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Euro Curve: Taking a look at the KHL

So the ambitious new Continental Hockey League (KHL) will begin it’s first season of professional existence in Russia come this September even though that country’s best players will continue to skate in the National Hockey League.

The KHL will feature 24 teams, including four from outside Russia, and will be the second hockey league (the World Hockey Association of the 1970’s being the other) to attempt to compete with the NHL.  Russian Nationals such as founding Owner Alexander Medvedev and Russian Sports Minister Vyacheslav Fetisov, tired of witnessing the perpetual exodus of Russia’s top young players to North America, are hoping that the KHL will develop a large enough revenue base and talent pool to change the current professional hockey landscape and make the National Hockey League a little nervous.  This may prove difficult for Medvedev, Fetisov, et al. however because of the perceived superiority of the NHL and it’s 30 teams.

Now, to their credit, the executives and team owners of the KHL have done an admirable job of facilitating the transition of the Russian Superliga to a larger, more diverse league, but they still have not accomplished enough in the area they most wanted to. And that area is the skill level of course.  Yes, I know, future Hall of Famer Jaromir Jagr signed with Avangard Omsk, Ray Emery signed with Atlant Mytischi and Alexander Radulov signed with Salavat Yulaev (although the NHL’s Nashville Predators are fighting the transaction in court). But the list of other former NHLers who are committed to playing in the KHL next season don’t exactly have people booking flights to Moscow.  Names like Alexei Zhitnik, Chris Simon, John Grahame and Duvie Westcott don’t exactly stack up well against Sidney Crosby, Niklas Lidstrom, Martin Brodeur and Marian Hossa.

And although it has been widely speculated that several teams, including Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, approached Pittsburgh Penguins ace Evgeni Malkin prior to the NHL’s July 1 Free Agent Deadline, and offered him lucrative money to switch leagues (as high as US$12.5 million per season), he still decided to stay in North America.  The Malkin offers prompted the National Hockey League and International Ice Hockey Federation (of which Medvedev has a seat on the Board) to strike a tentative agreement which would prevent leagues from signing players who are under contract.  Nonetheless, Medvedev instructed owners that they could pursue NHLers (ie. Radulov). As anyone can see, this doesn’t help the image of a league which is trying badly to appear savvy and attractive.

The reality facing the KHL is that their league is simply inferior. If it wasn’t, why wouldn’t freshly-drafted hockey prospects Nikita Filatov and Viktor Tikhonov remain in Russia? Filatov and Tikhonov chose to sign with Columbus and Phoenix, respectively, (although Russian club team Red Army is fighting Filatov’s contract) as the KHL struggled to lure over-the-hill stars such as Jaromir Jagr and Alexei Zhitnik to their league.  If Russia’s national sports body is tired of seeing their players leave for the NHL, they are going to have to get used to it, because money alone will not buy a better league.

The National Hockey League, and in turn North America, has a proud tradition of hosting the best hockey teams in the World and until the Gagarin Cup (the trophy which will be awarded to the KHL’s best team) is considered to be on-par with Lord Stanley’s Cup, the KHL’s hype will never live up to anything.  Ya sure, Jagr and Yashin are (were?) great players, but you won’t convince anyone that Russia’s current collection of a stars pose a threat to the National Hockey League’s talent pool.

It will be exciting to watch the new Continental Hockey League and it’s new stars but they may want to take it easy on the whole NHL comparison talk.

For Illegal Curve, I’m Ezra Ginsburg.