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Is The KHL Ready To Compete With The NHL?

from Steven Lee Myers of the New York Times,

Now, as it prepares to open its sixth season Wednesday, the league has regained its confidence and momentum, moving markedly closer to its goal of creating a competitive, international alternative to the National Hockey League. It may not yet be a true rival as the world’s premier place to play the game — in large part because the business of sports in Russia today means none of the teams are profitable. Even so, the league and its teams enjoy the lavish patronage of Russia’s industrial giants and the political support of President Vladimir V. Putin’s Kremlin, which views sport as an instrument of Russia’s domestic and foreign policy.

The league starts the new season with 28 teams, having adding Admiral in Vladivostok and Medvescak in Croatia’s capital, Zagreb. The teams now play in eight nations across a staggering nine time zones, stretching from Central Europe to Asia. In June, a group of billionaires with personal ties to Mr. Putin bought a stake in one of Finland’s top teams, Jokerit, along with its arena in Helsinki, clearing the way for it to join the league next season and creating a furor at home.

“I’m not the most popular man in Finland,” Harry Harkimo, Jokerit’s chairman, said in a telephone interview of his decision to jump to the K.H.L. The league’s level of play, he said, was already competitive with the N.H.L. and would raise Jokerit’s level, he explained.

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Comments

Primis's avatar

Most team budgets are a small fraction of NHL teams.  The KHL salary floor is basically non-existent.

The NHL talent in the KHL tends to people ex-NHL talent on the downswing on their careers.

So no, despite growing the number of teams in the league the KHL has done very little to actual rival the NHL.

Posted by Primis on 09/03/13 at 12:32 PM ET

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The KHL hasn’t been around long, but they are progressing.  Sure the economics are different, but I think it’s funny that people and the media here in NA denounce the fact that most KHL teams are essentially supported by billionaires and industrial giants, yet when that happens here everyone praises it.  For example, when Pegula bought the Sabers and started pumping money into the team from his personal fortune, everyone said how great that was.  Face it, many teams in the NHL aren’t profitable either, and rely on private money to survive.  I watched many of their games on the web during the lockout, and it is exciting hockey.  (I lLike the big ice.)

Posted by cantskate on 09/03/13 at 01:02 PM ET

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I suspect the comparison between the NHL and KHL at this point would be like, maybe, the comparison between the English Premier League and, say, the French Ligue 1.

The very best, most well funded KHL teams like SKA St. Petersburg, Magnitogorsk, Omsk, etc. would probably be very competitive in the NHL, but the average talent level in the league is much lower, with a much wider distribution between the best and worst teams.

Still, even those teams are propped up by oligarchs who are willing to lose millions upon millions every year for their personal sports clubs, because Russians are not going to fill 20,000 seat arenas at NHL prices 41 times per year.

Posted by Sven22 from Grand Rapids on 09/03/13 at 01:15 PM ET

Evilpens's avatar

Actually the owners in the KHL are Russian Mafia Linked or just straight out Russian Mafia who got into the Oil industry

Posted by Evilpens on 09/03/13 at 02:12 PM ET

George Malik's avatar

There are no profitable KHL teams. Their owners—and in many cases, provincial governments—subsidize teams via sponsorship deals, often with the natural resources and/or industrial interests in which the owners are vested, but when you’ve got a $10-million-plus payroll and you’re trying desperately to fill a 5,500 seat rink with $10 seats, you’re not self-sustaining.

Is the hockey good? Sure. The half-dozen top teams are at least as good as AHL teams.

But the disparities between SKA St. Petersburg and Amur Khabarovsk are vast, contracts are not guaranteed and are often mysteriously “terminated by mutual consent,” teams’ budgets rise and fall dramatically depending on the whims of their owners, their owners’ business interests, and in the case of once-powerful Salavat Yulaev Ufa, the provincial government deciding to shift its taxpayer dollars elsewhere, and every year, at least one team gets into so much financial trouble that it stops paying its players for a couple of months (in post-Soviet Russia, just as in Soviet Russia, when company goes bankrupt, you just keep working and hope to sue for back-wages).

