Rocked by tragedies, the Kontinental Hockey League is about to enjoy its moment of good fortune. Its hockey-playing comrades are heading home thanks to the National Hockey League lockout.
And it's not just any old Russians who are coming. Big names such as Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings and Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins, the NHL's 2011-2012 Hart Trophy winner, have already agreed to KHL contracts. As for Washington Capital ace Alex Ovechkin, he recently stated his intentions by saying, "No one wants to be in a lockout but if [there is], I'm going to play in the KHL. It's not a surprise. I will go."
What Mr. Ovechkin said later had to have brightened the KHL's day.
"[NHL owners] right now say they want to cut salary and everything. Lots of guys just won't come back if this happens," Mr. Ovechkin told CSNWashington.com.
Hockey in Russia, with the 2014 Winter Olympics in sight, is bracing for a boom in popularity, marketing and attendance figures like never before. With so many good players available, and many of them eager to stay active, the country is equally keen to have its top players back home. Contacts are being made; offers extended. It is open season for a league and a nation that treats its hockey with Canadian-like reverence – and the timing is just as splendid.
The Olympics are set for Sochi, located on the shores of the Black Sea. As Canada did at the 2010 Vancouver Games, Russia wants to celebrate a hockey gold medal on home ice. Russia, competing as the Unified Team of former Soviet republics, last won Olympic gold in 1992 and the planning for Sochi is well under way. Russian hockey great and former Summit Series goaltender Vladislav Tretiak said Sunday that having so many possible Olympians playing in Russia this season would be beneficial for preparations.
"[National team head coach] Zinetula Bilyaletdinov will be able to observe the potential candidates for the Sochi Olympics with his own eyes," said Mr. Tretiak. "We will always take our guys and give them a chance to play. It'll be interesting for the fans to see our best hockey players."
The KHL considers itself the second-best professional hockey league in the world despite its share of misfortunes. Nineteen-year-old prospect Alexei Cherepanov died from a heart condition and poor medical treatment and, just last year, a plane crash wiped out the Yaroslavl Lokomotiv team.
The five-year-old league has also had more mundane problems such as keeping its top players from jumping to the NHL. But with the NHL having freed its skating work force via Saturday night's lockout, the allure of playing against the KHL's high-calibre competition is a compelling option. In 2004-2005 during the last lockout, more than 400 NHLers played in Europe. Now, the primary focus is on joining the KHL, a league heavily financed by Russian oil billionaires with money to spare.
"The scary part is I think you'll see some of the best players in the game [going over]," said Mike Cammalleri of the Calgary Flames. "Let's hope they come back … You can go over there and make millions and millions and millions of dollars to play hockey."
The KHL has been readying for its influx of NHLers and for the return of its Russian-born stars. Rules have been established so that the bulk of KHL teams can add just three NHLers. There are also insurance matters and salary restrictions so that the rich KHL teams don't become the New York Rangers of the 1990s, an organization that believed in buying its way to success.
Every legality, as well as options, were discussed when close to 300 NHL players met last week for prelockout meetings in New York, "A lot of guys went over last time and played and enjoyed it," said the Ottawa Senators' Jason Spezza. "And I think that message has kind of trickled down."
How long the best Russians stay in the KHL depends on what the players negotiate for themselves. In 2004-2005, players had an out-clause that allowed them to return to North America once the NHL and NHL Players' Association agreed on a new collective agreement. But as Alexander Radulov proved in his back-and-forth dealings between the Nashville Predators and the KHL, sometimes there are ways around a signed agreement.
In North America, NHL fans lament another failed start to another season. In Russia, they're getting ready for a national revival.
Gagarin Cup winner last year – Dynamo Moscow
Countries that host KHL teams (Russia, Belarus, Czech Republic, Latvia, Kazakhstan, Slovakia, Ukraine)
Number of Canadians KHL players last year (including penalty-minutes-leader Darcy Verot)
Number of teams vying for championship
Number of goals potted last year by league leader Brandon Bochenski
Number of games in the KHL season
Maximum percentage of a locked-out NHL player's salary that can matched by KHL
Year that nearly the entire Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team was killed in a plane crash
Tax-free yearly KHL salary offered to NHLer Evgeni Malkin in 2008 (he declined)
Salary cap for KHL teams (in rubles – equivalent to about $37-million)
With reports from The Canadian Press