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KHL expanding to London a high-risk, high-reward strategy – one aimed directly at NHL

The KHL has long seen itself as a rival to the NHL for hockey fans’ affections in Europe. Now it’s aggressively expanding – and London is its next target. Here’s how it might be built, and what it means for the NHL and Britain, as explained by Chowder’s very own Brit.

So, today comes one of perhaps the more surprising announcements in world hockey recently.

The KHL, Europe’s biggest hockey league and often touted as the second best in the world, is expanding once again…and this time, it’s coming to the UK.

This is an interesting move by the KHL…one that seems directly targeted at expanding their brand at the expense of the NHL in Europe. It’s a brave move, full of hurdles but also full of potential gain.

Before we continue, let’s point out that all financial figures are rough estimates. The British ones are based on my time working in the league and bits of information picked up from conversations with team coaches and owners…the KHL figures are based on 2012/13 information, so can probably have a good chunk added to them.

Firstly…let’s get something straight. The British hockey scene is (very) slowly expanding its native league, but bringing a KHL team to the country would require a gigantic leap beyond anything the UK game is used to, both on and off the ice. The UK Elite League usually runs on team budgets of around ¬£500,000 ($750,000) a year…that’s for everything, all in, for a top-level arena team. As an example of the levels of income, you can become a title sponsor of a good EIHL team for around ¬£20,000 ($30,000) a season.

Reports of the smallest KHL budgets this season tend to sit around thirty times that level, at around 9 million pounds a season.

Yup. Even allowing for increased sponsorship income a team playing all across the continent can demand, that’s…quite a jump.

Then, there is the standard of hockey. The UK EIHL even at its best is generally considered to be around “high ECHL” standard right now. That is…not the KHL. Any London KHL team would likely need to look to the top leagues in North America to attract the standard of players to even hope to compete. Again, that costs.

British hockey fandom, too, is often notoriously clannish. There is a tendency for many to only care about their own clubs – many fans even say they don’t care about the GB team right now because…well, there’s not enough incentive to in a fragmented, underfunded program.

Whilst there are many excited (including me) at the prospect of a country having a KHL team, others couldn’t care less or don’t see it as possible. Here, for example, is the opinion of the owner of the EIHL’s Braehead Clan, who dismisses the idea as “hyperbole”

Then of course, there is the infrastructure in the UK itself. UK hockey is the very definition of “minor league”, even at the top level, both in its attitude and infighting. Well-run clubs do exist (particularly in Cardiff, Braehead, Belfast to name a few) but the attitude of many involved with the sport is to treat it like their own personal fiefdom. TV coverage is minimal, PR gaffes are many (for example, prominent teams employing officials who will regularly insult fans and make homophobic and sexist jokes) and even when the league tries to be professional, it doesn’t work – for example,¬†forgetting the rules of their own competition and not playing overtime in a game that needed it, leading to incorrect results…or conducting a shambles of a live Cup semi-final draw involving, amongst other things, teams being drawn from a supermarket carrier bag.

This is not a league that gives confidence that it has the people involved to take over and run a team in one of the top leagues in the world.

Professionalism is often (though not always) a foreign concept here – and more importantly, there doesn’t seem to be the will to change it, at least not fast.

So…what we have here right now in the UK is essentially a hockey backwater – a place where teams are still run by estate agents and used-car salesmen, not multinational companies and Russian oligarchs. On the world stage, the UK is a plankton to the KHL’s shark.

So why is the KHL looking at the UK to what has so far been a lukewarm reception?

Because London is one of the biggest economic powerhouses in the world. Because it has a large ex-pat Russian population.

Because, if hockey does take off there, it could be a KHL goldmine. It could also make serious inroads into a country which up until now has been dominated by NHL support. British hockey fans, in the main, will watch either their own league or the NHL. That’s it.

And perhaps most importantly, because the UK is a small but dedicated hockey market. Trust me, to remain a fan of the sport in the UK with the way British hockey lurches from crisis to scandal and the frequency with which teams die and reappear, you have to be dedicated.

London itself has had two attempts to set up city-wide teams in the past few decades. The London Knights played in the old Superleague (that’s another thing with British hockey…often the league structure changes without much warning-the EIHL has lasted 13 seasons now and is considered “venerable” by UK hockey standards).

Owned by Anschutz and with the resources of one of the biggest entertainment companies in the world…it lasted five seasons before the owners pulled out. Then came the London Racers in the EIHL…who lasted three years.

That’s not to say there aren’t successful hockey teams in the city…but they tend to play at a semi-pro level and be very much attuned to a local area of the city.

In short, hockey in the UK is not a game you go into expecting to be easy. But the KHL clearly see it as a strong way to gain a foothold in Western Europe and take a bite into one of the bigger NHL markets on this side of the pond.

