Interview: Inside the KHL – the Nightmare of the Hockey World

If you had one word to describe the KHL, perhaps the most fitting would be “nightmare”.  This is the second part of “KHL: The nightmare of the hockey world”, where we look inside the KHL and reflect on what happened to the league by the end of 2014. I had the good fortune to speak exclusively with a KHL player, and discuss what might happen in the future. Before going any further, I recommend you read  KHL: The nightmare of the hockey world.

As the 2014/15 season was approaching, it became clear the league would be operating without Spartak, Donetsk Donbass, and latest Gagarin Cup finalists, Lev Prague. After a long summer, the league officially announced that they would expand, welcoming three new teams. As time passed, fans’ enthusiasm turned sour as another wave of international sanctions were imposed on Russia.

The first team to divulge its difficulties were Dinamo Riga, clearly stating, ”We have financial trouble.”  The chairman of the Latvian club revealed that the team couldn’t sign a new sponsorship contract with Itera Latvia, which happens to be a firm run by none other than the chairman of Dinamo – Juris Savickis.  Essentially this means he couldn’t sign a contract with himself.

The team revealed that September was going to be a hard month for them, as players would not be getting paid — which obviously didn’t happen. The board continuously claimed they were close to signing a new deal with a company from Europe, which they finally found.  However, the club decided not to reveal who their new sponsor was. A few weeks later, Savickis stated that Itera Latvia and Dinamo would be working together again.

Did anyone believe it? No, they didn’t.

The Itera logo was not found on jerseys as they had been for the six seasons prior. Some pundits believed there was no contract signed, while others felt it was a different company entirely.

My take on it is that Dinamo reached out to the KHL asking for help, and the league used its emergency funding reserves.

Meanwhile, other teams started to show signs of crumbling.  Salavat Yulaev Ufa, Atlant Mistichi, Amur Khabarovsk and Slovan Bratislava all have had financial problems — and still have them. Salaries haven’t been paid for three of these teams, and Ufa reached out to the president of Russian Federation asking for help to save their team.

Atlant Mistichi sold most of their leaders so they could last until the end of the season, and the latest rumour it that Atlant will participate in the VHL next season. The league itself went on record saying they would want to get rid of a few European teams, and at the top of the list would be Slovan and Medvescak.  The league’s president explained that they were not willing to keep teams that weren’t able to sponsor themselves, and are not part of ”hockey countries” — Medvescak is a team based in Croatia, which by many definitions is a ”non hockey country”.

Everyone in the KHL was, and still is, in panic, and they have a reason to be.  Jeff Glass decided to reveal the situation from players’ point of view as the value of the Russian ruble was dropping like a snowball from a cliff.

“It’s not good here right now,” Glass told in a telephone interview. “Guys are looking to get out. I’m not trying to expose the league, but none of this is right and the players are getting hosed right now and there’s no representation here. Everything had been fair up until about last season and things seem to be falling apart right now. And the ruble is making it tenfold because everyone is starting to panic.”

“Guys are starting to get very nervous,” Glass said. “Nobody plans on living in Russia post-hockey. Everybody wants to take these rubles and move them into Euros or dollars and nobody is able to do that now.”

“The KHL, from on the ground, is not looking so hot right now,” Glass said. “And you can see there’s a lot of panic from management, from players, from everybody, agents. Nobody is sure what to do. And you can understand. Nobody’s making any money right now.”

With the ruble’s value dropping, and different opinions floating around, I decided to reach out to a KHL player who wishes not to have his name publicized, and listen to what he has to say:

”Players in this league have no value, not only because the situation in Russia, but because there is no competition for roster spots. European teams are lucky to have their salary in euros, and they have a different system when it comes to hockey itself. The ones who play in Europe should be happy that they are not in position like we are. Our salary is useless for now. Hope that changes soon.”

”Playing for two Russian teams and one European made me understand that you can’t be safe about your position, especially if you are an import player. If you get injured, Russian teams dig players out of nowhere and they just stay around, and you just have to adjust to it and hope that when you return, you are still on the team.  In North America, (the) hockey system is more organized, so you can play, get injured, and play again — the team will always care about their player.”

I asked him if the KHL really is what people say: The farm club of the Russian national team. He agreed.

”On (the) inside, you could even hear that imports are being taken just to fill in the blank spots and show Russian players hockey from a different perspective. The level is high and they pay well so none really complained until the ruble lost its value.”

When asked about how players live, he had two different emotions:

”Well, when you live at the place where the team gives you a ‘home’, I got nothing bad to say. But as soon as you have to travel to the east, you are in a plane where the whole interior is shaking, and making weird noises, you live in a hotels with cockroaches — you just can’t be excited about it. As a matter of fact, you can even get food poisoning, which did happen to me once, and since then I try to avoid eating at a few places when on road.”

NOTE: I thank this player for speaking with me, and completely understand his need for anonymity.

What can we expect in the future? I feel like a few teams will leave, a few will return and there will be new teams as well. Essentially, there will be turnover. The big worry is about the league will function.

Can it be at the level it was at the inception of the KHL? Yes. Things were not as organised as they are now, but then the league didn’t have to worry about teams folding, moving, or whether its players were going to get paid (at least not initially).  The KHL wants more influence on IIHF, which is why Alexander Medvedev will be trying to reach the chair of IIHF President.

If financial problems continue, the KHL will live for a few more years the way it is before experiencing devastating repercussions. If, however, money problems are at least somewhat stabilized, the KHL will keep improving, giving a very realistic alternative to the NHL, competing for the world’s best players.

It would be most unfortunate for the KHL to disappear entirely as loads of players would lose their job. It is entertaining hockey, opens up another brand of professional hockey, and exposes the game to millions around the world.

Please remember to read part one: KHL: The nightmare of the hockey world.

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