Say what you will about it but the Kontinental Hockey League cannot be ignored.
If you don’t believe that you haven’t read about Ilya Kovalchuk defecting to SKA St. Petersburg.
The Hockey News’ Michael Traikos is one with an Argus eye on the emigration of NHL players back to Russia.
His piece in the September 9th issue, “The Rising Red Retreat,” offers worthwhile insights.
Here are some excerpts.
Imagine a league without any Russians, No Alex Ovechkin, who won the Hart Trophy this year. No Sergei Bobrovsky, who won the Vezina.
That’s where the NHL appears to be heading.
Even before Ilya Kovalchuk walked away from $77 million to play in the Kontinental League, the number of Russians in the NHL had dropped from an all-time high of 73 in 2000-01 to 29 last season, which was the lowest since 1991-92.
With only eight Russians selected in this year’s NHL draft, expect that number to continue to fall.
In other words, the NHL is in danger of becoming the Nyet Hockey League.
“The NHL is going to have to take notice of this because they’re going to lose a lot of Russian players,” says Michael Garnett, a former NHL goalie who’s played in the KHL the past six seasons. “Obviously with Kovalchuk leaving, it’s happening.”
When Garnett decided to play in Russia in 2008-09, it was a no-frills league that posed no real threat to the NHL.
Players flew commercial, often landing the day of the game, and slept in single-bed motels.
Although the hockey and money were decent, the attention to detail was often lacking.
Today, that has changed. The KHL, which has adopted a hard salary cap (approximately $36 million), now broadcasts its games to 25 countries.
“When I first got here, it wasn’t organized or anything,” explains Garnett, who plays for Traktor Chelyabinsk. “The website for the league wasn’t even updated. You couldn’t figure out what the scores were or track stats. It was very difficult. Now, it’s first-class, professional. We’re chartering and stay in either a Marriot or Hilton. It’s been a huge improvement.”
In the past, money played the biggest part in convincing the odd NHLer to play in the League. But one GM said that having Kovalchuk over there could be just as much of an influence.
“It’s certainly a legitimate source and a credible league,” adds Jim Rutherford, “But for the most part, the Ponikarovskys and the Antropovs who went there had waited to see if they would get an NHL contract.”
Indeed, aside from Kovalchuk, the KHL has mostly been poaching third and fourth-liners.
Winnipeg Jets center Alexander Burmistrov signed with Ak Bars Kazan because he was promised more playing time, while Toronto Maple Leafs left winger Leo Komarov returned to Moscow Dynamo.
“I don’t see it as a trend, but I can tell you that the so-called attacks on Russian players continues,” says agent Mark Gandler, who represents both Burmistrov and Komarov. “And it will continue for as long as they have money over there. But they’re not just chasing money. They’re also playing a top role on the team.”
The most recent NHL lockout allowed Russians to return home and see how the KHL had changed and grown from a mom-and-pop operation into a 28-team league that has plans of franchising out to 60 teams across Europe.
“It’s a real threat. Not just for Russians, but all European players.”