Coming Soon - The KHL's North American Division

Rob Carr - Getty Images

Labor unrest, NHL arrogance, and demand for teams might lead to new competition for the NHL.

For the uninitiated, KHL stands for Kontinental Hockey League (in Russian). It is the most prominent hockey league in Eastern Europe, and probably in Europe as a whole. Most of the teams are in Russia or one of the republics of the former USSR. The KHL has been very aggressive in recruiting talent, and paying that talent extremely well, or in the early days, writing huge contracts that crater teams (this problem seems to have been rectified). It is seen in North America as either the launching pad for young Eastern European talent, or the landing zone for NHL stars who are looking for a few big paychecks before they retire.

In Europe, the view is a bit different. In recent years, the KHL has been expanding westward into Central Europe, adding teams in Slovakia, Czech, and Ukraine. Interest in franchises has also come from groups in Switzerland, Italy, and Croatia, while established teams in Sweden, Finland, and Germany have expressed interest in joining a pan-European hockey league based around the current KHL.

What would it take for the KHL to establish a foothold in North America?

Before anyone says that establishing a new top level professional hockey league in North America is impossible, let's look back to 1972 and an upstart league called the World Hockey Association. The WHA took advantage of discontent among the NHL players with key elements in the NHL standard contract and relatively low NHL salaries to attract some high-profile players - including Bobby Hull from the Chicago Blackhawks. The most grievous part of the NHL standard contract was the Reserve Clause, which gave the team the right to a 1 year extension to the contract in perpetuity. It basically tied a player to a team for life, or until the player was traded.

There was sufficient demand for teams to initially create a league of 12, although the quality of some of the ownership groups was poor; the league had teething issues, and several teams either folded or relocated. Ultimately 4 teams were merged into the NHL including the Edmonton Oilers, the New England Whalers (later Hartford Whalers, and now the Carolina Hurricanes), the original Winnipeg Jets (now Phoenix Coyotes), and the Quebec Nordiques (now your Colorado Avalanche).

Initially the NHL tried to ignore the WHA, but once they failed to go away and started to attract real talent, they tried to stop the WHA in the courts. This failed miserably to the extent that the Reserve Clause was invalidated (the key to the NHL's monopoly on hockey talent), and the NHL's stranglehold on the North American hockey market was broken. And, while the WHA was cast as the weak sister to the NHL, it should be noted most WHA teams were decimated by the "re-entry draft" and reclaim of players who had defected to the WHA prior to the merger. In other words, the WHA had managed to attract significant talent that the NHL wanted back. They had also attracted some young talent, like Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier, that the NHL desperately needed to have. It is also interesting to recall that 4 years after the merger, the Edmonton Oilers became one of the great dynasties in NHL history.

So, the WHA was built on the following:

  • Labor discontent
  • Ownership demand
  • Available facilities in un- or under-served markets
  • NHL arrogance.

Let's pretend for a moment that the NHL and the NHLPA are unable to settle their differences during the 2012-2013 season, and the lockout drags on into a 2nd season. Many Canadian and American players stayed home and worked out on their own or with teammates through the lockout in hopes that the lockout would end and play would resume. Now they are facing a second year without hockey, and particularly for lower tier players, a second year without a fat paycheck. We could also see the NHLPA attempt to play the KHL as a lever against the NHL's negotiating power in a way similar to the WHA and the Reserve Clause.

Labor discontent...check.

There have been no shortage of ownership groups investigating the purchase of the Phoenix Coyotes with the goal of relocation (far fewer have been interested in keeping them in Phoenix). The rapid move of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg shows that demand is there for top tier professional hockey franchises. One could reasonably expect that the franchise fee for a KHL team would not be nearly as high as the cost of an established NHL franchise plus the NHL relocation fee since the KHL is viewed in North America as an inferior product, and the KHL is motivated. Finding a half-dozen qualified ownership groups in the US and Canada should be manageable.

Ownership demand...check.

Seattle, Portland, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Hamilton, Hartford, and Quebec have long been clamoring for NHL franchises. There are other large un-served population centers in Cleveland, Houston, and Atlanta. Kansas City has an NHL-ready arena, and has been used as leverage by the Penguins to get a new arena built in Pittsburgh. Seattle is being similarly played by the Edmonton Oilers management even though Seattle does not yet have NHL caliber facilities, but plans are in the works. A Russian tycoon has recently built a NHL quality facility in Brooklyn, NY, and will be hosting 2 KHL games there this year. Atlanta, Houston and Cleveland all host NBA teams, and dual use facilities exist in each. Hamilton Ontario and Quebec City both have new arenas either on the books or in the works.

