The Russians are ready.
With time ticking down until the NHL is expected to lock out its players, KHL teams and executives are bracing for a windfall. The Russian-based league will open its arms to NHL players who wake up Sept. 16 without a place to play because it believes it can capitalize while arenas go dark around North America.
“Mainly I think it’s going to be a lot of additional marketing potential for the league and hockey itself as a game,” KHL vice-president Ilya Kochevrin told The Canadian Press on Tuesday. “The stars bring additional attention … to a lot of people who probably don’t consider hockey the sport of choice.
“I think as a marketing tool it’s a great opportunity.”
Most of the top Russian players are expected to quickly make their way home if the NHL and NHL Players’ Association are unable to reach a new collective bargaining agreement by Sept. 15. Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin, Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk have already been linked to KHL teams—as have Sergei Gonchar, Nikolai Kulemin and others.
It will be interesting to see how many top players from other countries join them in the event of a lockout.
Swedish players, for example, won’t be permitted to play in their homeland after the country’s hockey federation announced last month that all contracts must last for the entire year—something Henrik Zetterberg or Erik Karlsson wouldn’t sign because of the possibility the NHL season gets underway after a short stoppage.
Karlsson bemoaned that fact to reporters after a skate with teammates in Ottawa on Tuesday, saying it didn’t leave Swedes with many options. “Maybe the Swedish League changes its mind once it gets closer,” he added.
Six of the KHL’s 26 teams are based in countries other than Russia and the league has designs on expanding its reach even further. Two regular-season games are already scheduled for the newly built Barclays Center in Brooklyn in January and the league has looked into its options for showing games on TV in North America this season.
“We’re waiting for the outcome (of the NHL’s labour negotiations),” said Kochevrin. “There is definitely great interest from broadcasters and I’m pretty sure once the (NHL’s) deal is announced one way or the other, you’re going to see (that).
“I’m pretty sure that if there is a lockout the KHL can be a definite choice for North American hockey fans.”
It might be the best place to see pro hockey this fall.
The NHL and NHLPA broke off negotiations last week and both sides confirmed Tuesday that there were no plans to resume them. Meanwhile, players have started flooding back to their NHL cities amid the labour uncertainty and could find themselves looking for somewhere else to play by the end of next week.
Ovechkin took the ice at the Washington Capitals facility in Virginia on Tuesday and acknowledged afterwards that he was likely to start the season in Russia.
“Of course I’m probably going to be there, but I don’t want to be there,” Ovechkin told reporters. “I want to be here. My contract is here.”
Once a lockout is enacted, players are free to contract out their services to other teams for the duration of the stoppage. There’s no telling how many NHL players could make their way to the KHL, but league rules limit the 20 Russian-based teams to dressing five foreigners per game. There are no restrictions on the six based elsewhere.
One agent with strong ties in Europe said competition for KHL jobs could get fierce if the NHL’s labour situation drags out.
The biggest concern for the league, which kicked off its fifth season in Moscow on Tuesday night, is ensuring that any players who come over are committed.
“We are striving to ensure that those who come to us from over the ocean are not just tourists, but players who will come and do battle for real,” KHL president Alexander Medvedev told the league’s website recently.
The international hockey landscape has changed since the NHL lost the entire 2004-05 to a lockout.
Back then, the Russian Superleague saw a number of top players in uniform, including Datsyuk, Patrik Elias, Vincent Lecavalier and Jaromir Jagr. However, their presence didn’t result in a significant boost to the league as a whole.
Given the opportunity to welcome the stars back to Russia, the KHL feels it is in a better position than its predecessor to capitalize.
“Everybody feels much more secure,” said Kochevrin. “The previous lockout was an extremely interesting deal for a lot of Russian fans, but at the same time, for the league it was kind of damaging.
“I think the main difference today is that the league is extremely structured.”