If you had but one word to describe the KHL, perhaps the most fitting would be “nightmare”.
2014 was a year of financial meltdown for the league. During 2013-14 season, reports surfaced that Spartak Moscow were close to folding due to sponsors stepping back, which was only the first wave of Europe’s fight against Russia. As the situation in Ukraine became worse by the day, it was becoming clearer that hockey club Donbass, which was Ukraine-based, could no longer safely host games.
After winning their first round series against Dinamo Riga, things in Donbass became unsafe during their second round series with Lev Prague. They were forced to play hosts in Bratislava — which, by the way, is the home of another hockey team with financial problems (Slovan Bratislava). The league called Slovan headquarters and asked them to allow Donbass to use their arena for the playoffs. Slovan agreed, and rented the arena for the surprisingly low price of just 1 euro.
Who was the winner in this situation? Obviously Donbass, who won the first round of the playoffs and then got a safe place to play the second round for nothing at all, while Slovan had to pay the bills and get nothing more than bus fare in return.
Donbass went on to lose in the second round, and played what now appears to have been its last game in the KHL. They held on to hope during the off-season that they might return for the next campaign, but then the unexpected happened: their arena was broken into and robbed. Just a week after that it was set on fire. With the team already in disarray, now they no longer have a place to play home games even if they could afford to do so.
The league was interested in saving the team. As Spartak folded after the season, an option would have been to play in Moscow, but it’s obvious that no one from Ukraine wanted to see their team play on what they deem “enemy ground” in Russia. There was also the option of calling Slovan Bratislava again, but once more, everything was expected to be for free, and that just couldn’t be accommodated.
Donbass isn’t ready to play, and it would cost them far too much. They want to make their fans happy, but at times like these there are more important things than a hockey game. The team announced that they will return in 2015/16, and all player and staff contracts would be frozen. Basically staff and players were allowed to sign one-year contracts with new teams, but no longer than that, so they could be ready for a time when Donbass can return.
No one could anticipated what would happen to the winners of that second round and eventual Gagarin Cup finalists, Prague Lev. Prior to the start of the season they also announced that they would no longer play in the KHL. It was another financial drama that was made worse when sponsors stepped away from the club.
And so, in just one season, three teams are gone: Donbass Donetsk, Spartak Moscow, and Lev Prague. What can we anticipate in 2015, as economic sanctions and a falling ruble have made things even more difficult in Russia?
Stay tuned for Part 2 of KHL: the Nightmare of the Hockey World.
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