There's about 8,200 kilometres that separates the furthest teams in the Kontinental Hockey League. This distance—between Zagreb, Croatia, and Vladivostok, in Eastern Russia—stretches from Central Europe to the Sea of Japan. In between exists a historical-linguistic patchwork that belies easy description. It is the territorial home of cultures that predate recorded history and which are as distinct from one another as the swamplands of St. Petersburg are from the smog of Beijing. This fractured expanse of civilization now has a common thread in hockey.
But according to some reports, this thread is susceptible to breaking. Quoting from an interview given by KHL president Dmitry Chernyshenko to R-Sport last November, several North American publications speculated about the league contracting teams. The KHL vehemently denied this to VICE Sports, and said Chernyshenko's comments were taken out of context.
This disconnect—between its frequently negative representation in the Western media and the KHL's version of reality—destabilizes the idea of the league as a serious business with lasting power. Truth exists somewhere in the gulf separating these two camps, but it remains shrouded in cultural suspicions that go beyond the game.
The KHL's second season started last week. Its 16 playoff teams are marching toward a trophy named after astronaut Yuri Gagarin—the first human to venture into space and once a potent symbol in the USSR's ideological war with the United States. Declared a "hero of the Soviet Union" by Nikita Khrushchev, Gagarin was killed in a plane crash seven years after his triumph. His remains are entombed in the Kremlin.
The institution for which Gagarin is a badge of Russian virtue has a range only slightly less expansive than his cosmic flight. Twenty-nine KHL teams are spread across eight countries and two continents, and with the addition of Beijing's Kunlun Red Star, its member nations are home to over 1.5 billion people. It is regarded as the second-best hockey league in the world and features much of the finest skill outside of the NHL. This season, Pavel Datsyuk—a former Detroit Red Wings superstar and one of the most beloved NHLers in recent memory—returned to Russia, where he plays in St. Petersburg alongside Ilya Kovalchuk, who was a longtime star in North America, scoring 50-plus goals twice with the Atlanta Thrashers. The league also possesses a trove of talent most North Americans have never heard of.
In its present incarnation, the KHL is only eight years old. Born out of the Russian Superleague, it was created to make a circuit inclusive of the best teams in Russia, Europe, and Asia. Chernyshenko told VICE Sports that the KHL was founded to "share the huge potential of Russian ice hockey with the other countries on the Eurasian space," and noted that its founding occurred in the same year Russia won its first world championship in 15 years. The KHL shares a symbiotic relationship with the national team, for which it serves as a developmental cradle.
For most North Americans hockey fans, Russian professional hockey first became topical during the 2004-05 NHL lockout. That's when Kazan Ak-Bars assembled a legendary roster that included Kovalchuk, Alexei Kovalev, Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards, and Dany Heatley, among several other notable NHL stars. Fred Braithwaite, an NHL veteran who played goal for Kazan that year, spoke appreciatively of his time in Russia, even as he mused over its idiosyncrasies. "I think our payroll was higher than any NHL team, but we didn't have towels for the guys in the dressing room," he quipped.
Indeed, the peculiarities of Russian hockey have always coloured its representation in the West. They have been well documented by journalists and players alike: from the cultural practice of bazas (where teams bunker down in designated buildings prior to important games), to grueling training sessions, inflexible coaches, an insurmountable language barrier, loneliness, salary payments made in cash, manifold time zones, and making long flights on rickety planes. To speak with insiders is to be told, "I've heard things, but I don't really know if they're true and it's not my place to say…"
Russia is profoundly unlike North America, as everyone who's played, coached or travelled there is so quick to express. Adjusting to "the of game is secondary to the change of life" said Darryl Wolski, a Brandon, Manitoba-based agent who's placed a number of Canadians in the league. "The culture shock for a lot of guys is enormous."
One significant difference in the KHL's business culture is the capricious attitude some teams have toward paying salaries. Rumours abound that a few clubs have been very late in remunerating their players this year, even more so than in the past. Wolski agreed but noted this isn't uniform. "Some teams have improved this year as far as payments and some have gone in the other direction," he told VICE Sports. "For import players, most of them are OK financially and not living cheque to cheque so if they get paid a month or two late it isn't the end of the world. But as a player you do wonder if and when you will get paid."
