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KHL starts new season with altered lineup after financial turmoil, withdrawal of Ukrainian team

SKA St. Petersburg's Ilya Kovalchuk skates with team mates during their Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) game against Dynamo in Moscow September 23, 2012.

MAXIM SHEMETOV/REUTERS

The Russia-based Kontinental Hockey League, widely seen as the second strongest in the world behind the NHL, started its seventh season Wednesday with an altered lineup after a summer in which it was affected by the conflict in Ukraine and financial turmoil.

The league's only Ukrainian team, Donbass Donetsk, was forced to withdraw in May after its arena was looted and burned by armed men, an attack the club blamed on a pro-Russian separatist group.

Meanwhile, financial problems shut down two of the KHL's most internationally recognizable clubs as last season's losing finalist, Czech team Lev Prague, and storied Russian club Spartak Moscow both withdrew.

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The result is a league spanning seven countries rather than last year's eight, a dent to the aspirations of KHL bosses keen to create a Europe-wide league to rival the NHL's global popularity.

However, the KHL has managed to expand into the Nordics for the first time as Helsinki's Jokerit club defected from the Finnish league after its home arena was bought by Russian businessmen close to President Vladimir Putin.

The addition of a team playing in Sochi's Olympic hockey arena adds a dose of glamor, and the return of Russian team Lada Togliatti ensures the number of teams remains stable at 28.

In the first regular season game Wednesday, Stanley Cup-winning former New York Rangers coach Mike Keenan celebrated as his Russian team, reigning champion Metallurg Magnitogorsk, pounded Dynamo Moscow 6-1 to lift the ceremonial Opening Cup.

The KHL's all-time leading scorer Sergei Mozyakin had a hat trick to propel Metallurg to a come-from-behind win after Dynamo's Filip Novak scored the first goal of the season.

The KHL, which started play in 2008, spans 10 time zones from the Croatian capital of Zagreb in the west, home of the Medvescak club, to a team in Russia's remote far eastern port of Vladivostok.

Besides Russia, teams are located in Slovakia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Finland, Croatia and Latvia.

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