MOSCOW – The KHL’s continental ambitions are set to take another big step forward this week as a non-Russian team contests the Gagarin Cup final for the first time. Lev Prague, which has played just two seasons in the Czech capital, faces off against Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the decisive series which starts Friday.
Head coach Kari Jalonen took charge of the club this season after two KHL campaigns with Torpedo Nizhni Novgorod, and the Finn is proud of the role his team – and other ‘foreigners’ have played in the competition.
“I think it’s a surprise for everybody that it’s happened so fast,” he said. “This year especially the teams from outside of Russia have done a great job. Dinamo Riga, Donbass, Lev and Medvescak, a new team, have all done really well. Next year Jokerit is joining and will be a good team too. This is a big part of the KHL now.”
It’s also a big part of establishing Lev in a city which already had two top-level hockey teams – Sparta and Slavia – before the KHL came to town. At times in Lev’s first season there were concerns that local fans would not take the new team to their hearts, but consistently good attendances at the Tipsport Arena have grown and there are hopes for sell-out crowds at the 17,000-capacity O2 Arena when the finals arrive on April 22 and 24.
“It’s a big one for Lev. This is just Lev’s third season in the league and only the second in Prague. The fans are behind us now, the whole Czech Republic is behind us. Most of our players are from the Czech Republic and that’s good for us. It’s a good thing for Czech hockey and for the club.”
While Lev is a new name in European hockey, and the Prague club does not even include the single season that Lev Poprad played in the KHL as part of its history, it is not a roster which lacks experience. Jalonen himself has coached four Finnish title-winning teams while goalie Petri Vehanen and forward Niko Kaponen both won the Gagarin Cup with Ak Bars. But it’s local boy Jakub Klepis who has some of the brightest Gagarin Cup memories: in 2012 his goal gave Dynamo a 1-0 victory in game seven at Avangard Omsk, bringing the Gagarin Cup to Moscow for the first time.
That was big, but a play-off final with Lev is even bigger.
“Those memories are always good,” he said. “Any time you get to the finals you’ve reached your goal with that group of guys. To win it was a really great feeling at the time and good experience for the future.
“This is definitely big for the Czech Republic because this team has only been here for two years and in the second year it’s made the finals. As a Czech team in the Russian league, hopefully we can win it; that would be huge. For me personally it’s even bigger. This is my home town, all my family is here.”
The big test facing Lev will be handling the swashbuckling Metallurg front line. Sergei Mozyakin, Jan Kovar and Danis Zaripov have cut a swathe through KHL defences all season. In the regular season they shared 203 points to become the top three individual scorers; post-season has yielded 48 points in 14 games with Mozyakin topping the individual charts with 7+12=19.
Jalonen, meanwhile, prefers to concentrate on his own, well-drilled team.
“Everybody knows that line is the best in the league,” he said of Mozyakin’s troika. “It dominated in regular season and has done a great job in the play-offs. But we know that we have to concentrate on our game and the best team will win. Throughout these play-offs we have concentrated 90 per cent on how to play our own game – that’s the most important thing.”
Lev’s own game was good enough to see off KHL newcomer Medvescak Zagreb in the first round, sweeping the Croats to record the club’s first ever post-season success. Next came Donbass and a 4-2 victory in a series split between Donetsk, Prague and Bratislava after the political situation in Ukraine prompted uncertainty about hosting games there. Next the Czech team stopped Lokomotiv in five games, ending the Yaroslavl fairy tale in the Western Conference final and making a piece of history by reaching the grand final.
Not everyone in Russia is delighted by the climax to the current season. After the disappointment of failing to medal in Sochi, Russian hockey fans have now seen 1994 Stanley Cup winner Mike Keenan become the first North American coach to win the Russian championship (a success confirmed regardless of the Gagarin Cup’s destination since Metallurg is the last remaining Russian team). Meanwhile, the Gagarin Cup itself will also be claimed by a foreign coach for the first time in KHL history, and could be about to leave the motherland after five years in Kazan, Ufa and most recently Moscow.
Some media reports have complained that ‘foreign’ KHL teams have an unfair advantage since they are not subject to the Russian Hockey Federation’s strict quota on imports. While Russian teams can currently play up to five foreigners in any given game (newly-formed Admiral Vladivostok is allowed seven during its formative years, a concession which is expected to apply to Sochi’s emerging team), Lev’s roster in its last play-off game against Lokomotiv was an even mix of Czechs and imports. Not that Jalonen is unduly concerned about any criticism: “We are playing with the KHL’s rules. That’s all there is to it.”
The league’s own website also trumpets the success of Jalonen, Keenan and others, pointing out that Russian sports fans were happy to celebrate the Olympic successes of Korean-born Viktor Ahn or US-born Vic Wild but seem to see only problems when foreign coaches triumph in domestic contests. “This is nothing criminal, though. It’s a good thing and there is a lot for us to learn. Russian coaches should study closely and draw conclusions – then there will be a real motivation to improve.”
The Gagarin Cup final starts Friday, April 18 in Magnitogorsk. Prague hosts games three and four of the best-of-seven series on April 22 and 24, and game six will be played there if needed on April 28.