Kukla's Korner

The Malik Report

A little ramble about the strange place that is the KHL

This isn't Red Wings-related, it's a George's Pet Interest post: Surveying the Russian sports newspapers, you get used to the concept that the KHL's preseason begins in late July, so I wasn't surprised to read the Windsor Star's Bob Duff's report that Michael Leighton had to nix a contract with the Sochi Leopard because Leighton contracted an illness that prevented him from taking part in Sochi's mid-July training camp.

Duff also asked the former Philadelphia Flyers goalie whether his 2013-14 campaign for Donbass Donetsk--the Ukrainian team that's suspended operations because the Eastern Ukraine is currently engulfed in political turmoil--may have given Leighton second thoughts about continuing to play in the KHL...

“Where I was last year, it was fine all year until close to the end of the year and into the playoffs,” Leighton said. As troubles mounted in the area, the Donbass club moved to a base in Bratislava, Slovakia, playing its playoff games on the road. It did get kind of scary, because we weren’t playing at home,” Leighton said. “Teams didn’t want to travel to the Ukraine. When the season was done and I was home, I was happy that I was home.”

(Slovan Bratislava was willing to host Donbass Donetsk's 14-15 season games for a Euro per game, but Donbass chose to cease operations for the year instead)

On May 26, pro-Russian militants of the Donetsk People’s Republic attacked and looted and burned the Druzhba Arena, the club’s home rink. On June 18, the franchise opted to take a one-year leave of absence from the KHL.

Leighton is the first to admit that the science of goaltending is what he studies, not political science. Last season was his first playing abroad after 12 seasons as a North American pro.

“Obviously you worry about things that go on over there,” Leighton said. “Hockey-wise, it’s just a business. You go over there, you play hockey and you don’t really hear about stuff that’s going on. I’m not a political guy. I don’t know what’s going on, besides what I watch on CNN and you don’t know how much of that to believe. When you’re playing there, we were at the hotel. We’d eat dinner as a team. You’d go to the rink and play hockey and then get on an airplane and fly to other cities.”

Leighton continues and tells Duff that he hopes to resume his KHL career when he regains his health, perhaps with the expansion Lepoard, and Duff's article serves as an appetizer for an article I found while reading Sport-Express.

As an aside: When Igor Grigorenko was severely injured in 2003, I learned how to finesse online translators to make some sense of Russian reports from Togliatti, Samara and Moscow. That transitioned very quickly into trying to find out what was going on in the negotiations between Sergei Fedorov, his agent, Pat Brisson, and the Wings--and as his father, Viktor Fedorov, loved to spout off to Sport-Express's Igor Larin about his poor, misunderstood son not receiving the ice time he deserved because Scotty Bowman didn't understand what a superstar he had on his hands, well...The negotiations played out in "Sovetsky Sport" (it's still "Soviet Sport") and Sport-Express, so I learned how to get "the spirit of the thing" in a hurry.

Anyway, the conflict in Ukraine has in fact yielded several sanctions upon KHL owners and KHL-affiliated businesses, like Gazprom Bank (Gazprom Export is the KHL's biggest sponsor, and Gazprom is a majority-government-owned oil and natural gas giant, the biggest oil-and-gas company in the world), Rosneft (CSKA Moscow's sponsor, another majority-government-owned oil and natural gas giant), and I fully expect KHL president/SKA St. Petersburg GM Alexander Medvedev to find his way onto the EU/UN sanctions list given that he's the chairman of Gazprom's board of directors.

The Toronto Star's Rick Westhead asked several prominent player agents whether the fact that Dynamo Moscow's president, Arkady Rotenberg, the KHL's chairman of the board, Gennady Timchenko, and Lokomotiv Yaroslavl president and Russian Railways president Vladimir Yakunin (among others) are on the sanctions list--never mind the fact that Donetsk has taken the season off, that Spartak Moscow's ceased operations due to its sponsor falling out, and that Lev Prague is no longer in existence due to similar issues (Amur Khabarovsk didn't pay its players for half of the past season due to financial difficulties, and they weren't alone in that department)--have dissuaded agents from placing their players with KHL teams.

The answer was a guarded "no":

“Players are still going there because the money is still very good,” said agent Don Meehan. “We’re placing people there. We haven’t had people come back and say they’ll never go back because of this or that. There’s an independence aspect of people accumulating more money over there than they can here. People are still going there because of the opportunities.”

The money isn't guaranteed, of course (contracts can be terminated by the team or, more regularly, "terminated by mutual consent"), sometimes it comes in heaps of cash, as Risto Pakarinen's chronicle of goaltender Bernd Bruckler's tenure with Sibir Novosibirsk, This is Russia: Life in the KHL told us, and North American players tend to be taken aback by the two-a-day practices, dryland training, life spent mostly on "base" (just as Soviet players were separated from their families), massive bonuses for wins and personal achievements offsetting paycheck dings for poor performances and even poor practices, and of course the massive travel involved...So it's not for everybody:

There are many issues with Russian hockey: the travel is far more widespread than the NHL, the facilities aren’t as good and there are apocryphal stories of players not getting paid. And when they are paid, it’s often in cash after a game with players feeling unsafe carrying large amounts of money with them out of the arena late at night.

And even if matters worsen between Ukraine and Russia, hockey players are most likely going to keep their noses out of it. The advice agent Mark Gandler — who has a large Russian clientele — gives his players is to stay quiet.

“Hockey and sports in general in Russia is very political,” said Gandler. “So any statement by a player is widely read by everyone in Russia and every time there is a quote from a player in the press, the president of the team immediately receives a call from the government from different people who think their job is to censor the press.”

It's a different world over there, and when training camps begin in mid-July, you play a full month's worth of exhibition tournaments in August, and a 60-game season involves flights from Khabarovsk, so far east that it's northeast of North Korea, to places like Slovakia and Croatia, all during campaigns that don't end until March, and players being told that they've got to hang around with the team until their contracts expire in April...

Cory Emmerton's going to be spending the year playing a solid number of games in Sochi, Adam Almquist's with a solid team in Severstal Cherepovets, and Jan Mursak's on a fine team in Sergei Fedorov's CSKA Moscow (he was traded there from Amur Khabarovsk during the middle of the 13-14 campaign), but they're going to find that their professional and personal lives will take, let's say unique twists and turns.

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About The Malik Report

The Malik Report is a destination for all things Red Wings-related. I offer biased, perhaps unprofessional-at-times and verbose coverage of my favorite team, their prospects and developmental affiliates. I've joined the Kukla's Korner family with five years of blogging under my belt, and I hope you'll find almost everything you need to follow your Red Wings at a place where all opinions are created equal and we're all friends, talking about hockey and the team we love to follow.