So, how will this work?

Well, firstly, a London team will need a home. The only permanent ice rinks in London are…not KHL standard. The biggest, at Alexandra Palace, holds around 1500 people. So they’ll need to play somewhere like the Wembley Arena, the O2 (which has already hosted NHL preseason games), or build one. That alone is a level beyond any British team (for comparison, the national ice rink and “premier” hockey venue in Britain holds 7,000 people, and is only ever full when fans from all over the country come together at playoff weekend. The highest average crowd in Britain last season was around 5,000).

It’ll then need to sell the KHL to a city and country where hockey is very much a minority sport…one with no or fragmented national media coverage (even the NHL is only available on a pay TV channel on cable, and the EIHL is currently shown once a month on TV on that same channel. One game a month. There is little or no live radio commentary even in the teams’ own cities…indeed the only way to watch an EIHL game is turn up or hope your team is playing at one that offers a paid webcast).

It will need to do this in a city that has myriad other sporting attractions, too.

There is then the hurdle of finding players. Under KHL rules, teams have to have five native-born players on their rosters.

British-born players are…not KHL standard. Very few of them have played outside the UK, and even on their own teams, most of the heavy lifting is done by “imports”. Top British stars are truly at a premium…and in a league where an AHL fourth-liner can be a goalscoring hero…they will have to step up another level to even hope to compete with KHL players. They will be on the roster, but the development path in the UK is so far below what it needs to be to produce KHL-quality players that to play them, at least in the first year or two, will not be a coach’s preferred option.

So, this mythical London team will need to recruit a competitive roster-it’ll need to be far more than your average expansion team to sell itself to a notoriously crowded sports market. To make an impact, it will need to win, and win early, or at least compete strongly. It has to be running with the big dogs of the KHL Western Conference from the start.

To do that, it will need money. Lots of it. It’ll also need affiliates and partnerships – whether that be with NHL teams, or not – it needs to find a way to get itself noticed on the UK sports scene and media coverage.

This is where the NHL would come in, either as help, or more likely, as a competitor.

You see, to British media, hockey is North American. If people in the UK are likely to know of hockey outside of their bubble, it is the NHL. Names like Ovechkin and Crosby are known over here by many. Teams like the Maple Leafs and Canadiens are at least likely to be teams your average Brit has heard of.

To sell a hockey player to a British public, there is no greater phrase than “NHL star”. To the point where it gets used for players llike Jared Staal coming over here – simply because it will make people raise their eyebrows. When Theo Fleury played in the UK, it was a name people recognised. People turned up to watch a true NHLer play, and he’s still talked about over here as a legend – not least because even coming here at 37, he was a level far above what either the media or fans had ever seen. He singlehandedly put the Belfast Giants and UK hockey on the map in a way no player has before or since.

A KHL team would need a similar effect…only it would need a team of players like that to sell the game.

For that, it will look to North America, and rely on the pull of living in one of the world’s great metropolises and playing in one of the second best leagues in the world.

It’ll have to target top AHL players. NHL tweeners.

Maybe, if the pockets of this mythical owner are deep enough, it will target NHL “names” towards the end of their careers, for the recognition. One NHL star coming to play for a KHL team in Britain would likely grab more media attention than a whole league’s worth of players this season, just in the way the likes of David Beckham going to play in the MLS did for US soccer.

In short, it’ll likely have to follow the same strategy of MLS teams in North America…but it will have the advantage over Russian teams of language and culture that is easier for ex-NHLers to adjust to than their current destinations.

What we could see, if this KHL London team happens, is a new competitor for players that might actually impact the NHL free-agent market – not at the top-end but certainly when it comes to depth players. In fact, it’s what this London franchise would HAVE to set itself up as to have any hope of succeeding.

That’s why the NHL should be at least keeping an eye on how this story goes.

A KHL team in London would take a LOT to work-in fact, it would shake British hockey to its core and require unprecedented levels of professionalism, money and promotion never seen before in Britain-but there are people in British hockey who want it to work. The fact that Britain as a hockey nation will be shaken to the core and have to revolutionise itself is just one more hurdle to leap…but one that it COULD if the KHL are committed enough.

And here is the key thing.

The KHL will likely be very committed to seeing a London team succeed indeed…because if it does, then it move the KHL much closer to being a legitimate competitor to the NHL in world hockey league terms.

And that is the endgame the KHL have begun to pursue today.

With their announcement of even tentative plans to put a league representative in one of the most important cities in the Western world, along with expansion to Helsinki, the KHL’s expansion has just fired a big shot across the NHL’s bows.

They’re saying “we’ve taken Eastern Europe. Now we’re coming for the rest of it. And we’re coming hard”.

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