When the KHL staged two regular-season games in Finland last year, the enthusiasm and attendance figures were no cause for celebration. On Monday, SKA St. Petersburg played against reigning champion Ak Bars Kazan in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius because both of St. Petersburg’s venues were reserved for other events.
Why Vilnius? On one hand, one of the biggest Lithuanian hockey stars plays for St. Petersburg with Darius Kasparaitis. (Kasparaitis opted to play for Russia after the dissolution of the Soviet Union instead of his native Lithuania.)
It was just natural that Kasparaitis was the poster boy to promote the game.
On the other hand, Lithuania had a record-setting hockey event this year with the 2009 IIHF World Championship Division I with up to 8,700 fans in the arena, a sign that there’s potential for high-calibre hockey in Lithuania.
The teams came, and Kasparaitis was there too, although he could not play due to a knee injury. He was the most-sought man at the post-game press conference and announced that he will see a specialist to find out if he can continue his career.
The Siemens Arena wasn’t as full as in April, but 6,350 fans still came for the KHL game.
The Vilnius match was a success for St. Petersburg, also on the ice. Maxim Sushinsky scored the 3-3 equalizer with one second left in regulation time and the Russian national player had the game-winner in the shootout.
Will there be a KHL club in the basketball-crazed country? Rolandas Bucys, president of the Lithuanian Ice Hockey Federation, said that a local group is working on founding and funding a KHL team in Vilnius. And KHL Vice-President Vladimir Shalayev replied that he would welcome a team if the Lithuanians were able to fulfil the requirements for a KHL team.
The biggest hurdle is money. Czech champion Karlovy Vary worked on joining the KHL this season, but couldn’t afford the eight-digit budget.
And if Vilnius doesn’t get a team, then the fans can at least look forward to March when SKA St. Petersburg might need to relocate another game because of booked arenas.
Tretiak on the island...
While the KHL is looking for an expansion to the West and the media writes every few weeks about secret meetings of KHL representatives with clubs from countries outside of the former Soviet area, the league is also looking for options in the Far East.
Right now, Amur Khabarovsk is the only KHL club from the Pacific side of Russia. In the vast era of the former Soviet Union, Khabarovsk’s time zone is eight hours ahead of the most Western KHL city, Riga.
In the same time zone lies Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk on the island of Sakhalin. The island’s biggest city has about 180,000 inhabitants and is just about 600 kilometres east of Khabarovsk and 500 kilometres north of Sapporo, Japan.
That might sound far but for Amur Khabarovsk it would feel like a derby as the closest current KHL venue, Novokuznetsk, is more than 3,000 kilometres away towards Siberia.
Is Sakhalin the place for a new KHL entry? HK Rys, a second-tier club founded in 2008, announced plans to move from the Moscow region to Sakhalin. The club was coached last season by former Soviet legend, NHL All-Star and IIHF Hall of Famer Alexei Kasatonov and it was founded because the KHL club Vityaz moved within the Moscow region from Podolsk to Chekhov in 2004.
HK Rys has reached an agreement with the governor of the Sakhalin region and a new arena in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk should be built in two years. For the next two years the club will not play anymore in Podolsk but in Mozhaysk, another suburban town close to Moscow, until Sakhalin is ready for a KHL team.
The Russian Hockey Federation’s President Vladislav Tretiak paid Sakhalin a visit last week and guaranteed funds for the arena in the island’s biggest city and for smaller arenas in other towns on Sakhalin.
...and the eternal candidate Sochi
Should the KHL not expand to Sakhalin, then there’s at least the persistent rumour about a team in Sochi where the new Bolshoi Palace for the 2014 Olympic Winter Games will be completed this month.
Spartak Moscow heavily denied the most recent rumour that it will be sold and relocated to the Black Sea city. However, Sochi will remain a candidate as it’s no secret that the government would like to see a KHL team in the Olympic venue prior to 2014.
- While new teams may appear on the KHL map, Lada Togliatti has been a consistent candidate to disappear. The club doesn’t fulfil the arena requirements and because the arena project didn’t take the next steps, the club was threatened to be expelled last summer. Financial problems and unpaid salaries almost forced the KHL to get rid of Lada. The problems still seem to be unsolved. Players threatened to call a strike because they’re still waiting for money and Lada had to almost cancel a road trip to Barys Astana because the lack of funds. According to media reports, the league lent money to keep Lada alive for the moment.
- Two months prior to the World U20 Championship, Russia has to find a new assistant coach. Miskhat Fakhrutdinov left the team to focus on his duties as a club coach according to Sport-Express. The team will be coached by Vladimir Plyushchev, who led the U18 national team to silver last spring.
- The win in Vilnius brought SKA St. Petersburg to the top of the KHL standing with 33 points in 13 games. In the Western Conference, St. Petersburg is followed by a group of five teams who have 22 to 25 points: the Moscow teams CSKA, Spartak and Dynamo, Atlant Mytishchi and Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod. On the other end is Dinamo Riga and last year’s runner-up Lokomotiv Yaroslavl.
- The Eastern Conference has a clear leader with Metallurg Magnitogorsk and its 32 points. Salavat Yulayev Ufa follows with 27 points before Avangard Omsk (25).
- Dynamo Moscow’s Mattias Weinhandl is the current scoring leader of the KHL. The Swedish forward had 17 points (8G+9A). Dinamo Riga’s Marcel Hossa follows with 16 points before a trio with 15, Jaromir Jagr (Avangard Omsk), Sergei Zinoviev (Salavat Yulayev Ufa) and Alexei Yashin (SKA St. Petersburg). Jagr is the top goal scorer with ten.
- Metallurg Magnitogorsk’s youngster Ilya Proskuryakov is the hottest goalie with eleven wins and a 94.2 save percentage. The strongest tandem right now is in St. Petersburg with American netminder Robert Esche (7 wins, 93.3%) and backup Maxim Sokolov (4 wins, 98%).