The Continental Hockey League™
A new super league: The KHL
The Continental Hockey League (KHL) sounds a bit like a Midwest circuit of another era, but as of the end of the 2007-08 season, the KHL is what we're to call the Russian Super League.
Why the name change?
This is the brainchild of Alexander Ivanovich Medvedev, a Russian oil baron and the vice-president of Gazprom, who has his heart set on creating a hockey league that can rival the NHL. But rather than take the best teams in Europe — let's say Jokerit and HC Davos — or creating new teams, what's happened so far is a modest expansion of the Super League and a new name.
The RSL had 20 teams last season, but for 2008-09, there'll be 24, with three teams from Belarus, Kazakhstan and Latvia, as well as a Russian club that was playing in a lower division, all joining the fray.
This is what the league will look like next season, as per Google Maps.
(In addition, the creation of the Continental Hockey League coincides with the start of the Champions League tournament, a high-profile new event to be played among the top 12 teams in Europe for the first time this fall. Here's hoping that'll be picked up on television in North America.)
Medvedev's goal is to expand the KHL to 30 teams by the following season, using gobs of money to lure foreign teams from competing leagues like the Swedish Elitserien. Frölunda, one of Sweden's richest and most successful teams, and Färjestad have been targeted already.
Medvedev has said teams from Austria, Finland and Germany have also shown interest in the KHL.
Färjestad's club director Hakan Loob apparently recently travelled to Russia to discuss the specifics of a switch with KHL representatives. And the new league has a Swedish agent, Leif Nilsson, on board to work with the KHL.
Russian PM Vladimir Putin, a big hockey fan, is also apparently supportive of the move. Investment in hockey, and salaries, has consistently risen as oil and gas prices rise, as many of the former RSL's ownership groups are energy-based mega-companies.
Players in Russia are already paid more than in Europe's other top leagues, and it's really only the RSL's current import rules (a limit of four per team) and social factors that have kept more players from playing there.
It's expected the league will incorporate an entry draft, as well as a salary floor and cap, likely between $10- and $25-million. For more on the structure and rules of the KHL, see this wiki.
Two NHLers who have already signed on with the KHL are Chris Simon and John Grahame, a pair that have, admittedly, seen better days. I think the fact they chose to forgo even a cursory look at playing elsewhere means the payday was considerable, however, and I'd bet there are many more NHLers about to be targeted.
There have also been rumours circulating amongst NHL players that Jaromir Jagr was offered a $12-million contract by Dynamo Moscow.
The real drain, however, could come from Europeans who choose to stay on that side of the Atlantic as the level of competition in the KHL improves. The New York Times noted Sunday that Sweden's top two scorers in 2007-08, Mattias Weinhandl and Tony Martensson, have both been scooped up by the new league.
There are other troubling signs for the NHL as well:
North American player agents say that there has been almost no movement from Europe to the N.H.L. of late — a reflection of the weak dollar, the collapse of the international transfer agreement between the International Ice Hockey Federation and the N.H.L., and the rise of Russian domestic hockey. Some agents say that the number of European players going to the N.H.L. in coming seasons will dwindle to a handful.That sounds like legitimate competition for some useful talent.
More teams in Europe's top league means the need for more top talent, and it's certainly plausible more Simon and Grahame types follow the money at the end of their careers. Down the line, the pull of playing in a more desirable country like Sweden could also have an impact.
What this league will need more than anything is a move toward a more North American model of revenue generation, as the RSL always relied heavily on sponsorship subsidies to fund teams and it wasn't uncommon to see clubs lose considerable amounts of cash. Ticket prices and gate revenue, the bread and butter of the NHL, are low in Europe (and Russia in particular), and television has a long, long way to go.
There's also the question of how the minnows compete with the big boys, especially when many rinks in the former Soviet Union are nowhere near the sports complexes we see in Canada and the U.S.
Still, something's happening overseas, and it's worth keeping an eye on. I imagine I'll be doing so throughout the off-season.
If there are any experts on Russian hockey willing to discuss the KHL, please drop me a line.