There were fears that COVID restrictions would make it impossible to run an international competition. With many countries closing their borders to inbound foreign citizens, a championship involving teams from six nations faced some unusual challenges. However, only one team has dropped out for the coming campaign: Admiral Vladivostok withdrew after the local authority in the Primorye Region ended its funding for pro sports to raise funds for the fight against the pandemic.
The situation has still caused disruption, of course. Beijing-based franchise Kunlun Red Star has been forced to relocate from China due to restrictions imposed by the government. The Dragons will play at Arena Mytishi, a host venue for the 2007 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship, this season. Red Star also had problems organizing the paperwork for its foreign players and coaches to join up with the team. As a result, head coach Curt Fraser and his team were replaced by Alexei Kovalyov, Vyacheslav Kozlov and Igor Ulanov and an all-new roster of Russian players has signed while the team waits for its imports.
There are also new logistical challenges. With Russia’s borders effectively closed for many foreign citizens, flights were hard to organize. Many EU-based imports were asked to travel to Frankfurt and join a charter flight that visited Moscow and Magnitogorsk, while some arrivals from North America, such as Avangard newcomer Reid Boucher, only got to Russia last week. Moreover, KHL president Alexei Morozov explained earlier this week that work was still on-going to ensure everyone had the necessary documentation to enable teams to travel from country to country and fulfil their fixtures.
“Currently, there is an ongoing process of issuing invitations and multi-entry visas to players, coaches and staff of KHL teams, allowing them unhindered movement across the borders,” Morozov told KHL.ru. “For the time being, we’ll do it this way: a list of the members of each team and details of time and place of each border crossing will be shared with the relevant state authorities. We trialled this scheme in the summer, and there were no problems.”
Morozov added that he saw no reason for teams to avoid travelling to Belarus to play Dynamo Minsk, despite the recent political protests in the country. “Dynamo went through a full pre-season, played several exhibition games, and competed at the Salei Cup,” he said. “Several foreign players have joined the team. At present, I see no reason why visiting teams should cancel their trip to Minsk. Hockey is all about respect.”
Fans in the building
The last game of the 2019/20 KHL season, Dynamo Moscow’s first-round playoff clincher at Spartak, was played behind closed doors in an eerie atmosphere in the Russian capital. One of the big questions about returning to action this term was whether spectators could be allowed into the games. And the answer is a cautious ‘yes’.
All but three clubs will open part of their arenas for fans. However, there are strict limits on capacity and teams are expected to abide by local regulations about social distancing. For example, when CSKA Moscow takes on Ak Bars Kazan in Wednesday’s Opening Cup showdown, tickets are generally sold for every other seat to maintain the 1.5m distancing recommended by Russia’s public health authority. Not all sectors of the CSKA Arena will be open. However, in two sectors fans from the same household or family can book groups of adjacent seats.
Elsewhere, clubs are operating at limited capacities – usually up to 20% of the official arena capacity, depending on regional or national legislation. Dinamo Riga will allow 1,000 spectators according to current rules in Latvia. Three arenas, though, will not admit fans at the start of the season: Barys Nur-Sultan, Severstal Cherepovets and Sibir Novosibirsk will play behind closed doors until the coronavirus situation improves in those places.
The hard salary cap
One of the hottest topics in Russian hockey in recent seasons has been the imposition of a hard salary cap. In previous seasons, the KHL and the Russian Hockey Federation imposed a ‘soft’ cap on teams, with a progressively stricter regime in place season on season. This year sees the first season of an inflexible limit, set at 900 million rubles (just over US$12 million) per team.
Opinion is divided. Supporters believe it will lead to a more competitive league, with leading players shared more evenly among the clubs. Opponents fear that it will make it harder for the KHL to keep Russian players at home, or to attract high-quality imports from Europe and North America, potentially sparking a drain on talent that will reduce the overall level of the league and hamper team Russia’s development.
This summer, it’s clear that several players have moved precisely because of the salary cap. SKA and CSKA, two of the wealthiest teams in the KHL, have off-loaded several big-name players to other KHL teams in order to comply with the spending limit. The Muscovites parted with Olympic champions Sergei Kalinin and Alexei Marchenko, imports Linden Vey and Jiri Sekac, and rising star Sergei Tolchinski. SKA, meanwhile, parted company with two more Olympic champions, Ilya Kablukov and Andrei Zubarev, as well as forwards Dmitri Kagarlitski, Maxim Karpov, Sergei Plotnikov and Nail Yakupov. Imports Jori Lehtera and Jarno Koskiranta also moved on.
