Commentary

For Russia's KHL, now is the time for transparency

Updated: October 14, 2008, 10:24 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

The Continental Hockey League was supposed to be a force on the world hockey stage.

Born out of the old Russian Super League, with owners practically made of money, the KHL was poised to lure top-notch talent from the NHL and establish an NHL alternative for mostly European stars.

Jaromir Jagr and confused Alexander Radulov of the Nashville Predators, rank as the only two top NHL talents to bolt to the KHL, but even that was a good boost to the league's inaugural season.

Then New York Rangers prospect Alexei Cherepanov collapsed on the bench after taking a shift with Jagr and other Avangard Omsk teammates Monday night at a rink on the edge of Moscow and later died.

[+] EnlargeAlexei Cherepanov
AP Photo/Alexander WilfRussian investigators said Alexei Cherepanov suffered from chronic ischemia, a medical condition in which not enough blood gets to the heart or other organs.

Now, the eyes of the hockey world are on the KHL. How it handles this tragic situation will speak volumes about the league's integrity and its future.

A Russian investigator already has suggested there could be criminal charges after saying that there was no ambulance at the Moscow-area arena where Omsk was playing and that the medical staff there did not have a defibrillator on hand that might have helped revive the 19-year-old player.

Many hockey people who have been to Russia in recent years -- whether they're players, GMs, scouts or agents -- describe a certain Wild West element to the country's society, and its hockey business in particular.

The KHL, with its deep pockets and sometimes suspect way of doing business, has done little to disabuse observers of that notion. League officials acknowledged that Radulov was under contract to the Predators before he returned to Russia to play in the KHL this season, but they did nothing to stop him. Avangard Omsk offered Stanley Cup-winning coach Bob Hartley a contract to become its bench boss, then turned around and offered the job to former Canadian Olympic assistant Wayne Fleming.

Now, with many troubling questions surrounding Cherepanov's death, the KHL must choose what kind of league it is going to be.

Will it conduct an open and transparent investigation into what happened, including how Cherepanov managed to be in the lineup with what is believed to be a medical condition called chronic ischemia (in which not enough blood gets to the heart or other organs), regardless of the embarrassment such an investigation could cause the league? Or will the KHL close ranks and fall back on old Soviet ways of obfuscation and denial?

One positive sign came from Russian hockey icon Igor Larionov, who helped form the KHL and sits on the league's board.

"I'm very upset about this," Larionov told ESPN.com from Los Angeles on Tuesday. "First of all, I feel terrible for the family of Alexei Cherepanov. But we need to get to the bottom of this and find out what happened. I sent [league president] Alex [Medvedev] an e-mail last night and said we needed to have an emergency board of directors meeting. This is unacceptable. ...

"This is a blow for the KHL," added Larionov, who will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame next month. "We must learn from this. This cannot happen ever again."

American-based KHL representative Shawn McBride told ESPN.com Tuesday that the KHL already has launched an investigation into the incident.

"The KHL, at the moment, has convened a commission to look into the circumstances around exactly what happened," McBride said. "My latest information is that we're still waiting on perhaps further medical information on exactly what the situation was. ... We're breaking down the circumstances around the medical support staff at the rink and away from the rink and the treatment and the things that happened moving forward there."

Will players who might have been enticed by big Russian paychecks think twice before signing on with the KHL now? McBride said he thinks it's unwise to rush to judgment before the inquiry is completed.

Still, if the league is to have any credibility at all, if it is to survive as the kind of entity it hopes to be, it behooves officials there to come clean with whatever they find relating to Cherepanov's death as quickly as possible, regardless of the blemishes such transparency might reveal.

Beyond its being the right thing to do, that might very well prevent another tragic incident from taking place.

Pierre LeBrun contributed to this report. Both he and Scott Burnside cover the NHL for ESPN.com.

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