KHL, said he was devastated by news of the crash, and that he is pondering whether to carry on playing.
“It’s hard,” he told Montreal radio station 98.5 FM. “It’s a reminder that life is short and you never know what could happen. Right now I’m reconsidering my future. What’s more important, playing hockey or being close to your family?”
But for now the show must go on, the season will kick off Sept. 13 and KHL head Alexander Medvedev said on Thursday that the league will shortly hold a dispersal draft to rebuild Lokomotiv, which could ice a team this season.
“This is still an unofficial decision, but it has been supported by everybody, and many are putting this idea forward themselves,” Medvedev said in televised remarks.
The plan outlined by Medvedev, where each team would make three players available and continue to pay their salaries when they join Yaroslavl, has a precedent in Russian sports history. Seventeen members of Uzbek soccer team Pakhtakor Tashkent died in a mid-air collision in 1979, and the other teams in the Soviet top flight each provided three players. Pakhtakor was also given a three-year exemption from relegation rules.
Medvedev said 35 players have already raised their hands to move to Lokomotiv.
Documents produced in a 2009 court case showed the NHL also has a contingency plan were it to face a similar calamity: It would allow the stricken team to buy one contract from other teams using the mandatory $1-million insurance policies clubs take out on their players. A dispersal draft would be held if the team wasn’t able to fill its roster.
All but one of Lokomotiv’s 28 players perished in the crash and the survivor, Alexander Galimov, is in a Moscow hospital with burns to 90 per cent of his body.
It’s expected the fledgling KHL players’ union will press for changes to team travel policies and other initiatives aimed at player safety – some teams have apparently already upgraded their chartered planes – but that’s little consolation to people like Keator.
“There’s no good in any of this,” he said.
With a report from James Mirtle and The Canadian Press