Matt Ellison’s team, Dinamo Riga, took off from Latvia the night before their game and flew across eight time zones and the entire width of Russia to Khabarovsk, China’s next-door neighbour. When they neared the city in the early-morning hours, fog had shut down the airport, so the plane turned around and landed somewhere in Mongolia, but no one could go anywhere because they didn’t have visas to get into the country. “We slept on the plane wherever we could. Guys were on the floor, sleeping on the table in first class—everywhere,” says Ellison, a winger who grew up in Duncan, B.C., and had short stints with the Blackhawks and Flyers before heading to Europe. The plane finally took off again with all the players still sleeping, but the team didn’t reach the rink in Khabarovsk until just two hours before the puck dropped for their game against Amur. They somehow came away with a 4–2 win and earned a spot in the history books—that was the Kontinental Hockey League’s first game. In five seasons since that chaotic start, a steady parade of bizarre anecdotes has painted the picture of a league run by a band of bumbling pirates. A sack of money or a roll of bills secured with an elastic band could take care of money owed or a paycheque, and some players—especially North Americans—were hoodwinked out of their salaries. Last year, one saw his wife kicked out of Kazakhstan for saying not-so-nice things about the country’s corruption on her blog. On top of that, there have been some horrible tragedies on and off the ice.
But for the most part, the KHL is no longer that Russian circus on ice. Thanks to the backing of billionaire industrialists, a cozy relationship with a government bent on gold at the Sochi Olympics and the 2016 World Championship in Moscow, and growing numbers of Russian players choosing to stay home rather than head for the NHL, the KHL has become a genuine threat. It has big plans, but they’re not so far-fetched when you consider the league’s rich and powerful friends. While NHL owners duke it out with the union, their players are signing across the Atlantic—and some of them might not come back. “The KHL has now risen to the level of being a viable alternative to the NHL for many players,” says agent Allan Walsh. “For Russian players especially.” The KHL has its problems and quirks (so did the NHL once upon a time—see the California Golden Seals or the Cooperalls insanity), but the NHL’s Russian cousin demands to be taken seriously. And the NHL had better keep its head up.
Hockey has always been about something bigger in Russia. During the Soviet era it was romanticized, acting as a propaganda tool, a means to stoke nationalism through the domination of the West. CSKA Moscow—the Central Red Army team—functioned as a permanent training program for the national team. The result: seven Olympic golds and 22 World Championship titles between 1954 and 1990. But once the Iron Curtain fell and stars bolted the motherland for better competition and NHL paycheques, hockey in Russia withered at the same time as the country suffered social and economic upheaval.
President Vladimir Putin saw an opportunity to boost one with the help of the other, declaring after his inauguration in 2000 that “Sporting victories can mean more than a hundred political slogans.” There were years of collective agonizing over what Russian hockey should be before Putin enlisted Alexander Medvedev, the billionaire deputy chairman of the natural gas giant Gazprom, and Red Army legends Viacheslav Fetisov and Vladislav Tretiak to help rebuild the game under the banner of the KHL. The league debuted in 2008 with the pointed slogan “Hockey Is Our Game,” absorbing all the teams of the Russian Superleague and bringing in new additions from Latvia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. “There was a lot of pride again. ‘We had our system, and in 1972, by golly, if it wasn’t for Bobby Clarke we would have won!’” says Slava Malamud, a Washington-based correspondent for Sport-Express, Russia’s biggest sports newspaper. “They took that nationalism and ran with it.”
Putin’s project takes on more urgency the closer it gets to Sochi. Plenty of Canadians would have considered the Vancouver Olympics a crushing failure if the men’s hockey team hadn’t won gold, and the mentality is similar, maybe even greater, in Russia for 2014. After Team Canada’s 7–3 quarterfinal dismantling of Russia in Vancouver, the coach sighed, “Let’s put guillotines and scaffolds up on Red Square,” and several top officials resigned in humiliation. With nothing less than Russian honour hanging in the balance, Sochi is a must-win.
