By the Beautiful Blue Danube
by Andy Potts|30 OCT 2018
CSKA Moscow players Mikhail Naumenkov and Sergei Andronov battle for the puck with Slovan Bratislava’s Michal Repik.
photo: Andreas Robanser
Last weekend saw the inaugural KHL World Games. The league played two regular-season games in Vienna, Austria, giving fans in Central Europe a chance to see some of its top stars in action. Slovan Bratislava, the oldest club in the KHL, was the host at the Erste Bank Arena; CSKA Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg, the clubs that provided the bulk of the successful Olympic roster in PyeongChang, provided the opposition.

A Viennese waltz for the Army Men

Game one was on Friday – and it ended as a record road win in KHL history. CSKA powered to a 9-0 success over Slovan. Vienna’s reputation as a city that attracted the greatest geniuses of music and the arts clearly inspired the visitors from Moscow; the Army Men stormed to a 4-0 lead inside 10 minutes and never allowed Slovan a chance to recover. 

It was a similar story on Sunday, when Petersburg’s Army club romped to a 7-0 victory. The 11,000 fans who bought tickets to the games saw 16 goals across the two games and witnessed an impressive exhibition of hockey from CSKA and SKA, but were denied a genuinely competitive encounter.

Not that local observers were too disappointed. Bernd Bruckler, the Austrian goalie who played in the KHL for Torpedo Nizhni Novgorod and Sibir Novosibirsk, was sure that the World Games had achieved their objective of promoting the league in Europe.

“Sure, it would be better to see closer games, where the scoreline isn’t so lopsided, but we have to remember that CSKA and SKA are top clubs and are well capable of producing this kind of result. For fans in Austria, the most important thing is that they are seeing truly high-class hockey. Games like these can only help to promote the KHL brand.”

Many in Austrian ice hockey believed it was the best players they have seen for 13 years when the 2005 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship was held in Vienna and Innsbruck.
Thoughts of the ‘brand’ were uppermost in the mind of Roman Rotenberg, SKA’s vice-president. “I think showcase games like these and the ones next month in Zurich are interesting for all concerned,” he said. “At SKA, we see it as a chance to promote our brand in Europe. We’ve already been working on it for nine years and we are seeing results. For example, on social media, SKA has more than one million followers. We’re selling our merchandise right across Europe, including here in Austria.”

Among the players, the reaction was mixed. For some, like Nikita Gusev, coming to Vienna was just another game – two more points in the battle at the top of the Western Conference. Others were more enthusiastic. Fellow SKA forward Viktor Tikhonov spoke about encouraging more non-Russian teams into the KHL as a way of boosting interest and raising the level of the competition. CSKA frontman Mikhail Grigorenko suggested he’d love to see the league expand to Amsterdam or England. Among his team-mates, Ivan Telegin, Konstantin Okulov and Mikhail Pashnin took the chance for a flying visit to Vienna’s famed Belvedere gallery, home of Gustav Klimt’s masterpiece ‘The Kiss’.

An NHL showdown?

Away from the KHL World Games, one of the hot topics was the prospect of a new round of exhibition games between NHL and KHL teams. CSKA president Igor Yesmantovich spoke of his hopes of setting up a showcase Trans-Atlantic clash to mark this season’s centenary of Soviet legend Anatoli Tarasov, who was born in December 1918. The idea was also endorsed by KHL president Dmitri Chernyshenko, who told journalists: “We have been eager to do this for a long time, both us at the KHL and our colleagues in the NHL. The problem is getting it to fit around into the calendar. I’m sure there would be huge interest around these games; they could go down in history.”

IIHF President RenĂ© Fasel, who was a guest of honour at the Slovan – SKA game, offered his support for the idea and promised to raise the proposals with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman when the two meet at the NHL games in Helsinki. Fasel also gently encouraged the KHL to find a way of entering the Champions Hockey League.

Not just Vienna

The Austrian capital was not the only city welcoming visitors from the KHL over the weekend. Jokerit Helsinki hopped across the Baltic Sea to Tallinn, where it played two games in the recently developed Tondiraba Ice Hall, which will host the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B next spring. In contrast with the action in Vienna, these were highly competitive clashes. On Friday, Spartak Moscow led 2-0 and 3-1 before falling to a goal in overtime. Two days later, Severstal Cherepovets tied it up at 2-2 in the 59th minute, only for Niklas Jensen to pot a last-gasp winner for Jokerit.

And it’s not the end for the KHL World Games, either. The action moves to Zurich, Switzerland next month when Dinamo Riga will host SKA and CSKA on 26 and 28 November at Hallenstadion.