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New Russian hockey league aims to develop, improve hockey worldwide

MONTREAL - It's being billed as an eventual rival to the National Hockey League based across the pond in Europe, but the man behind a new Russian hockey league set to launch this September has modest goals to start.

Alexander Medvedev makes no secret of the fact his league is eagerly eyeing North American talent to fill out the new Continental Hockey League rosters - but he wasn't pitching the fledgling league as a threat to raid the NHL cupboards in Montreal on Thursday.

Instead, Medvedev, who is also the deputy chairman of Russian energy giant OAO Gazprom, thinks the arrival of his league will a boon for hockey worldwide.

"We believe that the creation of a strong Continental Hockey League will help to develop global hockey," Medvedev told The Canadian Press. "I met a couple of times with (NHL commissioner) Gary Bettman and we agreed that we will continue our dialogue to benefit hockey in both North America and in Europe."

The Continental Hockey League, a successor to the Russian Super League, is set to ice 24 teams that will vie for the Gagarin Cup.

The league's first game is scheduled for Sept. 2. Most of the two dozen clubs will be based in Russia with one team each from Belarus, Kazakhstan and Latvia.

Medvedev said the league will adopt international rules and intends to hold a draft that could include NHL players.

Two NHL veterans, tough guy Chris Simon and goaltender John Grahame, have recently indicated they'll join the new league, which hopes to expand throughout Europe.

"I don't consider it a rivalry between the leagues, I think we will co-operate on a player development program," Medvedev said. "I'm rather sure that, with goodwill, we will create a system that will benefit hockey everywhere."

Medvedev, recently elected to the International Ice Hockey Federation council, has a supporter in IIHF president Rene Fasel, who has high hopes for Medvedev because of his passion for hockey.

"It's important to have him on our side," Fasel said, adding hockey needs to be shuffled somewhat in Europe to make it more competitive.

"So we'll sit down with Mr. Medvedev, but we need to sit down and re-organize hockey in Europe and I don't think we need to go too quickly, we need to study this slowly and thoroughly."

National Hockey League clubs have taken notice, although there is no panic among the clubs over the new league.

"I think that we must recognize it, I don't think it's (got) to the point where it is a menace, but it's a possibility it will be," said Montreal Canadiens president Pierre Boivin.

"We have to acknowledge that we are part of sport that is truly worldwide ... it's not just a North American sport, so it's not surprising that in Europe, particularly in Russia, that they have been able to put together a stronger league than we are used to seeing."

Boivin believes it will take any new league a long time to match the NHL's environment and level of play, which attracts the best players in the world.

There's also the issue of player-transfer agreements between European teams and the NHL that remains to be resolved, but both Boivin and Fasel are confident that common ground could be found.

"We will find a solution, we don't want a war," Fasel said.


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