PRAGUE – Lev Prague becomes the third team of the Kontinental Hockey League that will not play in the Russian-based league next season after Spartak Moscow and Donbass Donetsk. The runner-up of the KHL has to withdraw its team due to financial difficulties.
After several weeks of rumours the news was eventually confirmed on Tuesday. That may mark the end of the three-year history of the “Lions”. The Czech-Russian investors started in 2011 with Lev Poprad in the Slovak resort town after the Czech hockey authorities had initially said no to a KHL team in their country. After one year in the KHL the team was let go bankrupt while the Czechs changed their mind and gave green light for Lev Prague in 2012.
The team was welcomed with a certain portion of scepticism in a city that already had two traditional top-level teams with Slavia and Sparta of the Czech Extraliga. During the last regular season, Lev Prague draw an attendance of 5,139 fans, much less than Sparta (7,117), which played in the same arena, and only slightly more than Slavia (4,861). It ranked Lev sixth in attendance among Czech clubs. Too little to come close to funding a KHL-style budget of reportedly 750 million koruna (€27.3m) – multiple of what other Czech clubs spend – without external help as it was given from Gazprom until now.
It worked out better on the ice for Lev Prague, which finished the regular season in second place in the Western Conference and became conference winner before teams like SKA St. Petersburg or the Moscow teams in the playoffs. In the Gagarin Cup Final Lev lost to Eastern Conference winner Metallurg Magnitogorsk. The steel city team avoided history to be written with a foreign champion winning the most prestigious domestic hockey title in Russia.
The future for KHL hockey in Prague looks uncertain although, same as Spartak Moscow and Donbass Donetsk, the investors later called their withdrawal a “one-year sabbatical” from the KHL with the goal of re-establishing the KHL team in the future if the financial situation improves. The owners made clear that Sparta Prague, which is part of the same ownership, will not be affected by the decision.
On the same day it was announced that Lev captain Jiri Novotny will leave for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl while Canadian forward Justin Azevedo will transfer to Ak Bars Kazan. It was the first signs of what would be announced a few hours later: the end for a team that played so successfully a few months ago.
While the first KHL squads will start on-ice sessions soon, there will also be more certainty about how the league will operate next season. The bad news from Prague means that the Kontinental Hockey League will most likely include 28 teams – same as last season. While Lev, Spartak and Donbass will be missing in the schedule, Lada Togliatti will return to the league that will be joined by Finland’s Jokerit Helsinki and newly founded HK Sochi, which plans to play in the Bolshoy Ice Dome, the primary hockey venue of the 2014 Olympic Winter Games.