There are import caps on foreign-born players, too, and KHL teams get very, very uptight about the number of foreign-born players, goalies and coaches in the league. Sergei Fedorov’s decision to hire John Torchetti of the Iowa Stars to coach the mighty Red Army team in CSKA was nothing less than sacrilegious.

The KHL’s teams went all-out this season in anticipation of an Olympic year—and many KHL teams’ GM’s and owners openly spoke about the concept that Russian hockey must be at its professional best to ensure that the national team. Will the, “Let’s throw caution to the winds while the price of oil and natural gas are high!” (Gazprom, SKA’s parent company and the KHL’s main sponsor, is the biggest producer of natural gas in the world) spending and expansion into other countries continue?

I don’t know, but I do know that the KHL has talked incredibly large over the past six seasons, and it’s rarely backed up its rhetoric over the long haul. The lowered cap was something of a godsend for them in terms of bolstering their roster with NHL-caliber fringe players, but it’s not going to be on par with the NHL anytime soon, mostly because Russia’s developmental hockey programs lag far, far behind their North American counterparts.

Posted by George Malik from South Lyon, MI on 09/03/13 at 02:56 PM ET

George Malik's avatar

For the record, even the most bullish of the KHL’s owners and the Russian Hockey Federation’s mouthpieces have suggested that players like Kovalchuk have “come home” because the execs believe that players spending a season in Russia = better Olympic hopes.

Posted by George Malik from South Lyon, MI on 09/03/13 at 02:59 PM ET

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This will be the KHL’s sixth season.  Six.  Where was the NHL at 6?  For us in NA to scoff at it is missing a key point:  that it is growing and becoming a good league, and a viable alternative for SOME players.  It doesn’t have to match the NHL or compete with it to be relevant.  I also think it’s interesting that the K is expanding into other countries.  This may start to eliminate the caps on foreign born players that George noted above.  In fact, this seems to be a goal for them.  Also, the NHL went through those ‘foreign’ player issues in the past.  Remember the abuse that American and European players got from Canadian players on their own teams in the old days?  I think it’s a good thing that guys like Steve Montador can still play and make a living if the NHL doesn’t want him.

As for the disparities in economics among the teams, the NHL struggled with that for a long time and still does to some extent despite the cap.  It will take time for the K to achieve some level of parity.

It’s too early to judge how the league will fare over ‘the long hault’ (to use George’s term).  Factors like Russia’s long term economy, political climate, fan growth, development programs, etc., will all contribute to the success or failure of the league.

Posted by cantskate on 09/03/13 at 03:50 PM ET

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Oh, and if I could attend a KHL game for $10 as opposed to an NHL game for $120—or much more, I’d be very happy.

Posted by cantskate on 09/03/13 at 03:53 PM ET

Evilpens's avatar

Go ahead & do it then

Posted by Evilpens on 09/03/13 at 06:10 PM ET

Primis's avatar

This will be the KHL’s sixth season.  Six.  Where was the NHL at 6?  For us in NA to scoff at it is missing a key point:  that it is growing and becoming a good league, and a viable alternative for SOME players.  It doesn’t have to match the NHL or compete with it to be relevant. 

Posted by cantskate on 09/03/13 at 03:50 PM ET

That’s great and all, but not what the article asks.  It asks if it is ready to compete against the NHL.  The answer is an emphatic “No”.

Posted by Primis on 09/03/13 at 06:11 PM ET

Avatar

Primis, you are absolutely right about the article title.  In fact, I thought the article was really informative and interesting.  I just find it strange that so many articles here in NA are all sort of “KHL will never compete with the NHL” kind of comparisons.  My point is that such comparisons are not really valid, especially at this point.  So what if the KHL never reaches the level of the NHL?  It can still be a relevant league and contribute to the sport of hockey globally.  I suppose when guys like Kovalchuck and Radulov bolt, it’s natural to be defensive, but it seems unnecessary.

Posted by cantskate on 09/03/13 at 07:33 PM ET

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Paul Kukla founded Kukla’s Korner in 2005 and the site has since become the must-read site on the ‘net for all the latest happenings around the NHL.

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