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Russian Hockey League Expands Into Beijing

  • Tony Wesolowsky

Plans to expand west have largely melted away, so the Russian-based Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) is looking east -- specifically, to the Chinese capital.

KHL Deputy Chairman Roman Rotenberg announced this week that the unnamed squad will take the ice at Beijing's 18,000-capacity MasterCard Center in September.

TASS quoted Rotenberg as saying the team will be financed by Russian and Chinese businesses and the project includes an academy staffed by "several children's coaches" sent by the KHL to develop players.

Hockey In China?

At first glance, China may seem an odd choice. Only about 600 of China's 1.3 billion people play the game, according to the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF). The men's national team has never won any major titles, and is currently ranked 38th in the world.

But the Chinese government is seeking to expand hockey in time for the Winter Olympics that Beijing is hosting in 2022.

Although meager, the game does have some roots in the country. Chinese teams compete in Asia League Ice Hockey, along with clubs from Russia, Japan, and South Korea.

And one player has even been drafted into the North American National Hockey League (NHL). Andong Song was selected by the New York Islanders in the sixth round in June 2015. "I am the first," Song said on draft day. "Hopefully what I want to do is rally people behind me. Not focus on myself, but do something good for Chinese hockey."

Rene Fasel (L), president of the International Ice Hockey Federation, presenting a hockey uniform to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Rene Fasel (L), president of the International Ice Hockey Federation, presenting a hockey uniform to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) President Rene Fasel had given his backing to the idea of the KHL expanding into China.

"Asia for me is a place where we have a huge potential to develop our game.... We play in the East, Vladivostok, Khabarovsk, and you know Russia is a huge, big country. So also maybe there is something to do with China. Maybe in the future, why not have some Chinese team participating in the KHL?" Fasel said.

KHL Fails In West

The KHL has 28 teams in seven countries across Eastern Europe and Central Asia but remains highly focused on Russia, which has 22 teams. The other countries -- Belarus, Croatia, Finland, Kazakhstan, Latvia, and Slovakia -- have one team each.

The league once dreamed of expanding not east but west -- as far as London, in fact -- hoping one day to contest the NHL for bragging rights as the world's top hockey league.

With the future looking bright, the KHL even lured a few bona fide stars back from the NHL (including Aleksandr Radulov and, more impressively, Ilya Kovalchuk, who walked away from an eye-popping $77 million left on his 15-year contract with the New Jersey Devils to play in St. Petersburg).

It was all part of a broader effort to restore Russia's sporting pride, bruised by the loss of the prestige it had enjoyed under the former communist system, and the plan was coming together.

But that dream melted away in 2015 as Russia's economy began to tank under a combination of international sanctions for Kremlin actions in Ukraine and depressed global energy prices atop persistent woes like corruption and inefficiency.

Feeling the pinch, Gazprom, a major backer of the KHL, cut funding to the KHL. Some of that money had trickled down to teams that were part of a modest KHL expansion drive westward. Not surprisingly, those teams' budgets took a hit.

Lev Prague was a shining example of KHL expansion success, drawing large crowds in 2014 as the team reached the Gagarin Cup finals, the KHL's version of the Stanley Cup. However, just months later, the club was defunct after Russian financial backers pulled out along with Gazprom.

Ukraine's only KHL team, Donbas Donetsk, dropped out at the same time, not over finances but with fighting raging in eastern Ukraine between pro-Russia separatists and pro-Kyiv forces. Two of the other expansion teams -- Slovan Bratislava and Medvescak Zagreb -- have survived, although both are reportedly struggling financially.

The KHL's bold dreams of building a truly Eurasian league were hatched by former KHL President Aleksandr Medvedev. However, in April 2015 he was voted out and replaced by Dmitry Chernyshenko, the onetime head of the Sochi Winter Olympics Organizing Committee and a reputed close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

According to Russian media, Chernyshenko was tasked by Putin with creating a "strong league that will form the basis for a strong national team." Russia last won an Olympic men's ice-hockey medal -- a bronze -- back in 2002. At home in Sochi last year, the Russians finished a disappointing fifth.

Out were plans to expand the league, in were plans to strengthen domestic teams to build a stronger Russian national team.

However, the move into China suggests the KHL hasn't totally abandoned its goals of growth but rather merely changed direction.

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