- Pierre LeBrun, NHL
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It wasn't a bad summer for the fledgling Kontinental Hockey League.
Robert Esche turned down a pair of NHL offers and went back to Russia. Jiri Hudler bolted from the powerhouse Detroit Red Wings. Sergei Zubov decided to play out the twilight of his Hall of Fame career back home.
"It's a reflection that the hockey has become well organized, there's a high quality, and the players realize the potential," KHL president Alexander Medvedev told ESPN.com in an interview Tuesday.
The KHL, in its second season, is still going through its share of growing pains, but it is also still standing. Some people wondered whether that would be the case about a year ago, given the world economic crisis and its toll on Russia.
"They started up the KHL in one of the worst financial years ever with the [economic] crisis going on," Esche, who plays for SKA St. Petersburg, told ESPN.com this week. "And Medvedev managed to make it work. You have to tip your hat to him."
Whether the KHL will ever turn a dime remains to be seen. Still, it seems clear that Medvedev, who also heads the Russian energy company Gazprom, is intent on seeing his vision through. He's taking on the NHL no matter who laughs at him.
"We're just in the second month of our second season, but it's quite obvious that we have high-quality hockey on ice, a better picture on television, and there is higher interest from the public, in arenas, in the press, in television, in the Internet," Medvedev said. "We're really happy with this. But we're not going to stop there; we're going to develop our product further."
Medvedev has visions of European expansion for the KHL and detailed his plan last month to European hockey federations at an International Ice Hockey Federation meeting.
"Yes, I made a presentation during the [IIHF] council meeting in Tunisia with the idea to have a pan-European league, with involvement of Scandinavian and Central European hockey clubs," Medvedev said. "I believe it's the only way not to stagnate and to better develop European hockey."
Esche, for one, believes European expansion is the only way the KHL will be able to truly challenge the NHL.
"Is the KHL going to rival the NHL right now the way it is? Obviously that's easy to assess right now, no," said the former Philadelphia Flyers and Phoenix Coyotes netminder. "But by adding other countries down the road, then it's another animal, and then I can see the KHL rivaling the NHL. Because you'll get people who will want to come over and play in Europe and make great money. And they're not going to have to leave home. Czechs can stay home to make millions of dollars. Again, whether or not that's going to happen? Time will tell. We don't really know the answer to that."
Before expanding, however, the KHL may want take care of business at home. The 24-team league, which spans seven time zones in the former Soviet Union, is far from perfect. Medvedev admitted that the rumors of some players not getting paid on time last season were indeed true -- that's a potential danger of a start-up league.
"There was a couple of cases like that," Medvedev said. "The result was that one of our clubs [Khimik] was excluded from the competition this year. [But this season] I'm 100 percent sure that all the clubs who entered the competition will finish the competition without outstanding debts with respect to the salaries to the players."
Players' uncertainty about getting paid on time is one of the perceived cons the KHL has to battle, as well as the long road trips and games in smaller arenas. But overall, Esche insisted it's not as bad as people believe back home.
"I think the pros of the KHL massively outweigh the cons, personally," said Esche, who is playing his third season in Russia. (His first was in the Russian Super League.) "Until you go through it, you realize the negativity the KHL gets isn't what it should be getting. I think it's a terrific league. It's a different style of hockey, obviously. It's not the NHL on the smaller rink where everybody is hitting everybody. It's more like Olympic-style hockey, big ice surface."
Just how the KHL survives economically is difficult to figure out. With a $22 million (U.S.) salary cap per team, and some star players making big money, one wonders how a league with mostly junior-sized hockey rinks can pay the bills. SKA St. Petersburg, where Medvedev also serves as president and owner, led the KHL in average attendance in September at 9,675, about 85 percent capacity of the rink.
According to the KHL, its average attendance per game for 92 September games was 5,570. The worst NHL attendance average last season was on Long Island at 13,773. Chicago led at 22,247. At the turnstiles, it's not even close between the two leagues.
"But you can't compare the North American business model with the KHL business model for very simple reasons," Medvedev said. "Not only because the size of our arenas are different, but also the price of tickets is not comparable. That's why we can't generate major revenue streams from the sales of tickets. Our major source of revenue is from advertisement and sponsorship and TV rights."
Medvedev said the league plans to be "in the black" in 2012, while it may take a little longer for clubs to get there.
