Kontinental Hockey League Gains Confidence, Momentum Ahead Of Sixth Season
As it prepares to open its sixth season Wednesday, the Kontinental Hockey League "has regained its confidence and momentum, moving markedly closer to its goal of creating a competitive, international alternative to the National Hockey League," according to Steven Lee Myers of the N.Y. TIMES. 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 Putin's Kremlin, which views sport 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 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." Jokerit Chair Harry Harkimo said, "I'm not the most popular man in Finland. ... But this is part of globalization and a business plan. I can't think about what others think." The league's "most spectacular coup of the summer" was luring one of the NHL's top stars, Ilya Kovalchuk, who walked away from $77M remaining on his contract with the New Jersey Devils to join SKA St. Petersburg. Kovalchuk's signing hardly signaled an exodus of players to the KHL, but "it demonstrated the league's increasing attractiveness and the deep pockets of at least some of the teams' owners." KHL President Aleksandr Medvedev said, "Our aim is not to make a barrier -- or iron curtain -- between the KHL and the NHL. We would like that players, depending on their circumstances and vision of the world, can play everywhere." Since the league's inception in '08 with 24 teams, "the quality of play has undoubtedly improved." According to league officials, the league's cable TV network, KHL TV, "now has 11 million subscribers." Even so, "the league's greatest challenge is a business model still shaped by a Soviet legacy and an uneven transition to a purely market economy." The teams rely on the financing from owners or sponsors, "which include Russia's biggest state-run or controlled corporations, whose stakes and spending are far from transparent." Teams' viability "depends on how much money the companies and governments who control them can afford to sink into them." Medvedev: "The business model is different for our clubs" (N.Y. TIMES, 9/3).