A cold war that Russia may win

When the Soviet Union fought the Cold War in the sporting arena, nowhere was victory more expected, or more treasured, than on the ice rink.

Former Soviet states are looking to recreate their past glories on the rink, could their league be ready to challenge the dominance of the American-based NHL?
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When the Soviet Union fought the Cold War in the sporting arena, nowhere was victory more expected, or more treasured, than on the ice rink. For Russia there has been little except disappointment since the break-up of the Union, but the well-funded and Russia-dominated Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) enters its second season looking to change that.

The Soviet team won their first ice hockey world title in 1954, and Olympic gold two years later. By the 1970s the Soviets had become the dominant force in the international game, and their 22nd championship arrived in 1990. No other country won more than five world titles in those 46 years. Their record at the Winter Olympics was even more impressive, with just a bronze in 1960 and silver in 1980 breaking up the golden run that ended with the victory of the Unified Team of six former Soviet republics in 1992.

The break-up of the Union brought the end of the success. The trickle of players across the Atlantic to the North American National Hockey League that started in 1989 became a flood and Russia won just one of the next 17 World Championships and - worse - no Olympic golds. Football challenged hockey as the country's pre-eminent sport and the national team set the country alight with a run to the semi-finals of the 2008 European Championship.

But Russia's ice hockey players won their first world title in 15 years in the summer of 2008, and that autumn saw the first games of the KHL. Formed out of the Russian Superleague, which itself sprung from the Soviet Championship League, the KHL has 21 Russian teams and one from each of Latvia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. The inaugural season was declared a success, and as the second begins there is a feeling that its stated goal of becoming a rival to the NHL is moving closer.

One of the all-time NHL greats is leading the way. Vyacheslav Fetisov had the Soviet authorities' blessing when he became one of the country's first players to move to the NHL in 1989 after more than a decade of success with CSKA Moscow. He is chief executive of the KHL and a former cabinet minister and current deputy minister for sport. The president is Alexander Medvedev, no relation to the Russian head of state but the deputy chairman of government-controlled energy giant Gazprom, the most powerful company in Russia, and the head of the board of trustees is Sergei Naryshkin, president Dmitry Medvedev's chief of staff.

The marriage of ice hockey and power apparently goes even deeper, with Vladimir Putin revealing in July that he was a force in the creation of the project. "I didn't simply support the KHL, I was an initiator. I thought it up, because it seemed to me that after the rivalry, in the best sense of the word, between Canadian, North American, and Soviet hockey, hockey lost an awful lot. The bite disappeared," he told Sovietsky Sport newspaper.

He went on to propose that the KHL could develop into a truly pan-European league, and reinvigorate hockey by becoming a genuine competitor to the NHL. "If it is possible in current conditions to recreate this struggle between European and North American hockey on a new basis it will be very interesting. It will breathe new life into hockey," he said. "I would like it to turn into a European league that expands its borders to the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Switzerland and that turns into a fully fledged European hockey league without any of our political-administrative regulation."

Putin's vision is probably a few years off, but there is reported interest among teams in Sweden and the Czech Republic. Even without expanding beyond the former Soviet Union, the KHL is already the strongest league in Europe, attracting top talent from more and more countries, although not yet competing with the NHL for the top players. When the cream of Russian ice hockey talent gathered in Moscow two weeks ago for a pre-Olympic training camp, more than half of the players were from the KHL.

Most of the 36 attendees finished last season on NHL rosters, but four have since returned home to play in the second season of the KHL, tipping the balance in favour of Russia-based players. Fetisov will be hoping that the trend continues. "If we continue this way then within five years we will be able to compete with the NHL," he said. "We are ready to catch up with Americans as to the quality of the game, and the level of the games organisation. But there is, of course, a lot of work ahead of us."

There is a long way to go. The best Russian players still head for the NHL and there is little sign that the league's Most Valuable Player (MVP) Alexander Ovechkin will be heading for home, not with 11 years to run on his NHL-record-setting 13-year, US$124 million (Dh455m) contract with the Washington Capitals. The KHL is proud of the talent it is attracting back, including 35-year-old forward Viktor Kozlov and 39-year-old defenceman Sergei Zubov, although the NHL is not worried about such veterans heading home. There are, however, a few cases where genuinely wanted players have ditched the NHL to play in Russia, particularly Alexander Radulov and Jiri Hudler. The KHL and NHL have a gentlemen's agreement not to sign players under contract in the other league, but there are grey areas, and sometimes major disagreements.