Kalinin told Sports24 about his shock when he realised what the salary cap would mean for his future. “I had a contract with CSKA for another two seasons,” he said. “Nobody could have guessed that things would turn out this way, but this is the new reality. We need to get used to it. Even when I signed a long contract with SKA, they told me there would be a hard salary cap in a couple of years but I never thought it would affect me.”
For some players, such as Olympic champion Nikita Nesterov, the new rules have made it difficult to find an employer: at present, the 27-year-old defenceman does not have a club for the coming season after failing to agree terms with CSKA.
Another side-effect of the pandemic has been a handful of players returning home from North America on loans. With the NHL season not due to start until December, and with little clarity about the minor leagues, players and clubs are looking for opportunities to secure some game time.
As a result, Jokerit Helsinki has picked up two former players, forward Eeli Tolvanen and defenceman Mikko Lehtonen, on loan from their NHL organizations. Tolvanen, still only 21, was a breakout star in Helsinki in 2017/18, smashing rookie scoring records and getting an Olympic call-up for Finland. Since joining the Predators, though, his progress has been more muted. Despite regularly placing among the leading scorers in the AHL, he has just a handful of NHL appearances to his name. Lehtonen, meanwhile, joined the Maple Leafs in the summer after agreeing to scratch the second year of his contract with Jokerit. He’s also back in Helsinki until the NHL camps start up, looking to add to his 49-point haul from last term.
The Finns are not alone: forward Yegor Korshkov is swapping Toronto for Yaroslavl on a season-long return to Lokomotiv, Vitali Kravtsov returns to Traktor from the Rangers – reigniting the duel between the two teen stars of 2018 – and Flyers prospect German Rubtsov joins Sochi. Depending on how soon the new season can start in North America, there could be more to follow – especially in the event of a de facto ‘lock-out’ across the Atlantic.
On the ice
Pre-season threw up several intriguing storylines that could develop throughout the season. Two of them involve Salavat Yulayev, where new head coach Tomi Lamsa steps up in place of Nikolai Tsulygin. Lamsa, 40, arrived in Ufa as assistant to Erkka Westerlund in 2017 and remained at the club after his mentor’s departure. Now he’s in charge – only the second foreigner after Westerlund to have the head coach’s role. One of his challenges will be to replace local hero Linus Omark, who left the club after five seasons. Markus Granlund is the new import among the forwards, but the Finn arrived from Edmonton reminding fans in Bashkortostan that his game is very different from his Swedish predecessor’s.
Another big summer trade saw Nigel Dawes leave Avtomobilist for Ak Bars. Dawes is the top-scoring import in KHL history with 501 points in 547 games. However, he has yet to get close to winning the Gagarin Cup, despite his legendary scoring feats in Kazakhstan and Yekaterinburg. Ak Bars is a team that is always in contention for the big prizes and, at the age of 35, this move could be Dawes’ best chance of polishing his reputation with some hardware.
Traktor is a team looking to improve. Anvar Gatiyatulin is back in Chelyabinsk after a couple of years on the staff at SKA. His last season with Traktor saw the club reach the Eastern Conference final, and some astute summer recruitment – as well as Kravtsov, the team has added Pontus Aberg and Lawrence Pilut, two impressive Swedes – points to a promising campaign.
Gatiyatulin isn’t the only coach leaving SKA, with Alexei Kudashov stepping down as head coach in Petersburg. Valeri Bragin will take over behind the bench. Bragin is well known for years of work with Russia’s juniors, but his experience of club coaching in the KHL is limited to half an unsuccessful season with a pre-petrodollar CSKA. On the plus side, Bragin has worked with many of SKA’s players as they emerged through the national program and will be a good mentor for the crop of youngsters emerging in Petersburg. However, it’s not clear how quickly he will adapt to the day-to-day pressures of coaching in club hockey after years pursuing longer-term objectives with the U20s. Bragin will also combine the SKA job with the role of head coach for the Russian national team.