These vagaries calcify larger, pre-existing notions of a value system the West is historically mistrustful of. From the horrors of Stalin to the uncertainty of Putin (the Russian leader—supposedly an invisible hand in the US election whom one prominent writer said oversees a 'mafia state'—is the KHL's most high-profile supporter), Westerners have interpreted the country's history as a drawn-out, bloody drama staged by the proud and pitiless. In business, 'Russia' gestures to a metaphysical distance, in which transgression—whether through corruption, gangsterism or a lack of regulatory oversight—lubricates a deal. This opacity spreads to Russian NHLers, often labeled 'enigmatic' by the Western press because of their wondrous skills and personal inscrutability.
This is mentionable because the KHL is a Russian institution and seen as a product of its native culture. Where regulation is concerned, two notorious incidents support the typecasting.
In 2008, Alexei Cherepanov, a 19-year-old New York Rangers prospect playing for Avangard Omsk, collapsed and died on the bench of cardiac arrest. The arena's defibrillator was nonfunctional and the on-site ambulance had already left the game. Appended to these facts are the claims, made later by Russian investigators, that Cherepanov had engaged in blood doping and should not have been playing professional hockey, given an existing heart condition. Then, in 2011, a plane carrying the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team crashed upon takeoff, killing 44 of its 45 passengers, including former NHL star Pavol Demitra. While the league can't be blamed for pilot error (found by an investigative committee to be the crash's cause), these incidents affirmed fears that playing in Russia carried a particular danger.
Both tragedies prompted regulatory overhaul by the KHL, but nonetheless reinforced concerns about Russian irresponsibility. When asked about Cherepanov, Marty St. Pierre, a crafty forward who spent time in the NHL and now plays for Barys Astana in Kazakhstan, thinks these negative perceptions are mostly outdated. "Now it's definitely more regulated. They do the drug testing, I've seen it," he told VICE Sports. "The doctors are good. In Astana we get treated really well as far as medicals, MRIs and stuff."
To try to understand the KHL is to wade through stories testifying to its strangeness. To learn about the league is to confront evidence predicting its imminent financial collapse. Conjecture, innuendo, and culturally-inflected criticism preempt consideration of its product. But what is the KHL game actually like?
"The biggest difference between the KHL and NHL other than of play is the pressure. It's only 60 games, and every game is balls to the wall," St. Pierre said. Teams can't afford to give wins away, which garner three points when earned in regulation. It can be a mental slog, especially when things aren't going well. "You lose two or three games and the pressure is on," he said. Ownership has no trepidation about firing coaches when necessary, and there is additional demand on imports, who are expected to produce.
When asked what of play the KHL is promoting, Chernyshenko was effusive. KHL hockey "provides a dynamic, uncompromising and exciting show to any viewer—both to regular sports fans and the wider public," he wrote over email. "We put our efforts to make the sport attractive to young people, women, and whole families. [The] KHL is a league of the strong."
While its attendance numbers don't approach those of the NHL, the league offers unique and varied atmospheres. "It's entertaining. I really like it," Wolski said. "The fans are fun to watch. Cheerleaders are fun to watch. It's very, very different. It's not like people are sitting on their hands, people are really into it."
The KHL will always draw comparisons to its North American peer, against which it can appear unfavourable. The NHL is a much older, more established and profitable business, and will always attract the best talent, something Chernyshenko knows. "Certainly, we wish the best Russian players compete in KHL," he wrote. "At the same time, we understand that the international transfer market is quite competitive. We can't force any player to stay in or come back to Russia, and there can't be any goal like that at all."
Nikolai Vakurov, HC Sochi sports director and a longtime NHL scout, has the responsibility of assembling the Sochi roster. Because the KHL is played on bigger ice and is less physical than the NHL, he places the largest premium on skill. This is not to suggest it lacks physicality (St. Pierre said coaches love "strong Canadians"), but play in the KHL develops differently. Rather than dump the puck into the offensive zone, many of the most skilled teams are content to hold it, regroup, and break in over the blue line only when it's advantageous.
There are no absolutes, however, when asked to describe the league's style. Some say it's entirely about puck possession, others that it's surprisingly systems-oriented. Aaron Fox, the sports director of Croatia's Medveščak Zagreb, said his team employs a more robust approach. "We like to play a fast tempo with pace, physical of game which is quite different from most other teams in [the] KHL. KHL teams play a little bit more with puck possession, east-west game, and we really like to push up the pace and play [a] north-south game."
