ZURICH – For reigning European club champion Metallurg Magnitogorsk, everything is new this season when it comes to competition. The Russian Superliga has been reorganised and is now the KHL. The European club champion will be crowned during a four-month Champions Hockey League instead of the four-day European Champions Cup tournament. And finally, international ice hockey will reach a new level with the Victoria Cup between the European club champion and the New York Rangers. Gennady Velichkin, the general director of Metallurg Magnitogorsk, talked to IIHF.com about the changes in the 2008-2009 season.
The season in Russia is starting soon. Which changes have you made to your team seven months after winning the ECC?
The team is getting stronger. We have added new players like Tomas Rolinek, Karel Pilar or Nikolai Zavaraukhin from champion Salavat Yulayev Ufa. We also kept our stars like Vitaly Atyushov, Evgeni Varlamov, Alexei Kaigorodov or Jan Marek. I think we’ll be in good shape.
Describe your goals for the upcoming season.
We want to win everything! The KHL, the Champions Hockey League, the Victoria Cup. This task was given us from our president, Mr. Rashnikov. He’s a leader in steel products and wants to be number one everywhere. His slogan is to have everything or nothing.
What does the new Champions Hockey League mean for Metallurg?
For us, it means a lot. We were very successful in the last seasons of existence of the European Hockey League, which we won in 1999 and 2000. We had a very good impression from international tournaments and so did our fans in Russia. We gained new fans all around the country. So it’s important for us and our fans, and also for our president Viktor Rashnikov, who owns the Magnitogorsk Iron & Steel Works MMK (Magnitogorsky Metallurgichesky Kombinat). He’s the leader and chairman of the plant, and a very important man in Russia. Our club exists thanks to him. All our success is combined with him. MMK has lot of connections in the world with other enterprises, so, for him it’s important to carry his name abroad. This is why it’s very interesting for us.
At the inaugural Victoria Cup, Metallurg will also be the first Russian club to play against an NHL team since 1991. What do you think about this new event?
It’s difficult to comment now as there’s so much in the media about the relationship between Russia and the NHL, but it will be very historic for the world of hockey. We will not only play for us, but for Russia, and somehow for all of Europe. We must perform very well and do the best. We must show that there’s not only the NHL, there are also other strong leagues like ours, and also in countries like Sweden, the Czech Republic or Switzerland. We must show that hockey in Europe exists and it’s a big responsibility for us. We hope that we will be supported by the citizens in Europe and in Bern.
There are not only new international competitions, the Russian league has also changed with the new KHL.
Yes, the season promises to be very interesting. Great improvements were made in Russia. If we compare the new league with the one we had years ago, not only are the salaries higher, but now we are trying to sign the best players from all over the world. We want to take the best things from global hockey. The changes concern the whole life circle from kids’ hockey to the pension for retired players. We are able to provide all aspects of ice hockey life now, we will have a draft for junior players, we have a player’s union, new transfer rules and many other things. From 20 Russian clubs, 17 have new arenas with a capacity from 7,000 to 14,000. New arenas will follow in Chelyabinsk and Togliatti. I think with all these things, we can confirm that hockey is the number one sport in Russia and it will develop, develop, and develop. Today, we feel support from the government. Sergei Naryshkin, who is the head of the Administration of the President of Russia and the Deputy Prime Minister of Russia, became chairman of our league.
What is the reason behind the increased interest and the money in the Russian league?
First of all, the states’ structure and big businesses paid great attention to the creation of the new league. I think it also depends on the good club management for example in Omsk, Kazan, Ufa, St. Petersburg and some clubs in Moscow. Russian hockey proved that it could survive the difficult times we had before. We have proved our right to live and now we have some good support.
Which clubs will be your top rivals in the KHL?
That’s very difficult to say as we have about ten clubs with the chance to be champions. This fact tells much about the very high level of the championship. It’s bad if you know before the championship has started that it will be won by one of two teams but with ten clubs, it’s more interesting. It’s like in the NHL, where a forecast is difficult.
What is this year’s budget of your club?
The salary cap for each team in the league is 620 million rubles (€17.2m, $25.4m). Ten to 12 clubs will reach the maximum. But of course there are more expenses like for the farm team, the arena, travel and accommodation. So our budget might be twice as high.