Under other circumstances, the KHL’s interests would be at odds with those of the national team, just as the NHL squabbles with the IOC over pausing the season, lost revenue and the risk of injury to players. “But since this is Russia, no one thinks like that,” says Paul Strizhevsky, a Moscow-based former reporter who also worked for the KHL on one of its in-house publications. “They’ve kept the Soviet mentality that they are all doing this one common thing, and that is to help the national team win.”
The KHL expanded beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union last season by adding a team from Slovakia, and it now consists of 26 clubs, including franchises in Belarus, Czech Republic, Latvia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine. There’s been chatter about taking the league to Stockholm, Berlin, Salzburg, Zagreb, Bern, Milan and even Dubai or Tokyo. These “leaks” are about as subtle as whisper-yelling a secret and looking around to make sure someone heard you, but propaganda or not, the KHL has big ambitions. Putin has been front and centre, glad-handing with players and officials, playing exhibition games with Soviet greats and facilitating huge sponsorship deals with Medvedev’s Gazprom and other giants like Russian Railways and VTB Bank. These benefactors get the privilege of naming teams like Metallurg Magnitogorsk (a.k.a. the Steelers) and an excellent return on their investment with powerful friendships. “You don’t quite have hockey in the same status anywhere else, where the state leadership would devote so much time to promoting the sport—not even in Canada,” says Markku Jokisipilä, a researcher at Finland’s University of Turku and author of an upcoming book on hockey and politics from the Cold War to present.
From the outside, the KHL’s business model looks like an impossible house of cards. Most rinks house well under 10,000 patrons and tickets go for as little as $5 because fans can’t afford more—those revenue streams don’t come close to covering team payrolls (the 2012–13 salary cap is $34.6 million). But while NHL teams exist to turn a profit, the KHL operates more like the world’s most elaborate political ad, and it can survive nicely—at least for now—on the largesse of the government and the corporations in its pocket. If Gazprom loses $60 million running SKA St. Petersburg, it waves goodbye to “chump change,” Malamud says, and some teams in outlying regions are happily subsidized by taxpayers to a degree that would make Gary Bettman’s heart grow three sizes. “In Omsk, if that team moves or folds, there is literally nothing else to do,” Malamud says of the civic will to keep teams afloat. “You sit and stare at snowflakes.”
Still, the KHL is making efforts to grow and evolve, particularly in the shadow of tragedies like 19-year-old Rangers prospect Alexei Cherepanov’s sudden death from heart failure during a game in 2008 and the 2011 plane crash that killed the entire Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team. The league claims it’s taken action, bringing in better medical screening and emergency equipment, and there’s talk of buying a fleet of planes for safer travel. Less dire issues are improving, too. Contracts are handled more fairly and openly, and while it doesn’t wield the power of the NHLPA, the KHL now has a players’ association. “It’s coming of age as a true professional league, as opposed to a bunch of independent teams that happen to play in the same league and run by their own rules,” says Scott Norton, an agent who’s sent players, including Ellison, to the KHL since its inception.
Asked what’s changed since his team was stranded on that Mongolian airstrip, Ellison says simply, “everything.” Travel is less arduous—though still a huge challenge with almost 8,000 km between the most distant teams—games that end in routs are rare and even Vityaz Chekhov, the KHL’s answer to the Charlestown Chiefs, are developing the non-fisticuffs aspects of their game. Ellison’s current team, Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod, packs in 5,500 crazed fans who wave scarves and chant like soccer supporters when they’re happy, and occasionally pitch rubles onto the ice when they’re not. He has been blown away by the level of play. “In North America, you think all the top players from every country come over, but it’s not [that way] at all,” he says.
According to Malamud, the KHL was built on the idea that the best way to lure players from the NHL is to look as much like it as possible—even the captains’ Ks are gone. In 2009, the KHL started a junior draft, and teams occasionally take a flyer on young North Americans who are obviously NHL-bound—should they ever defect, Taylor Hall, Jonathan Huberdeau and Nathan MacKinnon have KHL teams that own their rights. The NHL most obviously outstrips its would-be rival in creating slick game experiences and TV broadcasts. Half of KHL teams have home rinks less than a decade old, but others play in the crumbling husks of Soviet architecture. In Moscow, there’s always talk about replacing the ancient rinks where CSKA, Dynamo and Spartak play. But even as things change off the ice, they’ve mostly stayed the same on it. Some North American physicality has crept in, but the KHL game is still quintessentially Russian—all speed, puck control and finesse. “There are some people who say if you really want to watch beautiful hockey, then the KHL is where you should go,” says Jokisipilä.
