KHL presents plan with 64 teams

Club competition essential, but visions diverge in Europe

13.06.2012
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KHL President Alexander Medvedev was among the speakers presenting various visions of a pan-European club competition for the future. Photo: Martin Merk

BARCELONA – Day two of the Hockey Forum got off to a rousing start this morning with several presentations tackling the crucial issue of club teams across Europe playing in some sort of international competition with the goal being the crowning of a European club champion.

Ralph Krueger got the proceedings started. He was coach of the Swiss national team from 1997 to 2010 before moving to the NHL as an associate coach with the Edmonton Oilers. He spoke in tones that could only be described as inspirational and motivational.

He began by stating that in the last 13 years there have been four formats for European club competition and four years there was none. There has been no consistency, no stability, no format that has established itself and evolved and grown.

These are the very elements that have been the foundation of success of UEFA and in handball and basketball in Europe, as the various speakers elucidated yesterday. Krueger told several personal stories from his two decades as a coach in Europe and noted that although club competition demands ambition, the rewards are tremendous – players improve, teams improve, national programs improve, players become leaders in other areas after their career.

“The international game makes players better, makes them reach beyond what they would otherwise reach,” he noted.

Krueger went on to suggest that, “40 per cent of top players in the NHL are European – by that I mean top-six forwards, top-four defencemen, and starting goalies.”

There are two main goals the European hockey world needs to focus on, he said. “We need to find a common purpose, find a common vision. And, we need to be a team, starting with open and honest communication.”

Krueger sees the Hockey Forum as a good start to work together in a better way.

“I was in contact with many stakeholders – clubs, marketing agencies, the IIHF people – and I feel more openness than two years ago when I was at the Hockey Summit in Toronto,” Krueger noted. “I also saw it here with the IIHF inviting people from other sports to face the truth and see how it is done in other sports.”

“Football is another world,” he added, “but when it comes to European club competitions, we’re looking at basketball or handball from behind. We have the potential to be the clear number two behind football. But we have to work together. The opponents are not among us, the opponents are the other sports around us.”

Timo Everi and Anders Ternbom then took the stage to discuss the European Trophy and the need for a European club competition as a way to grow the game within each country. “There has to be a will,” Everi stated, “and there has to be commitment, from the clubs and players to travel, from employees to do the work.”

The competition was started in Sweden and Finland because the clubs demanded more international hockey. The Nordic Trophy was developed as a pre-season competition and grew to the European Trophy that will be staged for the third time this year starting in August.

“The clubs requested a club-driven European ice hockey competition,” Everi said. “Organizing something on one’s own is always challenging. Working together might make more sense, that’s why we are all here.”

The “common purpose” of which Krueger spoke was echoed by Ternbom, who noted the essential element of a club competition has to start with an agreement among the clubs. Ternbom and Everi have developed a plan for the European Trophy which has such a commitment from 32 teams in seven countries in Europe. These teams are divided into eight groups of four playing down to a finals which will be held in mid-December parallel to the clubs’ involvement in the national leagues.

The vision these two men propose is to unite European club hockey. “We need to do it all together, with the same common purpose, the same mutual target,” Ternbom concluded showing three possible options: continue with the European Trophy, having a two-product scenario with the European Trophy being integrated with national leagues, or in the long run a new European hockey league.

“We would like to unite European club hockey and to have it organized by the clubs in collaboration with the IIHF, national federations and the leagues,” Ternbom said.

KHL President Alexander Medvedev then took the stage to discuss his league’s massive ambitions and his focus of what European hockey should look like. The KHL was established in 2008 featuring teams from four countries: Russia, Belarus, Latvia and Kazakhstan. In 2012-13, there will be teams from seven countries including Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Ukraine. Starting next year the KHL will have a salary cap of $36 million.

The KHL also runs a junior league, MHL, in two tiers with 51 teams from Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia. And in collaboration with the Russian Hockey Federation it runs a second-tier senior league, VHL.

But what Medvedev sees in the future is mind-boggling in size and scope, unlike anything anyone else in the room could possibly conceive or comprehend.

He sees the KHL’s expansion to consume all of Europe, with one KHL Conference in and around Russia and a European Conference with a Scandinavian Sub-Conference (Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway) and a Central European Sub-Conference (Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, France, Italy, Great Britain, Netherlands, Belgium).

In all, he sees 64 teams in two conferences of 32 teams. The league would have a regular season of 62 games (38 games inside the conferences, 24 between conferences in two to four road trips to the other conference for each team) and a playoffs of five rounds featuring 32 teams starting within the sub-conferences.

Medvedev wants this league to be operational by 2013/2014 – or as a second-best option 2014/2015 – but of course the ramifications are massive as it would re-draw the map of all of the top leagues in Europe. It is a bold vision, to be sure, but one marred by uncertain ideas and structure.

“To create a top-notch international competition is necessary,” Medvedev concluded. “We need to create a pan-European system for the talent in Europe and set up a super-competition between the winners of the Stanley Cup and Europe to define the best team in the world.”

The presentation that already saw a format with 64 potential teams named – but not set in stone as Medvedev noted – caused questions in the audience about budgets, about the future of national leagues, about acceptance.

Medvedev explained that the new league should be a closed system. “The stakeholders, those who put money in should decide about the structure,” he said. “It should be a closed system to have long-term planning and teams can’t be sent off to lose credibility and money.”

He clarified that national leagues can still exist without the top clubs and the remaining clubs can act as farm teams.

From the money point of view he unveiled that top clubs in the KHL have a budget of approximately €50 million (including staff, junior teams), but to compete it’s enough to have a budget of €15 million according to Medvedev, which is still twice as much as the numbers Kalervo Kummola presented from the Finnish top league.

“I believe there’s no direct correlation between the budget and the sportive result,” Medvedev replied. “There have been many examples in the past years in the KHL. Clubs with a lower budget compete like hell on the ice.”

After the KHL’s ambitious visions IIHF General Secretary Horst Lichtner compared with a Gagarin space flight, it was time to go back to earth. Lichtner summarized the meetings to date by stating that whatever is decided upon, it must be the leading club competition in Europe.

“The most important thing to be successful is a vision that must be shared between all stakeholders no matter how the competition is called,” Lichtner said in his presentation about a sustainable European club competition.

It must be based on integrity (i.e., teams must qualify for the event – they can’t simply be invited or included for any arbitrary reason).

“The competition must be built on sporting criteria,” Lichtner said. “The European credibility model of sport is still valid for the fans in Europe. The qualification system must be understandable for fans, it must be attractive for broadcasters and appealing for sponsors.”

It must be an event driven by fan interest, and fans, in turn, drive the event. As a result, the event will have its own identity and it will be the pinnacle of European hockey.

In short, the competition needs credibility, integrity, and sustainability. It needs to grow, step by step, and it needs branding and have a corporate identity. Most important, it needs to start small (i.e., eight teams) and grow organically, not just with a goal to make money.

Lichtner showed a proposal with a Champions League type of competition starting with eight teams (top-7 nations plus qualifier) before extending it to 12 and 16 years later on.

“Even the gigantic UEFA Champions League played with eight clubs in the first three years,” Lichtner said.

He also noted the importance of a showcase event between the NHL and Europe that could serve as season opener for fans from both continents with two teams each from Europe and North America including the Stanley Cup winner and the European club champion, hosted alternating in Europe and North America.

The session about European club competitions closed with a panel discussion.

ANDREW PODNIEKS
MARTIN MERK

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