Russian hockey goes east
Viacheslav Fetisov, a two-time Olympic champion and member of the Council of the Federation, has been dreaming of going east with the KHL for years. He spoke about expansion plans back when he was Russia’s Sports Minister and Chairman of the Board of the KHL. He once spoke in favour of creating the Eurasian Hockey League, which was supposed to involve clubs from China, Japan and South Korea.
Yet it is the first time that Fetisov’s dream has been so close to becoming a reality. This summer, HC Admiral Vladivostok was formed in Russia’s easternmost city. It will join the KHL next season. Previously, there was only one ice hockey team in the Far East – HC Amur Khabarovsk. Although some call it a risky undertaking, the new ice hockey club on the Pacific Coast clearly defines the League’s development pattern.
The KHL is apparently interested not only in the European hockey space: it brings together clubs from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Latvia, Belarus and will include Croatian HC Medveščak Zagreb starting next season, but also the multi-million Asian market. Ice hockey is taking its first steps in many of the Asian countries; even so, an effective marketing campaign in China or Japan could result in attendance figures at least as high as the average for the KHL, if not higher.
“Developing a pan-Pacific KHL league is part of our long-term plan. It’s hard to speak about specific timeframes but we may have two teams from Japan, Korea and China each in our League in a couple of years”, International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) quoted Fetisov as saying on its website.
International ice hockey will obviously benefit from this move, but it is hard to say what it will bring to Russian hockey. As long as the KHL clubs live off state corporations and regional budgets, the League will never become truly cosmopolitan.
The only way for Asian clubs to join the KHL is to find local sponsors and have the League monitor the construction of arenas and engagement of players. The case of HC Slovan Bratislava proved that this option is doable, although the Slovak addition to the KHL was already a popular club, founded almost a century ago, with an army of fans.
Statements by Russian officials make it clear that the plans for the League to expand eastward are real. Valery Kan, member of the legislative assembly of Primorsky Region, said in an interview with ITAR-TASS that not only the developed Asian economies are looking to have their own ice hockey teams in the KHL, but also North Korea.
“We have spoken to the South Korean parliament speaker about Korea’s own club and some MPs asked us whether we might invite North Korea to found a club as well”, Kan said. “They are interested in promoting friendly relations with the DPRK. Russia was asked to invite a North Korean team to the KHL.”
“North Korea itself is interested”, the MP said. “They keep calling and inviting Fetisov at the level of the President of the Olympic Committee, Minister of Sport and presidents of all winter sports. By the way, there are enough rinks in North Korea.”
It is a good thing that they have rinks but North Korea, which is stuck in the 1960s, is clearly unable to play in the continent’s strongest league. For one thing, the national team is extremely weak. It became an IIHF member in 1970 and since then has remained in the lowest Division III. Forty years later, in 2010, team North Korea had its only chance to move up a notch. After winning Division III, North Korea was invited to play in Division II, but could not go to Melbourne for financial reasons. As a result, North Korea was given a technical defeat of 0-5 in all its games and, since then, has not had another chance to move up the rankings.
A North Korean club in the KHL might only be considered as a joke, offering fans enough room for countless more jokes, including about the name for the DPRK club—HC Missile, HC Juche and HC Beloved Team of the Beloved Leader.