In case you missed it, the NHL is still in the midst of their lockout – a long, drawn out, rapidly becoming ridiculously crazy, losing fans lockout. However, this could well be changing soon, but for now we are still without NHL hockey. Luckily I live close to AHL hockey and have been a fan of the OKC Barons for a couple of seasons now, but the lockout has even touched upon that, creating an odd hybrid, neither fish nor fowl. In mid-October I ventured forth into new uncharted territory – the KHL – the Kontinental Hockey League. A league spanning from the Czech Republic, Bratislava, Latvia, Belarus, Ukraine, Kazakhstan to the full length of Russia from West to the East, all the way to Khabarovsk. And I confess – I’ve grown very fond of that Russian Machiavellian beast.
The KHL was formed in 2008 out of its precursor the Russian Super League, and the season runs from early September to mid-February followed by playoffs. Today, the KHL consists of 26 teams spanning the length of Eastern Europe and Russia, split into two conferences, East and West with two divisions within each Conference. (By the way, @ChunkletsHockey has a very fine KHL blog over at The Road to Khabarovsk with updates on the KHL goings-on. Check it out!)
EAST (12 teams)
|Ak Bars – Kazan||Amur – Khabarovsk|
|Avtomobilist – Ekaterinburg||Avangard – Omsk|
|Metallurg – Magnitogorsk||Barys Astana – Astana, Rep. of Kazakhstan|
|Neftekhimik – Nizhnekamsk, Rep. of Tartarstan||Metallurg – Novokuznetsk|
|Traktor – Chelyabinsk||Salavat Yulayev Ufa – Ufa, Rep. of Bashkortostan|
|Yugra – Khanty-Mansiysk||Sibir – Novosibirsk|
WEST (14 teams)
|Dinamo Riga – Riga, Latvia||CSKA Moskva – Moscow|
|Donbass – Donetsk, Ukraine||Dynamo Minsk – Minsk, Belarus|
|Dynamo Moskva – Moscow||HK Atlant – Moscow|
|HC Lev Praha – Prague, Czech Republic||Lokomotiv – Yaroslav|
|HC Slovan Bratislava – Bratislava, Slovak Republic||Severstal– Cherepovets|
|SKA – St. Petersburg||Spartak Moskva – Moscow|
|Vityaz Chekov – Moscow||Torpedo – Nizhny Novgorod|
As you can see above, many of the KHL team names themselves – Torpedo, Traktor, Lokomotiv, Metallurg – hark back to the Soviet Union, the days of communist idealism and industry, along with authoritarian leadership, which led to Russia’s place in history as one of the two Superpowers of the mid-20th century. Many of today’s KHL teams were founded directly following World War II within the Soviet League which was disbanded in 1992; the Soviet League was followed by the International Ice Hockey League (IIHL) from 1992 to 1996, which was then followed by the Russian Super League from 1999 to 2008.
A few interesting historical tidbits about the teams:
- Dynamo Moskva – in the early days was sponsored by the KGB;
- Spartak Moskva – was founded in 1946 and the name refers to the Roman gladiator Spartacus;
- CSKA Moscow – originally the Soviet Army team founded in 1946;
- SKA St. Petersburg – formed in 1946, another Soviet Army team;
- Metallurg Magnitogorsk – known by most as Evgeni Malkin’s team, but also depicted in Dave King’s outstanding book, King of Russia, which describes his year coaching the team in 2005-06;
- Slovan Bratislava (nicknamed Belasí – Sky Blues) – while Slovan is the newest KHL team it is actually the oldest historically, as it was formed in 1921 – even older than almost all of the NHL teams!
Regardless when the NHL returns, and they will at some point, and most likely very soon, I will remain a KHL fan. In my boycott of all things NHL this season, I am now the proud owner of two KHL jerseys! I leave you to guess which two teams I now represent here in the U.S. Someday I even plan to visit Russia to witness some of their teams play – it is on my rapidly expanding Hockey Bucket List already. Yes, I’ve followed my favorites Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Nail Yakupov and Ilya Kovalchuk, among many others, and I’ve now watched all 26 teams play at least once this season.
I’ve also focused on the lower ranked Russian teams with no NHL superstars – teams with heart and soul, but always the underdog. My favorite by far this season is the eastern outpost of the KHL – Amur Khabarovsk – a team full of youth, heart, the toughest travel schedule of any hockey team in the world, and the ever evolving KHL intrigues. Their top tier Finnish Hockey Hall of Fame coach Hannu Jortikka was fired in mid-December only to be replaced by their previously fired coach Alexander Blinov. And meanwhile the team continues to fight their way through to the end of the season. The Vince Lombardi quote “winning isn’t everything, but the will to win is everything” strikes a chord with me here. These situations always test character, perseverance and strength – and this team has a great deal of all of that which I greatly admire. I cheer every success, no matter how large or small, and commiserate with every loss.
OKC Barons fans will recall that Yann Danis played for Amur during his 2010-11 season and this season, former OKC Barons’ defenseman Kirill Tulupov has spent part of this KHL season with Amur. Our lives are made of such connections and even through extension, a hockey team in Khabarovsk feels closer even though it is over 6,000 miles away. In past years watching games in Russia would have been impossible – but today’s technology makes it very easy when games are streamed online. Give them a try! The ice is larger, so it is a different style of hockey – more open, more focus on offense, but what amazingly beautiful hockey. Yes, you might have to wake up rather early in the morning to catch one of eastern teams play on home ice, but it is worth it. Grab that steaming large mug of freshly brewed coffee, sit back, relax, and enjoy some Russian hockey!
And, if Russian and NHL legend Viacheslav “Slava” Alexandrovich Fetisov has his way, the future of international hockey will encompass a Global Hockey League, one in which the KHL is expanded dramatically (and this is already underway!) and the winners of both the KHL’s Gagarin Cup and NHL’s Stanley Cup will face off for a World Cup. This would bring all hockey cultures much closer than ever before and create an entirely new level of competition! Can you imagine? The mere thought makes me giddy!