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декабря 2008 года.
Kontinentaldivide; Russia's upstart hockey league has had some growing pains during its first season. // Toronto Star
But it has also attracted some top talent with its free-spending ways,
and there's already talk of expansion. Some see the league as a threat
to the NHL.
The key for Russianhockey is to lay a good foundation and help it take off. We need to clean house and that's not easy to do in a system like ours. We can't be looking back to the 1970s or 1980s. Those times are over. We can't get them back. We have to look to the future'Yura Baturin, a teenage prospect with the fabled Russian hockey club Soviet Wings, looked perplexed.
It was early afternoon in Moscow, a city teeming with construction sites and towering architecture, and a light snow had begun to fall. Arriving at a restaurant with his mother Olga after his daily three-hour practice at a nearby rink, Baturin was asked to contemplate his future.
Where did he envision himself in five years? Stupid question. Playing in Russia's new Kontinental Hockey League, of course. "That's the dream, to become famous in Russia," said the lanky 16-year-old goaltender.
Thanks to Russia's upstart KHL, young players like Baturin and legitimate NHL pros alike have a viable alternative to the NHL for the first time since the World Hockey Association poached stars like Bobby Hull, Dave Keon and Derek Sanderson before folding in 1979.
The latest incarnation of Russian hockey, the KHL boasts 21 teams across this expansive country and three others in Latvia, Kazakhstan and Belarus. The league is in its first season and, some significant growing pains aside, is already talking about expanding to new markets in Western Europe such as Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic and Sweden - untapped hockey markets the NHL also covets.
The KHL has wasted little time selling itself to North American professionals - mostly players on the bubble of an NHL job to this point - and to Europeans who are vexed by language barriers and culture shock in North America.
The league's sales pitch is simple make millions and pay just 13 per cent federal tax.
Former NHL stars Jaromir Jagr and Alexei Yashin play in the KHL, as do up-and-coming talents like Alex Radulov, a former star with the Nashville Predators who scored 26 goals in his second NHL season last year. "I'm confident I made the right decision to come back to the motherland," Radulov says in a TV promotion for the KHL. "I think more players will come." The ad ends "Hockey, our game!"
To be sure, the KHL has had its share of tumult, not the least being the arrival of Radulov himself. He had signed with a team in Ufa, Russia, on July 3 even though he was still under contract to the Predators. The NHL protested; the KHL agreed not to poach players, but would not scuttle Radulov's agreement. "If NHL want to challenge this, they can come to a Russian court and do it," said KHL official Rodion Tukhvatulin.
On the ice, there have also been troubling signs. New York Rangers prospect Alexei Cherapanov died on his team's bench during a game earlier this season. Several clubs are already said to be struggling to meet payroll commitments. Reviews of the new league by North American players, coaches and scouts are mixed. And one player in Checkhov, a sleepy town of 60,000 about an hour's drive south of Moscow, said he's seen "everything here; mafia, guns, you name it."
The money might be sweet, but it's still a long way from the NHL in many ways.
A THREE-HOUR flight, or two days' drive east of the Kremlin, the city of Omsk, Siberia, is blue-collar. Its largest employer is a gas refinery called Sibftnet. Until 1993, foreigners were barred from entering Omsk because the city of 2 million was home to classified military factories.
KHL team Avangard Omsk plays its home games in the Omsk Arena, a sparkling, well-lit, 10,000-seat stadium with respectable sightlines, 15 private boxes and cheerleaders stationed at every section of seating. Reserved tickets cost $31 (Canadian) rinkside and $4.50 in the more distant rows. Weekend games start at 5 p.m. and finish around 7, giving fans and players alike time to eat out after the game. The local T.G.I. Friday's is a popular choice among players, including 37-year-old Jagr, who was the NHL's most valuable player in 1999 and now earns about $4 million (U.S.) with Avangard.
Goalie John Grahame, who played with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins, and former Lightning player Alexandr Svitov are also on the team, but the most popular player is clearly Jagr, a Czech who still wears his signature jersey No. 68, which he adopted to mark the year Soviet troops marched into Prague.
