KHL goes from threat to nyet for NHL


“I think the KHL represents right now the biggest threat to the NHL since the WHA and maybe not today but in the future. And how short-sighted of these NHL owners to shut the NHL game down at the time when the KHL is beginning to thrive and allow for many of the NHL’s top stars, from Ovechkin to Malkin and so forth who are Russian-born, to be back in Russia promoting the KHL instead of the NHL. How short-sighted are these owners in allowing this to happen?”Allan Walsh, Oct. 2012

Two years ago, the KHL was looking like the new hotness.

It was on ESPN2, with BARRY MELROSE calling its games. It was home to a cadre of NHL stars looking to make coin during the lockout, including a few Russian stars threatening to remain there. In Summer 2013, Ilya Kovalchuk followed through on that threat: Retiring from the NHL, leaving $77 million on the table with the New Jersey Devils and moving his family back to Russia.

The new WHA! The red menace! Gary Bettman’s Putanic nightmare!

Fast forward two years, and here’s where the KHL is:

* Not on television in North America, at least on a network that’s more easily located than NBCSN.

* Watching Leo Komarov (Toronto Maple Leafs), Jori Lehtera (St. Louis Blues), Evgeny Kuznetsov (Washington Capitals), Jiri Sekac (Montreal Canadiens) and Petri Kontiola (St. Louis Blues) all leave for the NHL in the last few months.

* In Kontiola’s case, watching him pay $600,000 to the KHL to get out of a contract just to sign for $1.1 million in the NHL.

* The significant names headed from the NHL to Russia? Matt Gilroy, Matt Lashoff and Chad Billins.

* Seeing three teams cease operation for the 2014-15 KHL season: Lev Prague, Spartak Moscow and Donbass Donetsk. In the case of Lev, that’s the Gagarin Cup runner-up that just folded.

Meanwhile, the NHL is nearing $3.7 billion in revenue.

Chris Johnston looked at the KHL’s downward trend as an NHL threat, and followed the money:

“All of those guys really want to play in the NHL,” said a well-placed source in Finnish hockey circles. “They all made big money already in KHL. So it’s not about the money anymore.”

Until now, money has been the one advantage that the KHL enjoyed, especially when it came to fringe players who didn’t want to risk the possibility of earning peanuts if they were sent to the American Hockey League or top prospects that were able to earn much more than they would on an entry-level contract in the NHL.

Then you had a situation like the one Komarov faced last summer, when Dynamo gave him an offer he couldn’t refuse. The KHL team tabled twice as much money as the Leafs — $2 million — and that doesn’t even factor in Russia’s lower tax rates or the fact he had no escrow deductions to worry about overseas.

Still, when I caught up with him in February at the Olympics, you could tell that Komarov had some doubts about his decision. He strongly hinted that his return to Moscow hadn’t gone as well as he had hoped.

There are some mitigating factors for the KHL. Lev, for example, was the third most popular team in Prague, and even that Cup run wasn’t changing the dynamic. Sparta and Donbass both vow this is only a one-year shutdown, and will return to the KHL if their economic situations change.

(Please note that the KHL will still have 28 teams next season, as Lada Togliatti will return to the league, Finland’s Jokerit Helsinki starts its first KHL season and HK Sochi debuts, playing in the Olympic Bolshoy Ice Dome. Yes, a pro hockey team in Sochi. Let’s see what those attendance numbers look like.)

But the larger trend for the KHL right now is that it’s attracting fewer big name NHL stars at the end of their careers, while the younger stars are using the league as an ATM for a few seasons before ending up on the NHL, where their hearts clearly are.

And while the KHL may still march through Europe in expansion, it doesn’t feel like the same arms race it once did with the NHL. The idea of a North American franchise is now laughable. The talent pipeline’s flow has been reversed. The NHL is getting stronger, while the KHL is seeing teams fold.

The Russian League’s not going anywhere – there’s way too much money and political clout backing the KHL – but, for now, it seems like the moment has passed for the KHL as a viable threat to the NHL.

The question then becomes: What next? Does it stagger along, trying to beat any NHL expansion in the hopes that its foothold in Europe would thwart that of an NHL-backed league?

Or does the KHL become what Allan Walsh predicted it’d become (and where I’ve long thought this was all headed): The new WHA, eventually bowing to the NHL’s brand and merging with it in a massive European expansion?