Aside from all-out battles over players like Alexander Radulov, the NHL has responded to the KHL mostly with icy silence or occasional scolding about respecting contracts. The NHL doesn’t have much to gain at this point by acknowledging the KHL more than it does—arguing or cooperating would put the upstart league on equal footing. The league, in fact, even refused to offer any comment on this story. But Dave King, former coach of the Canadian national team and, in 2005–06, the first Canadian to coach in Russia, sees the KHL becoming a serious contender. “It’s a much better league than [North Americans] give it credit for because we still think of Soviet hockey, not the new Russian hockey system,” he says.
On their side of the PR war, Russian officials—especially Medvedev as KHL president—alternate between starry-eyed proclamations about joint tournaments and catty muttering about the NHL falling apart (one official declared Madison Square Garden “no longer suited to modern hockey”). Malamud sums it up like this: “We play a game in Red Square, but there is no Red Square in Canada, which means we are better!” But while creating a 60-team pan-European league is unlikely, behind the propaganda curtain is a serious desire to create an alternative to the NHL. “Medvedev is not crazy,” Malamud says. “You cannot take a kid from Nova Scotia and make him dream of playing in Magnitogorsk. But let’s make sure kids from Magnitogorsk don’t dream about playing in Montreal—that’s basically his idea.”
The numbers suggest that’s already started. Last season saw the smallest slice of Europeans in the NHL in more than a decade, largely because fewer young players are coming over. The biggest drop is among Russians. There were 71 in the NHL in 1999–2000, but just 31 last season. The KHL offers a chance to live and play near family and friends, and potentially earn more money—tax-free, in some cases. “The KHL can’t feed all the players, but for some big players—especially those with Russian passports—it might be a threat,” said Philadelphia Flyers goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, currently playing for CSKA Moscow. The league is also becoming a more attractive option for North Americans (26 Canadians and six Americans played in the KHL last season). It’s primarily those who would otherwise spend their time on the fourth line or in the minors, but Walsh predicts that could change. “There’s an arrogance: ‘Why would anybody want to go over there? We’re the greatest league in the world!’” he says of the NHL. “Once the first couple of players do it, the floodgates will be open, and every young, good Canadian and American player will be able to get a KHL offer and leverage it against an NHL offer.” However, Mark Gandler, a player agent who works with a number of Russians, believes the league has a long way to go before it can draw big stars. “When you come in, you get a parade and you get excited, but then you have to play with players who are inferior,” he says.
Even before the NHL lockout, the KHL had ramped up efforts to woo North American fans. ESPN3 has just started streaming KHL games, and in January, Dynamo Moscow will face off against SKA St. Petersburg at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, home of the NBA’s Nets, owned by yet another Russian billionaire, Mikhail Prokhorov. If the lockout lasts, those two games will be an Ovi vs. Kovy series, but the KHL is bullish about the appeal regardless. “The situation is changing—before, we were dreaming, ‘Oh, NHL teams will come to Russia to play!’ Now, guys, it’s time maybe you dream about Russian teams coming to play NHL clubs,” says Seva Kukushkin, a Moscow-based adviser to the league. The way the KHL has handled the lockout is telling. In 2004–05, teams that could afford it loaded up on NHL all-stars, but this time, the league imposed a limit of three NHL players in order to preserve competitive balance and promote young Russian talent.
Forgoing NHL talent in favour of homegrown players shows how the KHL has grown—and just how much more cocksure it has become.
The KHL will benefit from new facilities and a huge PR push in advance of the Olympics and the 2016 worlds. It’s crucial for Team Russia to succeed at home, and if they do, the NHL will be competing with a European rival flush with money and favours from some very happy government and corporate sugar daddies. “Are we the NHL? No, but the NHL has been around for 100 years,” Medvedev told the Toronto Star last January. “We already have a great league and it’s getting better. This is our game, too.”
Consider yourselves warned.
This article originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine.