Cross-Checked by Europe, Russian Hockey Pivots to China

Marred by European sanctions, the Russia-based Kontinental Hockey League is expanding to China.

GettyImages-133306032crop
GettyImages-133306032crop

When the Russia-based Kontinental Hockey League was founded in 2008, it had great ambitions to expand into Western Europe and rival North America’s National Hockey League, the world’s preeminent hockey association. But nearly two years of plummeting energy prices and economic struggles in Russia have squashed the league’s grandiose plans to push westward and dried up financing for several teams.

Now, recovering from its dashed European expansion, the KHL is changing strategy and looking east -- to China.

KHL deputy chairman Roman Rotenberg on Monday told Russia’s TASS news agency the league would be expanding in China, with a currently unnamed team set to play in Beijing. China’s first high-level hockey team will be financed by Russian and Chinese businesses, and according to Rotenberg, has the support of the government in Beijing as it seeks to build up a hockey program ahead of hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics.

When the Russia-based Kontinental Hockey League was founded in 2008, it had great ambitions to expand into Western Europe and rival North America’s National Hockey League, the world’s preeminent hockey association. But nearly two years of plummeting energy prices and economic struggles in Russia have squashed the league’s grandiose plans to push westward and dried up financing for several teams.

Now, recovering from its dashed European expansion, the KHL is changing strategy and looking east — to China.

KHL deputy chairman Roman Rotenberg on Monday told Russia’s TASS news agency the league would be expanding in China, with a currently unnamed team set to play in Beijing. China’s first high-level hockey team will be financed by Russian and Chinese businesses, and according to Rotenberg, has the support of the government in Beijing as it seeks to build up a hockey program ahead of hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics.

“The task is to build a hockey vertical,” said Rotenberg. “This is a priority task.”

The KHL is expanding into an untapped but potentially lucrative hockey market in China, where the league essentially will be forced to start from scratch. Rotenberg said talks are underway for a second KHL team in China, but stressed a grassroots approach.

“A second team playing in the Chinese league, a team in the youth league, and mass involvement so that all who wish can play ice hockey” is required to sustain the growth of the game in the nascent hockey market, Rotenberg said.

Last July, the International Olympic Committee awarded Beijing the hosting rights to the 2022 Winter Olympics, and the KHL hopes the Chinese government’s support can serve as a catalyst to help it conquer the country’s vast professional sport market. KHL President Dmitry Chernyshenko also has previously expressed interest in expanding into Japan and South Korea — the latter of which is set to host the 2018 Winter Olympics — as part of a “renaissance of hockey” in Asia.

Unlike Europe, the NHL has a comparatively small presence in China, giving the Russian-based league room to put down roots in Asia. Hockey there still pales in popularity to sports like soccer or basketball, and China’s national men’s hockey team currently plays in the fifth tier of the world championships, against countries like New Zealand and Mexico. The International Ice Hockey Federation estimates only 610 Chinese people, out of a population of 1.3 billion, currently play the sport. However, China did cross a milestone last June when Andong Song, the first Chinese-born player to be drafted by an NHL team, was taken by the New York Islanders.

Alexander Medvedev, the former KHL president, once predicted the league would compete with the NHL as the world’s top ice-hockey association. Backed by funding from Gazprom — Russia’s natural gas behemoth — Medvedev grew the mainly Russian league into a truly international entity with 28 teams in seven countries, including teams in the Czech Republic, Croatia, Finland, and Slovakia.

With the future looking bright and its coffers full, the KHL lured a few star players away from the NHL, including Alexander Radulov, Jaromir Jagr, and Ilya Kovalchuk, who famously walked away from a massive $77 million remaining on his 15-year contract with the New Jersey Devils. The growth of the league also managed to convince many talented young Russian players to stay at home, rather than go to the NHL, which had become the dominant trend following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Since then, however, many of the new European teams have struggled to survive. They rely on financial contributions from Russian state-owned companies, much of which has been dried up by sanctions against Moscow for meddling in Ukraine’s separatist war and annexing Crimea.

Over the last two years, the KHL’s fortune have gone downhill. The Czech team Lev Prague collapsed in 2014 due to money problems, weeks after reaching the finals. The Ukrainian team Donbass Donetsk was shut down by the conflict in its home city, and another team, Latvia’s Dinamo Riga, is struggling to gather the funds to stay afloat.

Medvedev was eventually voted out by top KHL officials in November 2014, at a meeting also attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin. He was replaced by Chernyshenko, whom Putin tasked with creating a “strong league that will form the basis for a strong national team.” Russia last won a men’s ice-hockey Olympic medal — a bronze — back in 2002. When it hosted the Winter Olympics in 2014, Russia finished a disappointing fifth.

Photo credit: ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images

Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan

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