KHL hopes to reach Asia, compete with NHL

One of the first plays was between Dynamo and Traktor. Source: ITAR-TASS

One of the first plays was between Dynamo and Traktor. Source: ITAR-TASS

Sept. 4 was the first day of the championships of the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL). In its sixth season, the number of participating countries in the tournament has increased to eight. The level of play and financial investments are already allowing the KHL to compete with the NHL in the battle for the title of strongest league on the planet.

In the new season in the Kontinental Hockey League Championship (officially known as the 2013‒2014 Russian Championship), 28 clubs will compete. Of these, 21 are Russian and 60 percent of their players are Russian. Thus, hockey fans and experts outside of Russia call the KHL a “Russian league.” With each passing season, however, the KHL is becoming more and more international.

World-renowned hockey player and current Russian senator Vyacheslav Fetisov is the man behind the creation of the KHL. “It's a geopolitical project with good potential. The KHL is the only functioning international project that Russia can currently proudly show to the world,” he said about the league.

Since the league was formed, teams from Belarus, Kazakhstan and Latvia have been playing in it. The Minsk and Riga Dinamo teams and Astana's Barys are the main clubs for their countries’ national teams. Vyacheslav Bykov, the Olympic and world champion player and coach, noted the influence of the KHL on national teams at major world tournaments.

“The Kazakhstan team, the Belarusian national team, the Latvians—the KHL allows all of them not to stew in their own juice, but to perform at a rather high international level. For the Bratislav team Slovan, the KHL has proved to be a true lifesaver,” said Bykov.

Slovan, the top hockey club in Slovakia, experienced true competition in five or six games during the season in the national championship. This is not enough to fill the 11,000-seat Ondrej Nepely arena, which was built for the 2011 World Championships. Within Slovakia, the club did not have enough bargaining power to attract sponsors. Joining the KHL in 2012 lifted the standard-bearer of Slovakian hockey onto a completely new marketing plane.

Source: Youtube / KHL official video

“The club escaped the fate of the capital's team when, 100 kilometers [60 miles] from the country's main city, everyone would cheer for the other team,” said Maroš Krajči, Slovan's general manager. “We became the club of all Slovaks, and people now root for us outside the country.”

However, the giants of European hockey, such as Sweden and Finland, continue to eye the KHL warily. The influential Russian businessmen Gennady Timchenko, along with the brothers Arkady and Boris Rotenberg, bought Finland's best hockey arena, the Hartwall, and a stake in the Jokerit club, which plays there and will switch to the KHL next season.

The deal sparked negative reactions in Finland. Bykov, who has been living in Switzerland for a long time and observes the KHL from the perspective of a resident of Europe, said: “There are people who say that the KHL will ruin national championships. They want to watch their own domestic, national derbies. You need to learn from the Prague club Lev, which played its first season in the KHL.”

Lev played its first season in the KHL when Slovan did, and this led to a revival of one of the most contentious “regional derbies.” The battles between the Prague clubs and Slovan were the culminating points of the Czechoslovakian championship throughout its existence. The KHL resurrected this rivalry, and the result profits from demand.

With the addition to the league of the two “Czech” teams and the Ukrainian team Donbass, the number of spectators of the regular season alone exceeded 4 million. The audience of the paid TV channel broadcasting the league's games increased from 8 million to 11 million subscribers over the course of the season.

“Adding new teams to the league has increased the potential to expand our television presence in Europe, as well as in Asia, where individual championship games are regularly broadcast,” said Ilya Kochevrin, KHL's commerce and communications vice president.

The broadcast of individual KHL games in Asia is the first step in promoting European hockey, first and foremost, in China, Japan and South Korea. The second step is the creation on the Pacific coast (specifically, in Vladivostok) of the Admiral hockey club.

“A Vladivostok club is needed for an emotional boost and inspiration, so the region feels the country's attention,” said Fetisov. “We have a large country—and this is not a problem, but an advantage. In hockey, we are showing how it is possible to create a unified region.”

“KHL is a huge, single advertising landscape that gets money from transnational corporations. The league's growth is connected to the improvement in the quality of play. The NHL resolved this at the expense of the Europeans. Now people see the quality of play here,” Fetisov said. “Hockey players who, in the past, had one path before them—across the ocean—can now stay home. We have come close to creating a European division. Asia will also join.”

Igor Larionov, Fetisov's partner in the legendary “first five” of the Soviet team and now a hockey agent, disagreed with his former teammate.

“Yes, the KHL is the leading league in Europe. It's cool that the KHL has positions and money. But the Swedes and Finns have their own programs—to best cultivate a player, which is more important than money, you need to send him to the strongest league in the world, and that's the NHL,” said Larionov. “The KHL may incite interest in hockey in countries where it's seen as exotic, but, when the novelty wears off, there will be a need for names—and they're all in the NHL.”

Yet, not all the strongest players play in the NHL. Ilya Kovalchuk, one of the most expensive stars of the overseas league, broke his contract with the New Jersey Devils, turning down $77 million over 12 years, in order to return to Russia and play for St. Petersburg's SKA.

“This is a specific player's personal choice that suits us,” Bykov said about this decision, “but the KHL has categorically helped global hockey by creating a competitor to the NHL, because competition always leads to progress.”

The competition between the leagues became apparent not only with Kovalchuk's switch, but also in the fact that, during the lockout, it became clear that European stars had a place to go if they did not like the changes in the NHL. Having survived the lockout, the overseas league lowered prices on broadcasts of its matches in Europe, and the NHL package became cheaper than the KHL one.

All rights reserved by Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

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