If the KHL is a league of the strong, it is not a league of the fair. While Chernyshenko said the league applied a positively-received revenue sharing scheme at the end of the 2014-15 season (money, he said, that allowed teams to improve their facilities), significant payroll disparities exist between traditional powerhouses and the KHL's smaller clubs, despite a salary cap being in place. "The league must explore an 'A' and 'B' league," Wolski said. "Lots of teams are already out of the playoffs at the end of November. This is due to [the difference in] team payrolls."
On many of these top teams—like SKA Saint Petersburg, Dynamo Moscow and Metallurg Magnitogorsk—there are fabulous players most North Americans have never heard of. The KHL gives talented Russians, who may not commandeer a top NHL salary, the chance to remain stars at home, rather than toil as members of a supporting cast abroad. Sergei Mozyakin, who's never played an NHL game and led the KHL in scoring this year, is one of them. "It's a comfort zone for those Russian players, too," Wolski said. "Why would they want to come play for the Winnipeg Jets or Nashville Predators for $1.2 million dollars and play another 33 percent [of games while taking] a $3-4 million pay cut? It doesn't make sense."
Mozyakin plays for Magnitogorsk, winners of last year's KHL championship, the Gagarin Cup. "They'll regroup three or four times before dumping the puck," St. Pierre said. "It's all puck possession. All Russians can play with the puck. That's why sometimes you see Russian players who come to North America and get a coach who's very structured and they disappear. But put them in freelance hockey that's completely open [and they flourish]. You watch that Red Army movie… they're so skilled and they're not playing a system, but you can't get the puck off of them."
The film St. Pierre referenced is a documentary about the Soviet Red Army team, which played with unparalleled brilliance. Its leader was Viacheslav Fetisov, who had a highly successful NHL career as one of the first Russians to play in North America and now sits on the KHL's board of directors. He learned from the legendary Anatoli Tarasov, the intellectual genius of the Soviet program, who—in a particularly Russian confluence of athletics and art—transferred what he learned observing the Bolshoi Ballet to hockey. It is a profound commentary on the complexity of the Russian character that amidst the rigidity of communism such an improvisational could flourish.
Russian hockey saw its apogee with these Red Army teams, whose fingerprints can be seen on the KHL today. Contemporary stars like Mozyakin inherited the distinct beauty of their from the Soviet masters, whose virtuosity (supplemented, always, by iron-limbed strength) lent a grace to counteract hockey's surging violence.
This aesthetic tradition is one of the game's supreme legacies. The finest Russians are enchanters, who conjure magic with the puck and skate with the graceful purpose of water coursing through a stream: from Valeri Kharlamov to Sergei Makarov, Pavel Bure, Sergei Fedorov, Alexei Kovalev, Evgeni Malkin, and Alex Ovechkin—one of the greatest NHLers of all time—Russia has given life to the most artful hockey players who ever lived.
There can be no doubt about the KHL's quality of play, but its viability as a business is another matter. The recent speculation over the league's contraction was yet another instance in which the KHL's long-term prospects were questioned. When reached for comment, Evgeniya Bocharnikova, the KHL's director of communications, denied the report, and said that Chernyshenko's comments were taken out of context.
"He said that now we are working on the seven-year strategy and are collecting opinions from different hockey leaders… and one of the directions may be to shorten the number of clubs," Bocharnikova wrote over email. "BUT all of these are just first steps toward a new long-term strategy that we are building now, so we want to see everything from different angles." Emphasis, hers.
Included in the contraction reports was a discussion of the low attendance in Beijing, the KHL's first franchise in China and an important symbol of the league's expansion. There was a gleeful tinge to the reporting: a bewildered Red Star official, tasked with dropping the puck in a pre-game ceremony, did so before the two captains arrived at the face-off dot. Of course hockey in China wouldn't succeed—they couldn't even perform its most rote ritual.
There is more to the story. The low attendance figures in Beijing are partly the result of unfavourable circumstances. Scheduling conflicts at the busy LeSports Center forced the Red Star to play all but one of their fall home games at a smaller arena in Shanghai. In December, the Red Star returned to Beijing, where they were finally able to start building a relationship with their fans. The team finished eighth in the East Conference during the regular season and is up against first-place Magnitogorsk in the opening round of the playoffs.
The Chinese experiment is a significant step in the league's plan to extend across the Eurasian space.
