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Russian professional hockey league mounts challenge to NHL

RIGA, Latvia - This former outpost of the Soviet empire has looked west for just about everything from politics to fashion since the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Not so ice hockey. Dinamo Riga, once the pride of Latvian hockey and the best Soviet team outside Moscow, owes its revival to Russia's ambitions to create an international league to compete with the NHL.

Dinamo is one of three foreign teams in Russia's cash-rich Continental Hockey League (KHL), which got under way last week amid contract disputes with its North American counterpart.

The Kremlin-backed KHL is hoping to move beyond the former Soviet sphere - the other two foreign teams are from Belarus and Kazakhstan - and expand into Western Europe as early as next season.

"We see the league as a challenge to the NHL in the future," said Vsevolod Kukushkin, a dean of European ice hockey writing.

Although dismissed by the NHL, the Russian challenge has already begun. Players like Jaromir Jagr, Ray Emery, Jozef Stumpel, Alexander Radulov and Nikita Filatov defected from the NHL to settle in with Russian teams.

The two leagues locked horns immediately, each side accusing the other of poaching players already under contract.

The KHL announced last week that it was no longer obligated to abide by a moratorium reached in July, when the leagues agreed to not sign players that were under contract. The Radulov case, for one, appears to be headed to court.

Nevertheless, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly reiterated what he said at the NHL draft in June, that the Russian league was not a major concern.

"Of course we're disappointed with some of the things that have happened since the entry draft but, no, I don't think I would change my answer today, that we don't consider the KHL to be a major concern," Daly said in an e-mail to The Associated Press.

Europeans, however, are taking the Russian league seriously.

League organizers hope that Dinamo Riga, currently the only team representing a European Union country, will serve as a kind of showcase for further expansion into Europe.

The KHL has already entered negotiations with a number of European teams that have shown interest in joining, KHL spokesman Alexander LaPutin said.

"We hope that the expansion would be next season," he said.

Two top Swedish teams, Farjestad and Frolunda Indians, have been in contact with KHL officials. They have no immediate plans to join the league, but are not ruling it out in the future.

"It's going to take some time but this will be a serious challenge to the entire world of hockey," said Mats Ahdrian, managing director of Frolunda Indians. "If you can't beat them you have to join them."

In its embryonic stage, the KHL can rely on a formidable group of benefactors that includes some of Russia's state-owned or controlled corporations.

Awash with cash after years of high oil and commodity prices, companies such as Gazprom, the world's largest natural gas producer, and Norilsk Nickel, the world's No. 1 producer of nickel and palladium, are providing the financial muscle.

The largest backer is Gazprom, and its chairman Alexander Medvedev is doubling as the KHL's president.

"Basically the KHL gets its funding from five or six major state companies and two private companies that are also major," LaPutin said in a phone interview. "It could be called a sort of state program."

With sponsors like that, league organizers believe that the sky is the limit. Jagr, for instance, will receive US$7 million to play for Avangard Omsk in Siberia.

Still, many players have doubts about the league's staying power and have signed contracts for only one or two years.

"People want to see where this will go before committing to more," said Ronald Petrovicky, a former NHL player with Calgary, New York, Atlanta and Pittsburgh who now skates for Dinamo Riga.

Political uncertainty may also be an obstacle to expansion. The launching of the KHL comes on the heels of Russia's invasion of Georgia and renewed fears of a vengeful Kremlin bent on restoring regional domination.

"Those things will affect the league," Ahdrian said, adding that the KHL was still viewed with some skepticism in the West.

"Right now it's very Russian. Even though they've copied the NHL's structures, they've adapted them to Russian conditions," he said. "If you look at the players, they are mostly from former Eastern bloc nations, then Finns and Swedes. There are not many North Americans."

In Latvia, a tiny state still haunted by memories of a half-century of Soviet occupation, ice hockey is the nation's most beloved sport, and league organizers are confident that people will pay $15 to $25 to see the likes of Jagr, Emery and Stumpel.

The team is backed by Itera Latvija, a natural gas supplier and a subsidiary of a Russian company by the same name. Its ownership structure is vague but has strong links to Gazprom.

"For the first time we have a big market. This is a business project, there is great interest from Scandinavian sport networks and from ESPN - they want TV licenses as well," said the club's marketing director, Martins Kalnins.

Using a model similar to the NHL, the Russian league is split into four divisions named after famous Russian players. The 24 teams were assigned to a division by lottery.

One drawback for players is the enormous distances between venues. Dinamo Riga, the westernmost team, is 6,800 kilometres from the easternmost, Amur, in Khabarovsk.

LaPutin said the league has tried to minimize teams' flying and the inevitable jet lag. Dinamo Riga, for instance, will play seven games on its 10-day trip to Russia's Siberia and Far East regions.

In the end, league organizers are aware that by taking on the NHL they are fighting an uphill battle.

Andrei Kovalenko, a former NHL star now acting as the head of the KHL's newly formed players union, feels the league is up to the challenge.

"The NHL has worked a long time and they have very good players there - I think the best in the world," he said. "But this season the KHL will show their skill to everyone."


Associated Press writers Karl Ritter in Stockholm, Sweden, and Leonid Chizhov in Moscow contributed to this report.


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