The Ever-Growing Kontinental Hockey League: Russia and Beyond

Image courtesy of onlyagame.wbur.org.

EDITOR’S NOTE:  Please welcome to the fold, the latest member of Ice Nation UK: Dylan Sauers, aka International Ice!  Dylan hails from the northeastern United States, and has been a hockey fan since 1996.  Having also played the game for over 10 years, he has great knowledge and passion for the game, and will be focusing on a rather unique viewpoint of the game for an American: European hockey!  A proud Nottingham Panthers fan, he will be providing updates and opinion pieces on the various European leagues.  We are thrilled to be adding Dylan to the roster, and we’re sure you’ll enjoy what he has to say!

First of all, hello Ice Nation UK!  I am proud to be the newest contributor to this fantastic and growing site.  I know there’ll be many good times had by all.

Currently, Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) has 28 teams.  When it began in 2008, 24 were operating in the league.  The only clubs outside of Russia proper were Dinamo Minsk (Belarus), Dinamo Riga (Latvia) and Barys Astana (Kazakhstan). As of the 2013-14 season, we’ve now got HC Lev Praha (Czech Republic), Slovan Bratislava (Slovakia), KHL Medveščak Zagreb (Croatia) and HC Donbass (Ukraine) in addition.

As you can imagine, any team which would be successful in joining the league would enjoy huge financial growth, made possible by those deep pockets in Moscow.  So, the incentive is clearly there, but where is the line between selling out, and simply taking advantage of a monumental opportunity for exposure in Europe’s premier hockey league?

Searching For Answers

Image courtesy of sportky.topky.sk.

Recently, I began to wonder myself, so I started to dig.

I have frequented various hockey message boards in the past few months and was surprised on some level to see the resistance fans have to their league allowing teams to join the KHL.  Such sentiment seems to be extremely prevalent in Sweden, where Swedish Hockey League teams such as Linköpings HC, Färestad BK, and Djurgårdens IF (who actually are playing in the second-tier HockeyAlsvenskan this season) have all been rumoured to be in talks with the KHL.  Many a Swedish-residing contributor to these forums voiced disdain toward their club potentially vacating the SHL or HockeyAlsvenskan league for the greener-grass (or whiter snow…) of Russia’s KHL.

Personally, I get it, but you cannot deny the amount of good that extra cash flow would bring. Upgraded or possibly even newly constructed arenas, exposure into many more European markets, new television/broadcasting contracts, you name it. We all know though, it’s not everything, but tempting indeed.

Future Expansion

To put opinions away however, where is the KHL exactly looking to expand next?

Russia

Image courtesy of business2community.com.

One thing is for sure, and it was officially announced last week that Sochi, this year’s Winter Olympic host city in Krasnodar Krai along the Black Sea, will become to home of Delfin Sochi (Sochi Dolphins).  They will make the brand-spanking-new, 12,000 seat Bolshoy Ice Dome their stomping grounds. They become the newest Russian based team after Admiral Vladivostok in the far east joined up for 2013/14.

Finland

Image courtesy of mtv.fi.

Additionally, Jökerit, a Helsinki based club managed by former NHL-er Jari Kurri, from Finland’s SM-Liiga, will be the latest steal for Alexander Medvedev’s league, entering for the 2014/15 campaign.

Concerning Jökerit’s exit from Liiga, I made it a point to consult Finnish hockey writer, Arto Palovaaro on Twitter.  I asked him if he felt their leaving Liiga would leave a hole of sorts; his reply was, “Everything is not about Jokerit, much because everybody’s laughing at them, they’re supposed to be number 1 this year…”  The Jesters, who have enjoyed plenty of success in years past, have been spending much of this season in the middle of the pack ahead of their exit.

You also have to account for the fact that the team has a modern, up-to-date facility in Hartwall Areena. Not to mention it seats, 13,000+, larger than a majority of the facilities currently in use in the KHL today. Only Arena Zagreb (16,200) and Minsk Arena (15,000) boast more space.  Tipsport Arena in Prague gets an honourable mention with 13,150 seats. This is a huge selling point for any franchise in any sport to get an upgrade. Take the NHL considering expansion back to Quebec City, for example.  The only thing keeping it from already being a reality, is a spacious place to play (which, the city is already to work on).

Italy

Other contenders for expansion include current Elite.A (Italy) participants, HC Milano Rossoblu. However, their home, Stadio del Ghiaccio Agorá, only seats 4,000 spectators. They’ll need room for many more if they want to officially join the league and their current financial situation won’t allow such expansion in the near future. All of this despite a partnership between the club and KHL since 2011; the goal being; make HC Milano a part of the Pan-European super league.

Switzerland

Image courtesy of 20min.ch.

The league is also eyeing up Switzerland. In 2011, the KHL made its intentions known to bring an expansion team to the small, but hockey-elite nation.  A visit to their website (www.helveticshockey.ch) didn’t provide with much new information, however the clubs logo, flanked on each side by KHL logos, tells me it is well in the works.  Information about the progress here was hard to come by, those of you who are out there and know more, please share!

If and when it does come to fruition for the 2015/16 season, the Helvetics will be based in Huttwil, a town of just under 5,000, situated between Bern and Lucerne in north central Switzerland. There are also plans for current National League A (Switzerland) club HC Genéve-Servette, to have a new arena completed in time for 2016/17, and they too are in talks to join the KHL – making them potentially the second Swiss team in line, after the Hutwill based organisation.

Sweden and More

Plenty of other organisations around Europe are making bids for the opportunity to get in on the KHL action, and benefits. Malmö Redhawks, currently residing in HockeyAlsvenskan, along with Djurgårdens, are in talks to join.  Stavanger Oilers, along with bidders in Vilnius, Lithuania and Gdánsk, Poland have also begun negotiations.

A True Superleague?

Image courtesy of rsport.ru.

All in all, it begs the question, “Will the Kontinental Hockey League someday really, truly, rival the NHL?” Ilya Kovalchuk’s addition to SKA St. Petersburg, despite their recent troubles on and off the ice, is still one of the league’s best cross-over success stories.

When the league begins to draw out more prominent talent from North America, I think we can really start that debate. There is no doubt that in the meantime, the KHL rules Europe. If they continue to expand, whether the fans like it or not, they’ll reach a wider audience, and they’ll bring in even even more revenue.

This much I know is true: as a westerner, my interest in the league really flourished when HC Lev Praha and Slovan Bratislava came aboard. Clubs based in western Europe are more appealing to North Americans, simply because it’s more familiar, and yes, we can pronounce the names of those cities.

There may still be a language barrier in Western Europe, but we’re more comfortable supporting a team from a city we know more about. The same would be even more true if the KHL makes its way into cities like London, Barcelona, Paris, Berlin, Belfast or Rome. It’s not so far fetched. Only time will really tell us how vast, and how overwhelming, the league will become.

For now, let’s just enjoy the hockey.

Follow Dylan on Twitter, and while you’re at it follow Ice Nation UK for all the best hockey talk!

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