Call of the East

Posted: April 22, 2010 in Uncategorized
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KHL, the alternative frontier. For the past couple of years, KHL, the Russian hockey league has been rivalling the NHL and trying to position itself as the best league in the world. Currently it ranks possibly as number one outside of north America and has attracted a number of high profile players to its ranks.

Players like Jaromir Jagr, Sergei Fedorov, Alexei Zhitnik, Alexei Yashin and many others have ventured to the KHL, or as it is in the case of the Russian players, back to home.

As a Finn the league has been somewhat interesting to follow, namely because most of our ‘talented’ players now play in the league. Many of the Finnish players are either players who are on the cusp of breaking it to the NHL or did not quite make it in the big league.

My problem with the KHL has always been the sustainability of the league. Where sites like TSN have done a major article and analysis of the situation of Moscow Dynamo, I find that the teams’ dire situation is a reflection of concerns that many voiced when the league was formed. For those who are yet to read the TSN piece you can find it here:

The KHL is a league where people are paid well. Extremely well I might add. There are guys like Leo Komarov, who broke through in last years’ World Championships, and went to say that his wage per year was more than he would make playing 3 years in the Finnish league. Good choice if you know your career will never hit the NHL stride. Ex NHLers, like Fedorov, whose career was in a downward spiral still commands a salary that will rival the height of his NHL career.

The trouble is that the arenas aren’t capable of drawing 10,000+ strong audiences. In many cases the teams do not even own the arenas, as with Moscow Dynamo. Ticket prices, according to TSN are between $5-$20 dollars, hardly enough to cover the salaries of your players or bring any additional income. Like with most European teams, the main bulk of the teams’ money comes from sponsorship and advertising (not forgetting TV revenues). At least when I saw my first Finnish SM-League match in over 10 years the whole of the ice surface was covered in adverts and corporate logos, hell even the goal nets were sponsored by the Dominos equivalent of Finland.

But the difference was that, the ticket prices were much higher, and the teams’ wage structure was balanced. Unless you are a team like Jokerit Helsinki and can splash millions per season on players like Michael Nylander (though his wages were paid by the Washington Capitals) or Bates Battaglia, you wont meet too many hockey millionaires in some of the European leagues.

The other case of a team folding in the KHL was Lada Togliati. There were reports that the teams’ ‘import’ players were evicted from their team owned apartment after the team failed to make rent payments. The two players in question ended up sleeping in the teams’ changing room.

There are also wild stories from the Russian league, all the way from superstitious rituals to players getting kit bag loads of cash straight from the teams’ manager’s office. How true these are remain to be seen as it is player hear say.

But the overall feeling is that where the KHL has a chance to be the greatest league in Europe, it cannot survive with high paid players, where the teams can’t sustain their own existence. Moscow Dynamo was perhaps one of the most illustrious teams in Europe and now the team is gone. Imagine if a household name in the NHL, like the Canadiens or Maple Leafs, went bust or merged with one another.

Unless KHL can find serious sponsors (which it already has in the form of many wealth Russian oil and gas companies) that can make a long term commitment to the league in a fragile global economy, the dream and vision Dimitri Medvedev had of a European superleague will never be realised. With two teams folding, we might have witnessed the beginning of the end for the KHL. I’ll give the league 5-6 years before it mothballs, simply because I doubt that long-term plan for full sustainability of the league will ever be found. Till then, we can enjoy the quality of hockey that it has provided us thus far.

As a two part conclusion, I would also like to offer my analysis of the reason why Russia failed in the Olympics. Russia had plenty of talent in the NHL to put together a winning squad, but it opted for balance between NHL and KHL experience, in my view to show the world that the KHL is as good as the NHL, if not better. However, the truth is that the KHL still trails in talent, despite stars like Jagr in the league, it is still not a match for the NHL.

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