"The KHL strategy includes the league's expansion to the East and West as one of the main objectives," Chernyshenko wrote. "There has been considerable interest in joining our league in the recent years from various clubs and countries." When asked whether hockey can become culturally (and by extension, financially) viable in non-traditional markets, he said the Red Star team is a litmus test. "In several seasons [the Beijing team] might present a good showcase to answer your question. China is a promising and challenging market that is ready to absorb and develop non-traditional sports."
Expansion success requires patience, and the Red Star may find their foothold yet. In a larger sense, the sustainability of the KHL hinges on its financial health. "The 2015-16 season has become the most successful for us, and the league finished for the second consecutive time with a positive balance," Chernyshenko wrote. According to the president, revenues were up 15 percent and the league is steadily growing its television audience.
Of course, Chernyshenko's comments conflict with the league's usual depiction in the Western press. Much of the negative forecasting in recent years has tied the fate of the league to the Russian economy—an amorphous term writers seem comfortable making declarative statements about. Two years ago, Foreign Policy published an article about the KHL titled "Putin's Dream of a Russian NHL Collapsing as his Economy Tanks." Since then, the league has grown by one team.
The KHL's economic model is opposite the NHL's, since most of its revenue comes from sponsorships rather than ticket sales. Huge companies, like Gazprom (for which Chernyshenko is also the CEO of its media division), and now Mastercard and Coca-Cola have immeasurable financial importance. Ranko Vucinic, the communications director for Zagreb, stated their importance bluntly: "Without sponsors this project would be impossible. International and local sponsorships make up the biggest part of our club budget. Ticket sales—both season tickets and single-game tickets, account for far less revenue than sponsorships."
Gazprom, a Russian energy giant whose practices Bloomberg called 'opaque,' has a particularly close relationship with the league. It is a publicly traded company in which the Russian government has a controlling stake. Theoretically, one can draw a linear relationship between Putin's regime, Gazprom, and the KHL, but to make inferences on the league's future in light of larger machinations may be reductive. It is unclear whether the KHL is an avatar or beneficiary of Russian political ambitions—perhaps both. Regardless, unpacking the league's financial relationships to acquire a true picture of its health is a task fit for an accounting savant.
While forecasting the league's future seems hopeless, the KHL's communications office is making its product accessible to a Western audience. It has a light-hearted Twitter feed, a fine English-language website and in speaking with Bocharnikova—whose intelligence and passion resonated over the phone—it's obvious the KHL is aware of its self-image and somewhat frustrated by its frequently negative portrayal. "We're really open, we really need your opinion," Bocharnikova said, accenting the cultural exchange the KHL wants with non-Russians. "It's really important to us."
To her credit, the league was helpful in the reporting of this story. It recognizes that transparent communication with the public will work in its favour, even when the news isn't rosy. Bocharnikova translated the R-Sport interview over the phone and emphasized that Chernyshenko was merely giving a candid overview of the league, neither spelling gloom nor spinning lies. "He's very open. He's not saying 'Oh, no no, everything is OK.'"
Indeed, one of the surprising things about researching this story was the openness of the league's office—a convenience not typically associated with Russian institutions. The KHL is making efforts to engage foreigners and shape its image in a congenial way, which will enhance its reputation among fans who know it only through a Western media filter. While its sustainability will be known only in time, increased transparency will remove much of the mystery—and skepticism—that still cloaks the league of Datsyuk, Kovalchuk, and other unknown marvels.
"I know lots of people want to beat up the KHL" Wolski said, "but the actual league is the second best in the world without question."
It is easy to invoke Putin and see only metaphor in the KHL project: as a rebirth of Russian imperialism, seeking to reassert itself over Eurasia under the benevolent guise of promoting hockey. But this would be more historical prejudice, in which Russians are eternally mistrustful and their cultural accomplishments seen only through a geopolitical prism.
There is a less dramatic way of thinking about the KHL: as a first-rate hockey league of monumental cultural diversity whose success could have huge implications for the game's future. It simply needs more time to establish itself. This is particularly so in places like Beijing, where the league's true impact won't be known until China makes a successful foray into international hockey, if that ever happens.
The league's unknowable finances make its position seem forever insecure, but the KHL, wary of collapsing under its own weight, is proceeding with its expansion carefully. For now, the thread connecting its disparate parts is still holding.