HK Sochi, Lada Togliatti and Finnish team Jokerit Helsinki are known to join the Russian-based Kontinental Hockey League, which on the other hand may lose Spartak Moscow and Ukraine’s Donbass Donetsk.
Spartak Moscow, four-time winner of the Soviet championship, looks almost certain to endure its second sabbatical in less than a decade.
Dmitri Kurbatov, the KHL’s vice-president responsible for hockey activities, said on Wednesday that it was “95% certain” that the red-and-whites would not play in 2014/2015 as the KHL looks to confirm its membership in the next few days.
The problem here is financial: in December of last year the club’s main sponsor, Investbank, had its licence withdrawn by Russia’s Central Bank. Forced to cut costs and struggling to pay its bills, the team slumped into a 19-game losing streak, setting an unwanted KHL record in the process. Spartak also declined to take part in the post-season Nadezhda Cup for teams missing the play-offs, preferring to reduce game-day expenses and seek a solution to the crisis.
No official decision has been made, but Kurbatov’s gloomy prediction echoes the conclusion of Spartak’s head coach Fyodor Kanareikin in a recent interview with sportbox.ru. “Spartak definitely won’t play,” he said. “All of the players have joined different clubs and there is nobody left.”
Among the ideas put forward was a plan to compete using the nucleus of the club’s youth team, which won last season’s Kharlamov Cup. A proposal, supported by Vyacheslav Fetisov, would have seen those youngsters reinforced with a handful of more experienced players to contest the upcoming campaign. However, Kanareikin added that this would not be possible, again due to financial concerns.
The coach himself remains on the staff at Spartak, having promised he would not seek another employer until the club’s fate was confirmed.
Hints of hope
It’s not necessarily the end, though. Spartak’s youth team, which won the MHL’s Kharlamov Cup at the end of last season after downing city rival Krasnaya Armia, CSKA’s junior team, in the grand final, is set to continue. A consortium of investors put together a funding package to keep the youngsters afloat.
That package, coupled with a transfer that saw SKA St. Petersburg sign up 16 of the cup-winning roster, ensures that competitive hockey will remain at the Sokolniki Ice Arena in north-eastern Moscow.
The investors have adopted the name ‘Narodnaya Komanda’ (The People’s Team) in reference to the Red-and-Whites’ Soviet-era nickname. The club was initially backed by the USSR’s largest trade union and was thus seen as representing the people, unlike organisations such as Dynamo, Lokomotiv or CSKA, which were directly linked to state organs or businesses.
Meanwhile, Spartak’s senior team has found itself in this position before and recovered. In 2006/2007 the team was unable to take part in the Russian Superliga but returned to contest the following season and become a founding member of the KHL in the 2008/2009 season.
Spartak may not be the only team to sit out next season. Donbass Donetsk faces a year on the sidelines after agreeing to take a season-long sabbatical from KHL action. The Ukrainian team, which reached the second round of last season’s play-off, will not take part in the 2014/2015 campaign, it was announced in Moscow on Wednesday.
The team’s involvement was placed in doubt due to the volatile political situation in the Donetsk region. Earlier this year the team played several ‘home’ play-off games in Bratislava as tensions rose following the fall of Viktor Yanukovych’s government.
The situation remains tough for people in Eastern Ukraine with a separatist movement looking for independency and closer ties with Russia. Donbass’ arena is currently being repaired to be ready in September after it was damaged by fire last month.
A statement published on the KHL website outlined the results from a meeting between Boris Kolesnikov, club president, and Alexander Medvedev, president of the KHL.
“Medvedev and Kolesnikov noted the exceptional importance of Donbass to the KHL, and the league’s valuable contribution to the cultural and sporting life of the region,” the statement read.
The meeting also reached three conclusions intended to secure the club’s long-term future in the league. Donbass will become a shareholder in the KHL, the team will take a ‘sporting sabbatical’ for the coming season and all players and coaches currently under contract will have those deals frozen until the team is back on the ice. In the interim, players and coaches are free to seek alternative employment for the coming season.
Kurbatov hailed the decision as a sensible compromise.
“We’ve chosen the most appropriate option so as not to completely sever our ties [with Donbass],” he told R-Sport. “Donbass remains a member of the KHL and part of our hockey family. We hope to welcome the team back to the competition in a year’s time.”
At the same time the club and the league both rejected proposals to play the coming season in another town. Poprad, in Slovakia, had offered the use of its rink for a nominal rent of one euro. But the Tatra resort, which hosted KHL hockey with Lev Poprad in the 2011/2012 season, will not be returning to the competition.
While Donbass may yet return, it’s clear that the roster will be rather different. Although existing contracts are due to be ‘defrosted’ when the team is back in action, some big names had already moved on as the uncertainty around the coming season continued.
Yevgeni Dadonov, a member of Russia’s World Championship-winning roster, switched to SKA St. Petersburg and last season’s head coach, Andrei Nazarov, will replace Ari-Pekka Selin behind the bench at Barys Astana. Nazarov was also coaching the Ukrainian national team last season.
Donbass and Spartak might take heart from the imminent return of Lada Togliatti. The club was expelled from the KHL in 2011 because its home arena was too small, but is set to return in September after four years in the second-tier VHL. In the intervening years the club has built a new arena with a capacity of 6,122 spectators.
Lada is one of three newcomers this season. The ‘motormen’ will be joined by new club team HK Sochi that will use the 2014 Olympics’ Shayba Arena and by Finnish club Jokerit Helsinki.
The Finns are set to plant the KHL flag in a new country, with Finland becoming the ninth country to be represented in the competition. Jokerit’s switch to the KHL was first proposed last summer after a consortium of Gennadi Timchenko and Boris Rotenberg (both on the board at SKA) and Arkadi Rotenberg (chairman of Dynamo Moscow) bought Helsinki’s Hartwall Arena. The trio are Russian-Finnish dual nationals and share ownership of the club with Harry Harkimo.