And the KHL hopes to continue to chase NHL free agents. One name that has people in Russia salivating is Ilya Kovalchuk. The Atlanta Thrashers captain and superstar winger is slated for unrestricted free agency July 1. The Thrashers, wisely, are trying to lock him up now, and sources have told ESPN.com there's indeed a strong chance he may sign an extension in Atlanta over the next few weeks.
But it's clear Medvedev would welcome the chance to sign a homegrown superstar. The KHL has attracted aging stars such as Jaromir Jagr, Alexei Yashin and Zubov, and second-tier stars such as Hudler and Alexander Radulov. But getting a bona-fide star like Kovalchuk in the prime of his career at 26 years old would be a big-time coup for the KHL. He'd be their poster boy.
"Obviously, I know Ilya," Medvedev said. "Last time we saw each other was in the [offseason]. Players like Ilya, obviously they could really demonstrate good hockey and be a benchmark for the league."
Medvedev said he believes the day will soon come when players of Kovalchuk's caliber will treat the KHL as a serious option.
"The quality of hockey which we have in the KHL and the substantial improvement we have had in organizational and infrastructural matters, I think that's giving us a good chance to attract such players like Ilya to play in his home country," the KHL president said.
"There's better skill and better players that have come into the league," said SKA St. Petersburg coach Barry Smith, a former assistant coach with the Detroit Red Wings. "I think that it still has some growing pains, especially with officials. Your linesmen and officials have to be as good as your players; otherwise, your league won't be as good. So, I've already talked to Medvedev about improving the officials and linesmen. But the hockey has been good."
In the meantime, Medvedev has been in talks to bring KHL games to TV screens in the United States and Canada.
"We would be happy to demonstrate our hockey for North American fans, and that's why we're looking forward to reaching agreement with North American broadcasters," Medvedev said. "I do hope that ESPN can become a partner in the future."
Should the NHL be worried right now? Not terribly. The NHL remains by far the best league in the world to play in, and certainly to watch. But the NHL should realize that the KHL is not a fly-by-night entity. It has issues, but it intends to stick around.
Because of that, Medvedev said he wants the hostile relations (which began when the KHL stole Radulov from the Nashville Predators even though he was under a valid NHL contract) to improve between both leagues.
"I would like to again confirm that we believe cooperation between NHL and KHL will bring much more for the health of hockey than isolation," Medvedev said. "We're open to make a deal between the KHL and NHL in order that the hockey will develop both in North America and Europe."
Asked whether he would be ready to sit down with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to discuss the matter, Medvedev said, "I'm ready to speak any time, any place."
"Interesting comment," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told ESPN.com via e-mail Tuesday when told what Medvedev had said. "The IIHF had specifically scheduled a summit on Sept. 28 in Zurich to facilitate a discussion between the NHL and KHL on issues of mutual concern, including in particular player transfer issues.
"Not only did Mr. Medvedev not show up, he didn't even send a substitute representative for the KHL. All of the national federations in attendance at the meeting, including the Russian federation, were critical of the KHL's predatory approach (vis-a-vis other established European leagues) and its refusal to respect and abide by existing contractual obligations. We are not pleased with the status quo in our relations with the KHL, which are virtually non-existent. But I would think it's a much bigger issue long-term for the KHL than it is or will ever be for the NHL."
Can you feel the love?
The Cold War of hockey will only intensify as the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, approach. Caps superstar winger Alex Ovechkin sparked tongue-wagging around the hockey world in early September when he told ESPN.com that he planned to play in the 2014 Games regardless of whether the NHL is participating.
"Nobody can say to me, 'You can't play for your country in the Olympic Games,'" Ovechkin said Sept. 9. "I'll go play in the Olympic Games for my country. If somebody says to me, 'You can't play,' see ya."
It appears NHL owners do not want to continue Olympic participation past the 2010 Games in Vancouver, citing several logistical issues that make the overseas commitment simply not worth it. And there are many who agree with that.
But the Russian NHL players won't be happy if that's the case, and Medvedev will be sure to exploit that sentiment.
"Not only Alexander Ovechkin, but also Ilya Kovalchuk and Evgeni Malkin confirmed that nobody could forbid them to play in the Olympic Games in their own country. I really support such an approach," Medvedev said. "I'm really surprised that the Olympic Games is becoming a hostage of the policy of [the] NHL."
The KHL story, for better or worse, is far from over.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
1dDanny Knobler, Special to ESPN.com