BRATISLAVA – In its fifth year of existence, the KHL has redrawn the hockey map of Europe. History was written last Thursday when Slovan Bratislava became the first established European club from a top-8 league to debut in the Russian-based league.
Apart from of course Russia, the Kontinental Hockey League (founded in 2008-2009) included in its infancy teams from Latvia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. It also expanded to Slovakia last season by placing a club called Lev in the town of Poprad.
But adding Slovan Bratislava is something totally different. It is the first KHL acquisition of a truly major and traditional European club from a country outside of the old Soviet borders. Another non-Russian expansion club is Ukrainian Donbass Donetsk.
IIHF.com was present when these clubs squared off in their season opener at Bratislava’s beautiful Ondrej Nepala Stadium, the venue that was built for the 2011 IIHF World Championship.
Judging by opening night, there was probably not a single person among the 10,305 fans (officially over capacity!) who was deploring the fact that Slovan Bratislava – after 91 years of playing in the Czechoslovak and later Slovak league – was leaving the national domestic environment for the Russian-dominated KHL.
Away games at traditional rivals like Kosice, Dukla Trencin, Zvolen and Nitra will now be redirected to Riga, Moscow, Astana and Kazan. Slovan’s General Manager Maros Krajci sees new opportunities opening up for his club, something which became increasingly limited in the Slovak league.
“As soon as it became known that Slovan would join the KHL, we immediately felt that it was well received by not only our fans in the Bratislava region, but also by many others,” said Krajci.
“Suddenly we started to get ticket requests from Austria (Note: Vienna is only 60 kilometres away), Hungary and also cities in Slovakia which earlier were our opponents. Can you imagine, on 31 July we played an exhibition game here against SKA St. Petersburg. Slovan had never before played a game in July. It was well over 30 degrees outside and the Olympics were on television. We had 8,700 in the building.”
“This was the first sign that we were not only doing something which is right, but it also reinforced what we knew all the time about Slovan; we are more than just a club in our country. Slovan has always been Slovakia’s team, a club which has produced many national team players and famous stars.”
Maros Krajci doesn’t say it outright, but it became clear that Slovan Bratislava would not be able realize its ambitions to be a major player in Europe, not in a league which has an average of 2,699 spectators (last season). Even though Slovan was an overachiever with an average of 5,895 fans, this is still a modest number if compared with the best in Europe.
So when initial plans to have Slovan join the Czech Extraliga fell through, the club refocused to the east.
“The KHL is the best league in Europe and we have a good fan base and a wonderful arena, so when the KHL showed interest of including us in their expansion it wasn’t really a difficult decision,” said Krajci.
“It must also be kept in mind that Slovan has always had a very positive approach to everything which has had to do with international hockey,” said Kracji. “We were enthusiastic over the old European Hockey League, we participated and hosted the Continental Cup, Slovan was very proud to play in the Champions Hockey League and when the European Trophy asked us to participate, we did that too. So playing in the KHL really reflects us embracing international hockey.”
The General Manager admits that the current instability in the Eurozone contributed to the club’s openness to Russia.
“The Euro is shaking right now and we don’t know what will happen. By joining the KHL we are splitting the risk between having one foot in Europe and one in Russia.”
In order to jump leagues, Slovan has had to increase its budget almost three-fold to comply with KHL regulations, which have a provision of a minimum budget for a pro team of 10 million Euros, including a salary floor of 6.25 million Euros. Slovan is slightly above those two numbers which makes the Slovak team a low-budget club by KHL standards.
But the General Manager and his ownership group (Slovan is entirely privately owned) see very encouraging signs that the club’s new status is paying dividends already.
Slovan has sold almost 4,500 season tickets (roughly 50 per cent of capacity) which is an extraordinary number for a Slovak team and the sales of VIP boxes and VIP seats have gone beyond expectations.
“We have sold 30 sky boxes which is double from last season and on top of that we have sold 200 additional VIP seats. We have basically only 100 VIP seats left to sell,” said Krajci.
Despite all this, game revenues, compared with the NHL or even Sweden or Switzerland, are modest. An average monthly salary in Slovakia is below 1,000 Euros and this is why ticket prices must be kept moderate.
To Thursday’s home opener against Donbass Donetsk you could buy the cheapest ticket for 10 Euros while the most expensive was 16 Euros. The average price for a season ticket is 260 Euros.
“We are hoping to increase our average attendance from almost 6,000 to 8-9,000,” says the GM.
The historic premiere showed that Krajci and his board may have underestimated enthusiasm. Although the opponent was virtually unknown, an expansion team from eastern Ukraine, the arena was not only sold out but they managed to squeeze in 250 fans over the official capacity.
Igor Nemecek, who is the President of the Slovak Ice Hockey Federation, echoes the optimism of Maros Krajci, although he realizes that the Slovak Extraliga has lost its most attractive team and what it potentially can mean to Slovak hockey.
“Slovan has always been the magnet club in our league,” said Nemecek. “Despite that many attendance numbers haven’t been low, Slovan has always been a good draw. Now, the clubs will miss out on this revenue opportunity. But there is no question that for the club and the fans around Bratislava joining the KHL is a good thing.”
From having the ambition to win the league title every year, Slovan must get used to setting new, more modest, goals.
“For us the goal this season is very simple, it’s to make the playoffs,” said Maros Krajci. “And we want to do it with a team which is dominated by Slovak players.”
The last ambition articulated by the Slovan GM, cannot possibly be carried by Donbass Donetsk. On the team which somewhat surprisingly won the opener 4-2, there were only two Ukrainian players, Maxim Kvitchenko and Sergi Varlamov, the team captain.
This pretty much reflects the decline in Ukrainian ice hockey in the last 5-7 years. The national team played in the top-16 pool of the IIHF World Championship as late as 2007, but has since then slipped to the third-tier Division IB. So finding top-calibre Ukrainian players isn’t easy.
So the club had no other choice to stay competitive than by adding Russians, Belarusians, Finns, Swedes, Czechs, Slovaks, Latvians and Americans. And Donbass has quickly managed to gel this team together under the experienced leadership of Slovak coach Julius Supler, while also giving the players the best possible conditions on and off the ice in Dontesk, which really is a football city.
“I really didn’t know what to expect when I arrived there,” said Swedish national team forward Fredrik Pettersson, who ended Slovan’s hope for at least a point by scoring the 4-2 insurance goal. “But everything has been very well done by the club, the organization is as good as it possibly can be and we have been given the conditions to succeed.”
Well, the start couldn’t have been any better. And wasn’t it a real piece of irony that the winning goal in Bratislava was scored by Jaroslav Obsut, a Slovak?