"There's no question the hockey is a lot different," Jagr said. "You've got to skate a lot more here, playing on the larger Olympic ice, and there's more room. Even if you take a shot from near the boards here, you're really not that close to the net."
Game programs are free and there are no air horns, organs or vendors walking the aisles. But rock music reverberates through the stadium during breaks in play and over centre ice an NHL-quality video board shows replays.
Between periods, spectators line up at concession counters, and for about $4.50 at one concessionaire called "Chicken Next Door," they can buy chicken nuggets or kabobs. A pint-sized beer costs $3.80 and Pringle's potato chips are available for $6.70 for a large, or $3.60 for a small. Jagr and Cherapanov black home jerseys - they bear a resemblance to those worn by the Buffalo Sabres - are available for about $70 apiece. The prices may seem in line with those in North America, but here in Omsk, the average family income is about $19,000 a year.
In a curious twist, the team has built a platform for cheerleaders right behind one of the nets, sacrificing the revenue from some 50 seats a game.
Omsk players dress for the games in a room that would be considered small by NHL standards, but it's hardly spartan. There's wall-to-wall carpeting, stereos, a sauna, steam room and several dozen stationary bikes - which did little more than gather dust before the team's coach, Canadian Wayne Fleming, introduced a mandatory fitness program and imported a strength and conditioning coach from Calgary.
During Soviet times, players starring for the likes of Moscow Dynamo, and CSKA, also known as the Red Army team, were ushered to VIP tea-and-caviar rooms in Moscow's Palace of Sports before games to meet visiting dignitaries. Then, a bell would ring, a curtain parted, and players would take to the ice as a Russian song was played. Its rough translation was "Cowards Don't Play Hockey." Nowadays, there's just a pre-game warm-up and a recorded version of the Russian national anthem. Anthems from Latvia and other countries are also played when teams visit from abroad.
On this night, a chilly Sunday in late November, Omsk was desperate for a win. The team's season has been marked by tribulations. During a game in October, the Rangers prospect Cherapanov died on the bench sitting next to Jagr. The KHL and Avangard were criticized for not having proper medical equipment readily available at the arena.
In the days after Cherapanov's death, the team lost 11 prospects - nine playing on its sponsored youth team and two who skated with Avangard itself - to the Russian army. "Apparently Cherapanov was supposed to have been drafted in the army and wasn't; after he died, the army just came in and took these 11 guys away," Fleming said. "That was two weeks ago. We haven't seen them since."
Avangard has also lost some 18 players to injury at various times. The team entered its game against Khimik Vostresensk, a team based 80 kilometres southeast of Moscow, having lost five straight. Yet it was hard to find an empty seat for the wide-open game. Chants of "Our team will score now" echoed through the stadium throughout the game, and fans unfurled flags and clapped enthusiastically. That was another stark contrast to Soviet times, when crowds of soldiers, usually wearing drab uniforms, sat in stony silence in their seats.
Avangard would emerge with a 3-2 shootout victory, and afterwards, Omsk players saluted the fans with their sticks in the air before moving to centre ice to shake hands with their opponents.
"This is something I really want to change," said 36-year-old Rodion Tukhvatulin, a former investment banker hired in January as the KHL's vice-president for business operations. "We have good heritage and obsolete heritage. ... I don't like friendliness between teams on the ice."
Tukhvatulin is also angling to eliminate the KHL's rule that players be ejected from games for fighting. "It has its place," he said.
Sitting in the KHL's spacious third-floor office, steps from the fabled Red Square and the multi-coloured minarets of St. Basil's Cathedral, Tukhvatulin sought to defuse the notion that the KHL is a threat to the NHL.
"Threat is too strong a word," he said. "Competition is a better word. We are so new with this. Things are still changing so fast. Right now we're in our first season and we still have much to work through."
Nevertheless, several NHL player agents said the KHL has become a realistic alternative for clients.
