Monday, January 12, 2009

KHL All-Star Game Highlights Problems of Russian Hockey

BOULDER, Colorado -- Russia's upstart Continental Hockey League (KHL) held its inaugural All-Star Game Saturday on a rink constructed in the middle of Moscow's Red Square. A team of foreign stars led by Jaromir Jagr (of Avangard Omsk) battled the best Russian-born players, captained by former New York Islander Alexei Yashin (now of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl).

This game was supposed to be a sort of coming out party for the new league, but the event itself was underwhelming, and despite the media hype, the KHL faces many of the same serious problems its predecessors did. The league is not really new at all; it is just another incarnation of the Russian Superleague, which jettisoned some of its less successful clubs to the second-tier and added teams from other former Soviet republics, like Belarus, Ukraine, Latvia and Kazakhstan.

The game was underwhelming because it lacked the excitement and raucous atmosphere of the games it was aping, the NHL's Winter Classic series (see Jeff Klein's comments in the New York Times). Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium and Chicago's Wrigley Field each held tens of thousands of fans, while the meagre grandstand on Red Square was built for only three thousand, and it was barely two-thirds full. Most of the spectators were probably wealthy businessmen and their girlfriends rather than actual hockey fans, and this highlights one of the main failings of the KHL. It may have generous corporate backing, but most stadiums rarely sell out, and ticket revenue is paltry. Professional hockey in Russia is not a business; it is a prestige project supported by corporations, not by fans.

Another notable aspect of Saturday's game was that most of the players on the rosters would be recognizable to NHL fans - not because they were stars who had left the NHL for greener pastures in Russia, but because most of them had failed to make it in North America. Many were genuine Russian stars who had never really bothered to ply their trade in North America (Sergei Mozyakin, Maxim Sushinsky), but most were draft busts (Oleg Saprykin, Pavel Brendl) and overpaid veterans who had worn out their welcome in NHL rinks, like the two team captains.

The league's backers crow on endlessly about how the KHL will soon compete with the NHL for talent, and many American and Canadian reporters have been foolish and uninformed enough to believe them (others haven't). Jaromir Jagr's so-called defection to Russia was a small coup for the new league, but it hardly marks the beginning of a stampede. In fact, the financial footing of the KHL becomes shakier by the day as energy prices - the unreliable backbone of the Russian economy - continue to fall, slashing the revenues of some of the league's most important sponsors, like natural gas giant Gazprom (KHL president Alexander Medvedev is also the director-general of Gazprom's export arm and a member of the company's board).

In 2006, the Russian Hockey Federation wrested control of the Superleague from the independent Professional Hockey League, citing the PHL's failure to properly ensure the financial viability of its member clubs. Since then, none of the financial and managerial problems have been fixed. Many of the biggest Russian stars, like Alexander Ovechkin and Pavel Datsyuk, have already been burned by the wheeling and dealing of the Russian league, and they will likely never return to play in Russia. The RHF has instead turned professional hockey into a project of national pride and goaded more companies into forking over sponsorship cash. As Russia's economic situation worsens, these financial lifelines will likely be cut.

It is true that the KHL may become an attractive alternative to the NHL for up-and-coming Russian players, and why shouldn't Russia want to hold onto its own talent? But for the foreseeable future, the only foreigners venturing to the KHL will be those who can't draw an NHL paycheck. Until the KHL becomes a viable business - and for all of its faults, the NHL is still a profitable enterprise in most markets - it will never be able to compete with the NHL or any other North American league.

You can watch the complete KHL All-Star Game on Universal Sports, here.

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