Un- or under-served markets with top level hockey facilities...check.

Now we get to NHL arrogance. The current lockout is a beautiful example of arrogance in action. Both the NHL and the NHLPA are taking the support of their fan base for granted. By locking out the players, the NHL has said in effect that the fans don't matter, the players don't matter, all that matters is breaking the NHLPA again. The drive to keep a failed franchise in Phoenix is another fine example, with the NHL refusing to believe that pushing hockey into Arizona was a bridge too far in the Southern expansion strategy. Examples abound, but it's clear that arrogance is not in short supply.

NHL arrogance...check.

OK, so all the pieces that the WHA used to get their start are in place. Yet, the WHA was a failure from the standpoint of its long term existence. In that respect, the KHL has distinct advantage. They have been in existence since March 2008, and have 26 teams already. This is an expansion and not a cold start. The KHL will need a few more items before expansion is viable. They need mass media exposure (and the cash that brings in), and some star power to get the fans in the seats in a gate-driven sport.

The KHL announced that they will be working with ESPN to broadcast live KHL games (from Russia, no less) on ESPN3, the on-line streaming arm of ESPN. ESPN then announced that KHL games will be re-broadcast during prime time on ESPN2, a widely carried basic cable service in the US. The Toronto Sun is reporting that several Canadian networks are also talking to the KHL about showing their games during the NHL lockout.

Television contracts...check, and nearly check.

Star power is the last element. The WHA paid the largest-of-its-time contract to Bobby Hull to buy respectability. The KHL won't have to do that. They currently have under contract players like Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeny Malkin, and it's not inconceivable that more big name players will move to the KHL before the lockout is over. North American teams could expect to garner interest from North American stars who are currently idle.

Star power...check.

The last item for a successful KHL expansion is logistical. How do you play games across 15 time zones?

One to two game road trips are practical in the NHL because the league only encompasses the 4 primary North American time zones. No flight is much more than 4 hours. This would not be the case for an expanded KHL. It is not, however, unworkable. There are two factors to consider, travel, and saturation of games against nearby divisional teams. There would need to be enough teams in the North American expansion so that any intra-divisional play would not get repetitive. The NHL started with 6 teams and survived, there are 5 teams in every NHL division, and there are either 6 or 7 teams in every KHL division. These seem like magic numbers, and there would need to be balanced scheduling between division and non-division opponents.

Any road trip by European or Asian teams would need to be of sufficient duration to reduce the effects of long distance travel. It's fair to assume that 5 or 6 games over a 10 day span would be likely. It would be necessary to have at least 3 or 4 opponents to be able to make this kind of play interesting. More would be better. As it is, teams from KHL's Western Divisions often have to travel to the Pacific coast (far East) for games today, so long distance travel is part of the KHL culture.

A pattern is beginning to emerge. There are 6 or 7 cities that could successfully host a franchise, 6 or 7 teams make for interesting intra-divisional play, and 6 or 7 teams would make inter-continental road trips feasible. So, the primary logistical requirement for North American expansion is getting 6 or 7 teams established.

Part of the logistics has to be the playoff and championship format. Again, playoff hockey could cover 15 timezones. One can look to NCAA basketball and FIFA soccer/football for a possible solution. Akin to the NCAA Regionals, the KHL could use pool play (like the regional pool play in the World Cup) to select the final 8 teams. This would take place in select cities to reduce travel, and also to create a spectacle. The final 8 could then play an NHL-style 7 game elimination bracket to determine the winner of the Gagarin Cup. "Final-8" Games would be located in the teams' home cities, and might use a 2-3-2 schedule to limit the amount of travel.

Logistics...check.

A last factor that is not taken into account here is quality of play. The worldwide attraction of the NHL is the depth of the talent pool. The NHL attracts the best players because it has the best players. If the KHL were to step in, it is possible that the top levels of hockey would see a dilution of talent that would reduce the quality of play at the highest levels. This in not attractive at all to the devoted hockey fan.

So, could the KHL expand into North America? I think the answer to that is that it could be done. It will take a nearly unprecedented level of arrogance on the part of the NHL and serious gumption on the part of the KHL for it to actually happen, but it's not impossible.

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