"It's really not a difficult adjustment for many players from Europe," said Jay Grossman, whose clients include Radulov. "Many of the Czechs speak Russian, and the Finns are right next door and many of the Swedes have already been in Russia for tournaments. As for North Americans, players find their comfort zone around other players and some coaches and there are usually at least six to eight players per team who have played here (in the NHL), and speak English."
Want evidence some NHL clubs are worried about the KHL's impact on their business? The Buffalo Sabres, perhaps for the first time in club history, did not draft a single European player in last summer's NHL draft, for fear they could retreat to Russia after a few years in North America.
In fact, just nine Russians were selected in the draft, and only two were picked in the first round.
"I think the Russians you'd choose in the top of the draft are still going to come to the NHL," said Sabres part-owner Larry Quinn. "It's the guys at the bottom of the first round who are susceptible, players who aren't superstars here but might get paid superstar salaries to go to Russia."
Think Mikhail Grabovski, a Belarussian who makes $850,000 with the Maple Leafs this season. He could be someone the KHL might consider overpaying to lure to Russia, one KHL club executive said.
A report on the KHL prepared for the NHL recently by a sports marketer who once worked in Moscow says the "Russians realize they can crush the NHL financially, since there is no player transfer agreement in place, and that the NHL's minimal rookie and salary caps leave current and future stars vulnerable."
While many NHL and NHL Players' Association officials are deeply distrustful of the KHL's executives, Quinn said there remains an upside to the new European league. "People don't stay in the same position forever," he said. "And if a new league helps grow the game of hockey, that's a good thing. I'd ideally like to see a European league and the NHL one day play for some kind of World Cup."
The main hockey rink at CSKA Arena is showing its age.
Even though the gleaming 14,000-seat Khodynka Arena was built two years ago in Moscow to host the world hockey championships, there's little hockey played there nowadays. None of the KHL teams have managed to reach an agreement on rent at the new rink with the city of Moscow. That's left CSKA playing in an arena where marble columns are chipped and the walls, painted cream and various shades of brown, are peeling.
If the arena in Omsk is illustrative of the league's progress, this rink in central Moscow, where Russia's venerable Red Army team plays, provides a glimpse of the KHL's hurdles.
That's not to say there's no history here. Some 35 Red Army player jerseys hang from the rafters - among them are Vladislav Tretiak, Valeri Kharlamov, both legendary former CSKA stars. On a floor above the roof of the large Olympic-sized rink is a smaller rink built to NHL specifications at the instruction of former CSKA and Russian national team coach Viktor Tikhonov, who wanted a rink where Soviet players could better prepare for games in North America.
On a recent Monday night here, CSKA played a team from Novosibirsk, the largest city in Siberia. The 5,000 seats were filled to about 40 per cent capacity; a team official suggested that was probably because a soccer game between St. Petersburg and Italian club Juventus was being televised at the same time.
Just getting to the game wasn't easy because of the traffic. Moscow is clogged with cars. It took 21/2 hours to drive to the rink from the KHL's offices 10 kilometres away.
CSKA opened the game with a quick goal and its theme song crackled over the loudspeaker
"So let the Red Army squeeze masterfully its own bayonette with its calloused hands. And we all must relentlessly go for the final mortal battle."
CSKA surged to a 4-0 lead and held on to win 4-3, with a Novosibirsk player just missing a tip-in for a goal with seconds remaining.
It was CSKA's 28th game of the season, and of those, 18 have been on TV. It's a similar story throughout the KHL. CSKA's cross-town rival Spartak has played 31 games but only nine of those have been televised.
"It's a major problem," said a Tolyatti team official, smoking a cigar in his private box at centre ice before the start of a game. "If I were giving the KHL a mark for marketing out of 5, I would give it a 3."
Most Russian hockey teams generate a large portion of their income from sponsorships with local companies. CSKA, for instance, is owned and sponsored by Norilsk Nickel, a major Russian mining company, as well as PriceWaterhouse Coopers, whose logo is on the back of players' jerseys.
