STOCKHOLM – With the 2014 Olympics taking place in Sochi, Russia, it’s no stretch to say that this and next year’s World Championship represent a major opportunity for the Kontinental Hockey League.
The 23-team circuit that kicked off in 2008-09 had the largest geographical reach of any pro hockey league last season, ranging from Poprad, Slovakia in the west to Khabarovsk, Russia – a journey of more than 10,500 kilometres by car.
However, despite the coordinated efforts of league head Alexander Medvedev and Russian hockey legends from Vladislav Tretiak to Vyacheslav Fetisov, the KHL is still clearly considered second-best in the world to the National Hockey League. What will it take to put the KHL in the driver’s seat?
That depends on your definition of “driver’s seat,” but certainly an upsurge in the ability of KHL players to deliver gold medals at IIHF tournaments would boost the league’s prestige.
Probably its peak achievement so far came at the 2009 Worlds in Switzerland. There, Russia iced a roster featuring 16 KHLers and won the gold medal against a star-laden Canadian team that was all-NHL with the exception of role defenceman Joel Kwiatkowski (Severstal Cherepovets).
The primary objective in founding the KHL as a successor to the Russian Superleague was to create greater incentive for Russian players to stay home instead of migrating to North America. While KHL salary figures are not as widely reported as NHL ones, it’s easy to understand the attraction of making $4 million to $7 million US tax-free while playing closer to family and friends for the likes of Maxim Afinogenov, Alexander Radulov, or Jaromir Jagr. (Even for lesser lights, making, say, the NHL league minimum of $525,000 US goes a lot further in Russia.)
All the aforementioned players have filled key roles for their national teams at recent IIHF World Championships. Of course, Jagr is a Czech, not a Russian. And that raises another interesting point about the KHL’s pan-European aspirations – the league’s intention is to feature new teams in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Ukraine for 2012-13 – and how its incorporation of non-Russian talents has played out at recent Worlds.
In 2011, for the first time, a KHL starting goalie backstopped his national team to a World Championship. Also for the first time, a KHL skater captured the tournament scoring title.
However, neither of those players was Russian. Both were members of Team Finland.
After starring with his hometown team, Lukko Rauma, since the mid-1990’s, netminder Petri Vehanen made the leap to Ak Bars Kazan in 2009-10 and was named the KHL’s best goalie that season. In 2011, his second stint at the Worlds (after 2008’s bronze in Canada), Vehanen would edge out Sweden’s Viktor Fasth – the tournament MVP and Best Goalie – in all key statistical categories except shutouts. And of course, Finland’s 6-1 thrashing of Sweden in the final sealed the deal.
Forward Jarkko Immonen, Vehanen’s teammate with Kazan, earned his all-star berth with his tournament-leading nine goals and 12 points for the Finns.
Vehanen and Immonen weren’t the only KHLers making their mark at that tournament. The Czech Republic’s Roman Cervenka and Jaromir Jagr placed fourth and sixth respectively in the scoring race.
Interestingly, during the three World Championships where the KHL has been in existence, the league has placed four players on the tournament all-star teams, and none of them have been Russian.
So the KHL’s impact on Russia’s international hockey reputation so far has been a mixed bag. (It is, of course, worth noting that 14 Russia-based players also appeared on the 2008 World Championship-winning squad in Canada, but that predated the KHL.)
Going forward, the biggest and most intriguing question is, how many KHL players will make the cut for Russia’s 2014 Olympic odyssey on home ice?
The KHLers suffered a hit in credibility at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. When the host Canadians demolished Russia 7-3 in the quarter-finals, there were nine KHLers on the roster. Leading up to that moment in the tournament, head coach Slava Bykov often gave his KHLers priority in special teams situations over NHL superstars like Alexander Ovechkin. Yet at least versus Canada, go-to guys like Ilya Nikulin (-3), Danis Zaripov (-3), and captain Alexei Morozov (-3) were exposed as defensive liabilities.
For 2014, the Russian lineup may be just as KHL-heavy as in 2010 – not necessarily for political reasons, but because the number of Russian NHLers has been declining. A recent IIHF study indicates there were only 31 Russians in the NHL this season – down from 71 in 1999-2000. And among the skaters, once you get past the top 10 or so elite NHL names, there are few absolute locks for Sochi.
Looking at consensus medal contenders at this IIHF World Championship, there are currently 14 KHLers on Russia, 12 on Finland, and 11 on the Czech Republic. (A generous interpretation would include Slovakia on that list: it has 11 KHLers if you count clubs such as Lev Poprad or Slovan Bratislava that are either relocating or joining the league next year. However, the Slovaks haven’t earned a World Championship medal since 2003’s bronze, and are thus far winless, so calling them a “consensus medal contender” would be iffy.)
Accordingly, if the KHL’s reputation as a talent provider for international events is going to rise or fall, it will depend on the performances of Russia, Finland, and the Czech Republic. Those nations sit first, second, and fifth in the IIHF World Ranking prior to the conclusion of this tournament, which will determine the seedings for Sochi.