What is the future for the Kontinental Hockey League? Expansion within the borders of the former Soviet Union, or also to countries like Germany, Italy or Switzerland? Denis Gibbons went to the KHL All-Star Game in Riga to find out.
You could write a book on the rumours about where the Kontinental Hockey League will expand next. The only thing officially announced, however, is that the fledgling league will add one team from Italy for the 2012-13 season. But even the Milan-based team is not certain as it has been quiet about the plans recently.
The Italian team would be in addition to the Russian club Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, which this season is in a rebuilding mode in the second-tier league VHL after its team was wiped out in a horrific air crash last autumn.
KHL President Alexander Medvedev confirmed the Italian addition during the league’s recent All-Star weekend in Riga. However, Medvedev said he still is unsure where the new club will play its home games.
Milano Rossoblù, which plays in Italy’s second-tier league Serie A2, will ice the new team. There has been speculation that the new entry could play some home games in Asiago.
The first indoor ice arena in Europe was opened in Milan in 1923 and the city hosted several games in the 1994 IIHF World Championship.
The nearby city of Turin hosted the hockey tournament of the 2006 Olympics, but the main arena there already has been converted to a soccer venue for the city’s football teams, Juventus and Torino.
Although Medvedev also said the KHL has signed a preliminary agreement with a team called Helvetics in Switzerland for the 2014-15 season, it remains to be seen if that expansion will take place. It’s worth pointing out that the team would be based in Huttwil, something between a village and a small town, population 4,700.
At this point, nobody has approached the Swiss Ice Hockey Federation and there have been no formal discussions either with the IIHF or its President René Fasel.
“It is strange for me that a country like Switzerland is not allowed to play in the KHL. It does not disturb the national championship. It makes hockey even better,” said Medvedev.
“We will have different sponsors than the Swiss League. There is no question about money. There is a very strong competition law in the European Union. We should look at it in sports as well.”
The story making the rounds is that real estate entrepreneur Markus Boesiger will build a new arena in Huttwil. He disbanded the Huttwil Falcons after the club won Switzerland’s third-tier league, but was denied promotion to the National League B after failing to submit the necessary application papers.
There have also been rumours about a team from Leipzig, whose hockey team plays at Germany’s fourth level, and Slovak club Slovan Bratislava, but no letters of intent have been signed in these cases.
In addition, the financially troubled Dusseldorf club of the German DEL released a statement saying the club was basically flattered about interest shown by the KHL, but that it believes its future is in Germany. Recently there have also been rumours that the KHL is luring the Hannover Scorpions, another club that has been struggling financially in the last few years.
More realistic newcomers to the KHL in the future might be Donbass Donetsk, a Ukrainian club which recently played in the IIHF Continental Cup, and Torpedo Ust-Kamenogorsk, which would become the league’s second team in Kazakhstan. Both Donbass and Torpedo already play in Russia, in the VHL, one level below the KHL.
A KHL source also has said the league has looked seriously at adding clubs from Siberia like Tyumen and Krasnoyarsk, which would complement clubs Avangard Omsk, Sibir Novosibirsk and Metallurg Novokuznetsk already there.
The KHL has had no luck in luring teams from traditional European hockey powers like the Czech Republic, Finland and Sweden. In November 2009, the KHL and AIK Stockholm from Sweden looked like they had a deal when the Swedish club was in the Allsvenskan league, one level below the Elitserien, and had financial problems. But eventually the club made its way back to the top level. The KHL also made an unsuccessful approach to Karlovy Vary and Hradec Kralove of the Czech Republic.
In 2009 Medvedev presented the IIHF Council with a plan for a league entitled United Hockey Europe. "I believe it's the only way not to stagnate and to better develop European hockey," Medvedev said at the time.
The new league would have 16 teams from the Nordic countries, 16 from central Europe and 24 from the current KHL, split into four divisions in two conferences, with the conference winners playing in the UHE finals.
Christer Englund, President of the Swedish Ice Hockey Federation, was very skeptical about the plan.
“I don’t have the slightest faith in a cross-border sports league,” Englund said “[if it was feasible], there would already be a European football league.”
But in football, cross-border competition has been played in the highly successful Champions League for the last two decades, a competition for the top teams of several national leagues. Similar formats are in place in other sports in Europe such as basketball, handball or volleyball.
There have also been talks about teams from smaller hockey markets. Mevedscak Zagreb of Croatia has had talks with the KHL, and in Lithuania a new franchise Baltica Vilnius is still a long way down the road, but has joined the KHL environment this season with a team in the MHL-B, the second-tier junior league of Russia. But basketball is the number-one sport in the country and funding has been a problem in the past.
Sochi, which is building the new Bolshoi Ice Palace for the 2014 Olympics, is also a KHL candidate, perhaps for a relocated team.
Meanwhile the small Slovak city of Poprad hopes to become bigger after its first year in the KHL.
Jan Rachota, who works in the media department of the new Slovak club Lev Poprad, said the club has been averaging about 4,300 fans per game in a 4,500-seat arena. The club plans to build a new arena for 9,000 fans.
“Some fans are even coming from the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary,” he said.
Another revelation in Riga was that the KHL has considered the possibility of playing some league or exhibition games in the new Barclays Centre in Brooklyn, New York. American-Russian businessman Mikhail Prokhorov, owner of the National Basketball Association’s New Jersey Nets and former shareholder of the CSKA Moscow basketball club, is a key investor in the new arena.
Medvedev said it was the idea of Slava Fetisov, who coincidentally announced his resignation as vice-president of the KHL at the same press conference.
“There are 100,000 Russians living in the immediate area of New York City,” Fetisov told IIHF.com about the reasons behind the idea.
Since the All-Star Game in Riga, it has been announced that the New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils will play an exhibition game at the new arena on Oct. 2.
Who will be in and who not in the next KHL season? We might know it in the months to come.