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It’s a Well Done World – The KHL Invades
Well Done World, stories and features concerning the modern man from around the globe.
Introducing The Second Best Hockey League in the World
We all know which hockey league is the best and the most popular one in the world. But did you know which league is the second?! It is the best hockey league in Europe, a majority of its teams are based in Russia and it has a big opportunity to brand itself even more. We are talking about the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL).
In Russia and many other European countries, the biggest buzz is on the ice. That is the reason why the Kontinental Hockey League was founded in 2008. The league was formed out of the Russian Superleague (RSL) with 21 teams from Russia and one each from Belarus, Latvia and Kazakhstan. The teams were divided into 4 divisions, based on the performance in previous seasons. The first season ended in April 2009 with the very first winner of the Gagarin Cup, Ak Bars Kazan. The KHL was fighting the problem of such large travel distances for each team. In an effort to reduce this problem, the KHL introduced two conferences, East and West, based on the divisions according to geographical criteria. As to the history it is very important to mention a huge air disaster on Septemper 7th, 2011. All members of the team Lokomotiv Yaroslavl lost their lives shortly after take-off for their flight to their season opening game in Minsk. Lokomotiv Yaroslavl was forced to withdraw from the KHL season, but it returned to the KHL in 2012. In memory of the disaster, September 7th remains a day of mourning on which no KHL regular season games are held.
Nowadays, the KHL comprises 28 member clubs based in Belarus, Croatia, Finland, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Russia and Slovakia and it is still planned to expand to more countries. 21 teams are based in Russia and 7 more are located in the other countries. As to the season structure, the teams are divided into East and West conferences. It means that each conference includes 14 teams divided into two divisions, 7 teams per division. These divisions are called: Bobrov, Tarasov, Moscow and Moscow Oblast. During the regular season, each team plays 60 games. The eight top-ranked teams in each conference receive playoff berths. Within each conference quarterfinals, semifinals and finals are played before the conference winners play against each other for the Gagarin Cup. The same as in the NHL, all playoffs rounds are played as best-of-seven series. The only difference is that overtime periods last 20 minutes (or until goal is scored) and the number of overtime periods is not limited.
Another interesting fact to mention is that Russian teams are not allowed to sign more than five foreign players, while non-Russian teams must have at least five players from their respective country. During the current season, players representing 16 nations have played at least one game in the KHL. Currently there are more than 30 players from United States and around 56 players from Canada. While it is easier to understand Russian born NHL-ers going to the KHL, it is still news when Canadian or American players decide to leave a lot behind to start their new hockey life in a foreign land.
One of the teams of the KHL is HC Slovan Bratislava, the only team representing the country of Slovakia. In 2012, they left the Slovak Extraliga and joined the international Kontinental Hockey League (KHL). They play their home games at the Ondrej Nepela Arena, also known as Slovnaft Arena. The team is nicknamed Belasí, which means the “sky blues” in English. Currently there are 3 players from Canada, Cam Barker, Barry Brust, Michael Garnett, who have had also experiences with the NHL. I wanted to get an opinion from some American or Canadian players on the KHL and the challenges as well as positives of going to play in Russia.
Cam Barker, drafted by Chicago Blackhawks in the round 1 #3 in 2004 is from Winnipeg and now playing in HC Slovan Bratislava in Slovakia. We talked about the KHL and about life in Slovakia.
W: This is your 3rd season in the KHL, what was the toughest part about adjusting to KHL?
C: When I first came over to (Barys) Astana, the language barrier was a bit of an eyer opener, but coming to Slovakia I think more people speak English and it made it easier for me. Obviously I try to learn the language as much as I can, but you know it is hard in a short amount of time. I can speak a little bit of Russian, but I was there only a few months so it was hard to learn it properly. Here in Slovakia everyone is really nice, the team and the players help me a lot and makes it as easy as possible, but obviously there are differences in culture and language, so I think those are the two biggest things.
W: How do you like Bratislava/Slovakia?
C: Yeah, it is great. I came here last year during Christmas. The language barrier is not that hard, because a lot of people speak English here, so it is much easier for me to go to the grocery store for example, it is not such a big deal here. Everyone has been really really nice to me and obviously the facility is great here, the rink, the stuff, everything is great.
W: Did anything surprise you in the KHL? In a positive or negative way?
C: Obviously there is a lot of traveling in the NHL. I played in the Western conference my whole career so going from Chicago to LA or LA to the East coast it is 4 or 5 hours, but here you are traveling a lot longer than that and multiple times, you can change 4 hours of difference in one day so it makes a lot harder. So for me it was the hardest part to adopt.
W: It is said that the atmosphere is better and the fans are lounder here in Europe. What are your experiences with this?
C: Yeah fans are really loud here in Europe, and there are fan sections which you do not have in North America. On the other hand the buildings in the NHL are bigger but for the most part they are not sold out. Here we do not have that problem because we sell out most games which is great and the fan sections gets really loud here too so I think that is pretty cool. I don´t know if they do it in most of Europe but it is something I hadn´t seen before and I really like it.
W: How do you like the fan celebrations after a winning game, which are really big and famous here in HC Slovan Bratislava?
C: Yeah, it is awesome! I think it is great. I don´t know why it is not back home, maybe there are more games in the NHL or what but it is really cool that reaction of the fans, they cheer pretty loud.
W: Are you thinking about staying in the KHL or to try and have another go in the KHL?
C: I don’t know. I obviously loved to play in the NHL and you know everyone wants to play in the NHL so obviously that is the goal. But I am pretty happy here right now and I just want to focus on the season and helping our team will win. So now I will enjoy my time here.
Some media people says that the KHL could have a major impact on the NHL. Many players are accepting big contracts in Russia, as they believe the KHL will become popular enough to support their future likewise. Ilya Bryzgalov, goaltender for the Philadelphia Flyers, thinks the KHL will pose a great threat to the future of the NHL, because it will steal all the top players from Russia.
“I think some of the players may not return to the NHL because you have everything here and major companies are going to pay the top players here big money. And, especially for Russians players who can play at home in front of their own fans and families and [earn] even bigger money than they have in the National Hockey League,” said Bryzgalov.
We will see what the future brings, however I can already say with no doubt that if you visit Europe and you are a hockey fan, you should definitely see a KHL game.