HELSINKI – The Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) has quickly established itself as the leading European hockey league. With good players and coaches comes good hockey. The KHL has a good base of good Russian players, but it’s also attracted dozens and dozens of Finns, Swedes, Czechs, and Slovaks.
And for a good reason. Money.
This season, 31 Finnish players play hockey in the KHL, and the league has become the preferred choice for those players who are either on their way to the NHL, or are on their way back from there. No other league can compete with the KHL salaries, on a league level, and few clubs can offer players equivalent salaries even in individual cases.
In the last few seasons, the KHL has also come knocking on the doors of clubs in other leagues during the season, making it very difficult for the players and clubs to turn down their offers.
In Finland, for example, KalPa Kuopio sold their starting goalie, Ari Ahonen, to Magnitogorsk in November 2011 while Tappara Tampere let their then-leading scorer, defenceman Tuukka Mäntylä, go to Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk. Kim Hirschovits went from HIFK Helsinki to Torpedo Nizhni Novgorod in January.
Last summer, HIFK Helsinki coach Petri Matikainen jumped ship and signed with Avangard Omsk with a year left on his contract with the Helsinki club. A few months later, KalPa Kuopio sold Matti Kuparinen – their leading scorer – to Omsk.
Even the Finnish federation got in the game by letting head coach Jukka Jalonen double as the head coach of SKA St. Petersburg the rest of this season.
Last week, Espoo Blues announced that their leading scorer, Teemu Ramstedt, would finish the season with SKA in St. Petersburg, and the next day, SaiPa Lappeenranta’s starting goaltender Jani Nieminen was on his way to Ak Bars Kazan.
“It’s a fantastic opportunity. I can’t even fathom it yet. I know I’d have regretted it for the rest of my life had I not jumped on this opportunity,” Nieminen said on SaiPa’s website.
“It’s a huge step for me. Naturally, nobody made me leave, I just couldn’t let this opportunity pass by, and I’m grateful to the Blues management for everything,” said Ramstedt, who signed a new one-year deal with Blues in December – with an out clause for the KHL.
That way, any KHL team would have to buy him out of the contract, making it a better deal for the Blues.
It’s almost as if selling players has become a part of a season plan for Finnish clubs.
“No, we never start out planning to sell our players,” Janne Vuorinen, Sport Director at the Espoo Blues, told IIHF.com.
“However, if a KHL club contacts us about a player, we’ll consider it case by case. We don’t initiate the talks, it has always been the KHL club who's done that. We'll listen and consider what’s best for the club and the player,” he said.
Naturally, sometimes it's the player's agent who initiates the talks.
Either way, Finnish teams have their ears to the ground.
"Having players get bought out by KHL teams is a potential part of our business logic. We can't count on it, but we have to be able to react quickly because they are the single biggest way to improve the club's finances in the middle of a season, and in the best-case scenario, the implications reach far beyond one season," said another SM-liiga executive.
In the press release announcing Ramstedt’s transfer to SKA, the Blues wrote the compensation was a new club record. While the financial terms aren’t officially announced, according to several media reports, they are in the six figures. In euros.
According to media reports, the KHL team that is interested in signing Sakari Salminen, currently fourth in league scoring, will have to pay KalPa €1 million. Not bad for a club that recorded €7 million in revenues last season.
“Our goal is to get players to either the NHL or the KHL, so that we can get funds to develop our club. In the future, we hope that the player movement would be more towards the NHL so that we could keep our roster intact during the season,” said Kimmo Kapanen, the KalPa’s CEO.
The transfers have quickly become a part of the way things are done in Finland, and even the fans are used to the rosters changing constantly. And the fact that teams can even trade away their leading scorers or starting goalies. In fact, a leading scorer or a hot goalie are more likely to find themselves on their way to the KHL than a slumping centre.
“I’m sure it stings the fans a little bit, for a while, but the rosters always change during a season, and I think it’s a natural part of doing things. Also, when a player goes to the KHL, the deal usually has a positive effect on the club’s future as we can improve our operations and facilities faster,” said Kapanen.
According to an SM-liiga executive who wished to remain anonymous, the fans understand it's a win-win situation.
"I think the example of European football helps. And, players return from the KHL every once in a while, too," he told IIHF.com.
Vuorinen even goes one step further and said the player movement to the KHL may help the Finnish league.
“I don’t think the KHL transfers have an effect on the SM-liiga, at least not a negative one. New players will always step up, and the compensation the SM-liiga clubs get from the KHL teams will help the teams to invest in their future,” he said.
The SM-liiga closes its transfer window on January 31, so Finnish teams still have a week to make moves that will help them improve their bottom line – and make them a better team.
Just maybe not in the short term.
- HIFK Helsinki fired their head coach Pasi Sormunen on Monday. The new head coach is former national team head coach Raimo Summanen, who won a Finnish championship with HIFK Helsinki in 1998 as assistant to Erkka Westerlund. Summanen has most recently been the head coach of Avangard Omsk in the KHL in 2012 when the team went to the Gagarin Cup final.
- With Jani Nieminen going to Ak Bars Kazan, SaiPa Lappeenranta signed Hannu Toivonen to a contract that covers the remainder of the season. Toivonen, a former Boston Bruin, started the season with the Orlando Solar Bears in the ECHL.
- Ilari Filppula, Jokerit Helsinki, is the league’s leading scorer with 48 points in 38 games. Juha-Pekka Haataja – rumored to be on his way to the KHL – is second, four points behind Filppula.