Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Russian Hockey League Aims to Return Sport to Center Stage

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Russian Hockey League Aims to Return Sport to Center Stage

Article excerpt

The Kontinental Hockey League has expanded again, and it now is spread out over nine time zones, from far eastern Russia to the Czech Republic.

Admiral, one of two new teams in the Kontinental Hockey League, cobbled together a roster in a matter of weeks this summer, picking up youthful prospects in an expansion draft, as well as journeymen from Russia, Germany, Sweden and Canada. The team began practicing at an arena outside Moscow only last month, its foreign players delayed by hitches in obtaining work visas. Its home arena in Vladivostok, a port city on the Pacific Ocean, about 6,500 kilometers from Moscow (and only about 110 kilometers, or 70 miles, from North Korea), remains unfinished, forcing the team to play its first seven games on the road.

"We're starting from scratch," said Alexander Mogilny, a former National Hockey League star who was hired as the team's first general manager. "It's not easy."

The K.H.L.'s ambitions never have been easy. Nor has its turbulent history, which has included the death of a player (the lack of medical equipment at the arena was blamed), two bankruptcies that forced teams out of the league, and a plane crash in 2011 that killed nearly all of the players and coaches of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, one of the league's most popular teams.

Now, as it prepared to open its sixth season on 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 sports as an instrument of Russia's domestic and foreign policy.

The league starts the new season with 28 teams, having added 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 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.

With teams also in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the league has grown beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union, challenging, at least in part, its reputation as simply a glorified rebranding of the defunct all-Russian Superliga.

The league's most spectacular coup of the summer was luring one of the N.H.L.'s top stars, Ilya Kovalchuk, who walked away from $77 million remaining on his contract with the New Jersey Devils to join SKA Saint Petersburg after playing for them during the N.H.L. lockout last season. SKA announced last week that Kovalchuk, 30, would be the team's captain.

Barring injury, he will almost certainly anchor Russia's national team in February at the Olympics in Sochi, where winning the gold medal has become an obsession among the nation's hockey fans. Kovalchuk's signing hardly signaled an exodus of N.H.L. players to the K.H.L., but it demonstrated the league's increasing attractiveness -- especially after dozens of players signed with teams during the lockout last season -- and the deep pockets of at least some of the teams' owners. More than a third of the league's 700 players, at any given time, are non-Russians, including at last count 45 Canadians, 19 Americans and dozens of players from Europe, many of them veterans of the N.H.L., according to rosters still being completed.

"Our aim is not to make a barrier -- or iron curtain -- between the K.H.L. and the N.H.L.," the league's president, Aleksander I. Medvedev, said in an interview in his Moscow office, where he also serves as the head of Gazprom Export, a subsidiary of the state natural gas empire that is the league's biggest patron. …

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