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New Russian Hockey League Reeling After Tragic Plane Crash

A KHL match between Salavat Yulayev and Ak Bars Kazan in Ufa, Bashkortostan, in March 2011
A KHL match between Salavat Yulayev and Ak Bars Kazan in Ufa, Bashkortostan, in March 2011
The September 7 plane crash that wiped out virtually the entire Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey team was not only a tragedy but also a severe blow to the fledgling Continental Hockey League (KHL), a high-profile, well-financed project intended to revive one of Russia's most beloved sports.

Russian sports journalist Oleg Vinokurov told RFE/RL's Russian Service that the ill-fated Yaroslavl team was a gem of the KHL.

"This was one of the leaders of Russian hockey, a team that was always viewed as a contender at the beginning of every season, including being a contender for the Gagarin Cup, the most prestigious competition of the KHL," Vinokurov said. "Before this season, Lokomotiv bolstered its team. The club and its fans were entering the new season with the very best hopes."

In the immediate wake of the disaster, the league has pulled together, with teams pledging to provide players and assistance to rebuild the Yaroslavl franchise and the start of the 2011-12 season being postponed until September 12. The KHL also announced it will take over all arrangements for team flights in the future.

But the Yaroslavl disaster will certainly be a major setback for the young league, which is still trying to establish itself in a world dominated by the North American National Hockey League (NHL).

Strongest In Europe

The Russian-centered KHL debuted in 2008 and now includes 24 teams, 20 of which are based in Russia. The other four are from Belarus, Latvia, Kazakhstan, and Slovakia. The failure of the league to attract teams from hockey-mad Scandinavia has been seen as a major shortcoming. Nonetheless, the league is already considered the strongest hockey league in Europe.

Members of the Lokomotive Yaroslavl hockey team pose for a team photo in August.

Created as a mechanism to keep Russian players from spending their careers in the NHL, the KHL was the brainchild of former Soviet hockey legend Vyacheslav Fetisov, who is the chairman of the league's board of directors.

In the 1980s, defenseman Fetisov was a star for CSKA Moscow, the powerhouse Red Army team that played 36 games against NHL teams between 1975 and 1991, winning 26 and losing just eight.

But Fetisov broke ranks, going on to play in the NHL in the 1990s, helping the Detroit Red Wings to back-to-back championships in 1997 and 1998. He led a wave of subsequent Russian players into the North American league.

It was Prime Minister Vladimir Putin who tapped Fetisov to return to Russia, to help set up the KHL as a prestige project for a resurgent country. Putin said the project was a step toward "restoring a single humanitarian space on the post-Soviet territory."

With such firm political support, the league quickly attracted the attention of major companies and businesspeople. Its main sponsor is state-controlled Gazprom, and Gazprom Deputy Chairman Aleksandr Medvedev is the league's president and president of the KHL's franchise in St. Petersburg. Oligarch Roman Abramovich owns the league's team in Omsk. In just a few short years, glittering new hockey arenas appeared like mushrooms across Russia and players were inking lucrative contracts.

Stable Financial Footing

Speaking on the eve of the league's season opener this year and before the Yaroslavl disaster, Russian sports journalist Sergei Mikulik told RFE/RL's Russian Service that KHL was on a stable financial footing.

"There were fears when this big 'bubble' appeared that it would turn out to be fragile," Mikulik said. "In soccer, for instance, one after another teams simply disappear and then some others try to form, going around with their hands out -- and not only in their own regions.

"But the KHL, with the exception of a few cases such as Togliatti, where the stadium was not built despite promises, everything has developed quite smoothly; everything is paid precisely and as scheduled; all obligations are met. And all transfers are carried out in a civilized way."

In addition to providing a home for young Russian players, the KHL has become a place where some NHL players, attracted by generous salaries, turn to play out their careers. The Yaroslavl disaster could put the brakes on that process, at least for a while. Many foreign players had already expressed concern about the state of Russian air travel and other Russian infrastructure, and the victims in Yaroslavl came from at least eight countries, including Belarus, Canada, Czech Republic, Germany, Latvia, Slovakia, and Ukraine.

The KHL suffered a major blow to its international prestige in October 2008, when Avangard Omsk forward Aleksei Cherepanov suffered a fatal heart attack on the bench during a match. It took more than 10 minutes for a doctor to arrive, and the ambulance that had been at the stadium had left early and had to be recalled. The battery in the defibrillator used on Cherepanov was dead.

But the KHL has undoubtedly achieved much in its short life, although Mikulik says it is unrealistic to compare the league with the long-established NHL.

"The level of play there will always be better. They have more fans because the infrastructure is well-established and the stadiums are bigger," he said. "So we have a long way to go to catch up. And maybe that is unrealistic. But creating some sort of mini-NHL -- I think the KHL in its way has already done this, which just four years ago, no one expected."

written in Prague by RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson, based on reporting from Moscow and Yaroslavl by RFE/RL's Russian Service
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