Russian winger Radulov, who was a key member of this May's World Championship-winning side, signed with Salavat Yulaev Ufa last summer while he was still contracted to the Nashville Predators. The NHL argued that in signing Radulov to a multi-year contract, Salavat Yulaev broke the agreement between the leagues. The KHL maintained the contract was signed before the deal came into effect. Had he remained with Nashville, there was a good chance Radulov could have missed the world championships, as only NHL players on teams that do not make the playoffs are available for the start of the tournament.

The Predators narrowly missed out on the play-offs last season for the first time in five years. The gentlemen's agreement, which will probably be replaced by a formal deal negotiated under the auspices of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), held firm after Radulov's move although this off-season has thrown up another dispute. Jiri Hudler signed a two-year, US$10m contract with Dynamo Moscow this summer after rejecting the Detroit Red Wings' offer of $15m over five years. He earned $1.15m last season.

The dispute has arisen because the Czech star filed for salary arbitration two weeks before signing with Dynamo. Under NHL rules, once a player opts for an arbitration hearing, he is considered to be contracted to the team, as he is bound to sign at least a one- or two-year deal set by the arbitrator. The KHL argues that since such players do not have "operating contracts" they are free agents and can be signed without violating the gentlemen's agreement.

Hudler, a left wing, averaged 80 games and around 40 points in the last three seasons, and will be hard for the Red Wings to replace, but salary cap restrictions leave Detroit unable to match Dynamo's offer, or even the $4m, a year Hudler was reportedly seeking. Here lies the potentially serious threat to the NHL: money. The salary cap restrictions that with the draft system form the basis of keeping the football, American football baseball, basketball and ice hockey leagues in North America competitive have no equivalent in most professional sports in Europe and certainly not in Russia, where the state may meddle in the market but capitalism is brutal nonetheless.

The 30 or so players who left the NHL before the 2008-2009 season did so for a variety of reasons but money was probably the main one, be it for a veteran seeking one or two more seasons on top pay or a young player struggling to make the grade in the NHL chasing good wages and more playing time in what is still a strong league. This summer the players to move include Zubov, Kozlov, Sergei Fedorov and Dmitri Kalinin, all of whom were among the 36 players on the official list of candidates for the Russia Olympic squad released at the start of the training camp.

The political store put in the national team was again emphasised this week as Putin made an appearance at the Olympic training camp, handing out state awards, including to head coach Vyacheslav Bykov and captain Alexei Morozov, as well as Radulov and Kalinin. "For two years in a row our hockey team has been the strongest on the planet. They didn't just confirm their high title, but gave millions of fans an incomparable feeling of pride in their country." the prime minister said.

Those thoughts had been previewed 24 hours earlier, when Russian Olympic Committee President Leonid Tyagachyov, himself a gold medal-winning player, said that without ice hockey the public would have no interest in the Winter Olympics. Recalling the Soviet era, he emphasised how important the Olympic ice hockey tournament was to the country. "Second or third place in hockey for our country was a humiliation - not just for the people, but for the coaches and the players," he said.

Despite the role of the Russian leadership, the league's path to becoming a genuine rival to the NHL is still a long one. The vast majority of players jumping to the KHL are European, and the few Americans who do arrive have so far tended not to stay for long - North American players do not see the quality of the league on the ice matched by life off it. There are concerns over facilities, accommodation, travel and, of course, Russian culture.

In one of the most high-profile examples of the challenges facing the KHL, one of its brightest young players died after collapsing while on the bench near the end of a game between the Siberian team Avangard Omsk and Moscow side Vityaz Chekhov. Alexei Cherepanov was found to have a heart condition, and while similar incidents have occurred in other sports - most famously with Reggie Lewis of the Boston Celtics in basketball and most recently with Spanish football side Espanyol's captain Daniel Jarque - there was criticism of the medical care provided as paramedics took 12 minutes to arrive with a defibrillator which had a low battery.

Given the importance of success on the ice to Russia's image of its sporting self, and the level of political support for the game, do not write off the KHL just yet. The presence of 16 NHL players at the training camp is evidence of the changing tide. It is the first time such a gathering has been held. Even Germany held their camps without their NHL representatives - the insurance premiums were simply too high.

Even Canada has announced that it will for the first time fully insure its players for Olympic activities. There have been no such problems for Russia, again thanks to solid support in the corridors of power. One of the team's three major sponsors is the insurance company Ingosstrakh, which has arranged special coverage for the participants in the training sessions. The company started life, according to its website, as "a modestly sized administrative division of the USSR Ministry of Finance".

Even in the short term, the KHL could become a bargaining chip for some of the biggest players in the NHL. With the lure of the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, the NHL's MVP Ovechkin, perhaps the best player in the world today, says he cannot rule out a return home - if the NHL refuses to allow him to play in the Winter Olympics in his native Russia. sports@thenational.ae