Forget the NFL referees—the entire NHL is locked out for the second time in eight years. Negotiations between the league and the players’ association resumed Friday on non-critical issues and sputtered out not long thereafter. The impasse—NHL owners believe players take home too big a proportion of the sport’s revenues—is stark, and will likely lead to an abbreviated NHL calendar (though perhaps not the whole season being missed as in 2004-05). Many of the league’s players have already upped sticks and signed contracts with European teams for the duration of the lockout, joining clubs from Switzerland to Sweden. NHL fans should, too.
In particular, consider the Russian Kontinental Hockey League, arguably the world’s best hockey league after the NHL—and soon to be available on ESPN. Ever since it was launched in 2008 on the skeletons of older Russian competitions, the KHL has been touted as a long term challenger to NHL supremacy by people as prominent as Russian President Vladimir Putin. The league’s 26 clubs include six located outside Russia in countries as far-flung as Kazakhstan and the Czech Republic—yet another small sign in post-Soviet times of Moscow reasserting its historic regional influence. And the KHL does indeed have considerable government backing, with oligarchs and state-owned energy companies plowing money into a number of teams, while provincial taxpayers shoulder up the rest. In the past few years, a good number of Eastern European and Russian stars opted for lucrative KHL contracts when, a decade ago, they would have likely stuck around and toughed it out in North America.
Not surprisingly, the KHL vies for attention with Russia’s cash-rich soccer league, which is itself a rising force in the global game. Though attendances are smaller at hockey games, the sport has long and glorious roots in this part of the world, where the Soviet Union cranked out generations of “Red Army” squads that swept the Winter Olympics and became a kind of spectral bogeyman for young Canadian and American kids learning the game on frozen ponds at home.
“You could definitely argue that the KHL is followed with similar, if not greater fervor in places, than football,” says Dave Nowak, head of the English desk at R-Sport, the sports wire of the government RIA Novosti news agency. The fanaticism, though, isn’t tied to the glitzy, new league, says Nowak. “The league is barely out of its diapers and still owes 90 percent of its following to its Soviet and post-Soviet predecessors.”
Many of the KHL’s teams have held onto their Soviet-era names and iconography—historical legacies wrapped up with some organ of the Soviet state (CSKA once represented the army; Dynamo, the KGB) or its industrial base (hence teams that have names like Lokomotiv, Mettalurg, Traktor, and so on). Still, they reflect new realities. Russian energy giants Gazprom bankroll both SKA St. Petersburg (led now by the New Jersey Devils’ Ilya Kovalchuk) and Avangard Omsk, a Siberian side that coaxed Czech superstar Jaromir Jagr away from the New York Rangers in 2008 (After a year back in the NHL, Jagr has now returned to Omsk for the duration of the lockout). Facing bankruptcy in 2011, CSKA Moscow—technically run by the Defense Ministry—was rescued by state oil company Rosneft, a takeover ordered by none other than Putin himself.
At the rink, hockey is hockey—though with a larger ice surface—and what the KHL may lack in North American grit and gusto, it makes up for in technique and talent. It doesn’t hurt, either, that a raft of NHL all-stars will be putting in a shift for the foreseeable future. Alex Ovechkin, the all-star captain of the Washington Capitals, is already scoring a point a game with Dynamo Moscow. Last year’s NHL MVP, Pittsburgh’s center Evgeni Malkin, has joined Mettalurg Magnitogorsk, nestled in the Ural Mountains. Detroit Red Wings’ elegant playmaker Pavel Datsyuk has teamed up alongside the erstwhile Nashville Predators winger Alexander Radulov at CSKA. Dangerous Czech forwards Jakub Voracek (of Philadelphia) and Jiri Hudler (of Calgary) have joined Lev Praha in their country’s capital. The team, much to the glee of the Czechs, is currently one of the form sides in the Russian league. And the list of imports goes on—see a full run down here.
So, NHL fans, you could consider picking the team where your favorite Russian star plays. But Nowak of R-Sport offers other advice: “A great underdog is Amur Khabarovsk, a club on the Chinese border which claims a big fan base in Japan. Or Barys Astana, who play in the [steppe] nation of Kazakhstan.” But perhaps the most emotive story is that of a more traditional powerhouse: a year ago, a plane crash snuffed out the entire Lokomotiv Yaroslavl squad in what was one of the worst sporting disasters in modern memory. “The crash ripped the heart out of Yaroslavl and brought the entire country to a standstill,” says Nowak. “But almost instantly there was a robust determination to rebuild, to move on, to reassemble the team.” The new-look Lokomotiv, which includes hometown lad and former New York Rangers center Artem Anisimov, was, at the time of writing, atop the league standings.