"In many of the smaller Russian cities, people are as crazy about hockey as anyone would be in Kirkland Lake, Ontario, or Timmins," said Norman Gaudet, a Canadian mining consultant who has been working in Russia for the past seven years. "There's a lot of prestige behind being the person or company who funds a team."
Still, the KHL is trying to turn its teams into more self-sustaining financial operations and the fact that so many of its games have not been televised should be a concern.
Russian cable TV channel Sport has a broadcasting contract with the KHL and decides which games to show. Some of the season's top games already - such as a CSKA game in October against the powerful club Ak Bars Kazan - weren't broadcast.
"At the start of the month they send us their lineup for games but sometimes they decide to change things or just don't show the games," said Mikhail Kravchenko, a CSKA spokesperson.
Since the KHL allows teams to sign local TV contracts with regional broadcasters, CSKA executives want to get more games on TV and are planning to approach a new channel called Zvezda, or Star, which was started in 2005 by the Russian defence ministry. Some league executives want the league to start its own sports network, like the NHL and other North American sports leagues.
That's a lofty goal. From a production standpoint, Russian hockey broadcasts lag far behind those in North America.
"In your typical Russian broadcast you'd have five cameras and all of them would be focused on the puck," said Gord Cutler, a Canadian sports producer who recently travelled to Russia to teach broadcasters about North American broadcasting techniques. In North America, by contrast, Cutler said hockey broadcasters isolate various cameras on star players - even if they don't have the puck - and have a specific sequence of camera shots after goals, showing celebrations on the bench, or angst-ridden coaches instead of just the puck in the net.
"I basically had to meet with the different cameramen and start right from scratch - sort of, 'You shoot this to one, and you shoot that to another,'" he said.
The CSKA game highlighted another obstacle for the KHL.
Concession stands at CSKA Arena selling meat, cabbage and cherry pies, among other snacks, weren't much bigger than an airplane bathroom and kiosks hawking CSKA's blue, red and white jerseys were jammed. "I don't know how they plan to make money here," said Alexey Shelestenko, an interpreter browsing the arena's concourse. "You're not going to do it selling programs for 100 rubles."
Kravchenko, the CSKA spokesperson, said an attempt in 2001 to open a large team-themed sports store fizzled. "It's tough because in Moscow you have three other teams with Spartak, Dynamo and Soviet Wings," he said, "and then there's lots of competition from entertainment choices in Moscow."
Alex Mogilny, who defected in 1989 from the Soviet Union and developed into one of the NHL's top scorers, tried to put the KHL's setbacks this season in context by comparing them to his early seasons in North America.
"The NHL is a well-oiled machine now, but when I got here things weren't so terrific," Mogilny recalled.
Indeed, one could argue that at the time of Mogilny's arrival, the NHL lurched from one crisis to another.
In 1991, the NHL signed a national TV contract in the U.S. with SportsChannel America that was worth just $5.5 million for one year. The owners of the Hartford Whalers the same season warned the club was on the verge of bankruptcy.
A year later, NHL players voted to go on strike and in 1993, the league went to court to fight the NHL Players' Association over licensing money. In 1994, the NHL was ordered to hand over $33 million to former players because the league had improperly used a surplus from their pension fund. The same year, the league played a 48-game shortened schedule because of another work stoppage. In 1995, the Los Angeles Kings filed for bankruptcy, and would be followed by the Pittsburgh Penguins and Ottawa Senators.
"The key for Russian hockey is to lay a good foundation and help it take off," said Mogilny. "We need to clean house and that's not easy to do in a system like ours. We can't be looking back to the 1970s or 1980s. Those times are over. We can't get them back. We have to look to the future."
Back in Moscow, the 16-year-old Baturin's single mother Olga said she's hoping the KHL doesn't fizzle. A secretary for a local gas company, she wouldn't disclose her income but probably makes around $20,000 (U.S.) a year, a translator said. She said she spends at least $6,000 a year on goalie equipment.
"I wanted Yura in hockey just to keep him off the streets without a father around," she said. "But now he's turned into a good player. Maybe now the KHL has given him a dream to fight for."