Changes Coming in Russian Junior Hockey
The 2014-15 Russian junior season came to an end a couple of weeks ago when Chaika Nizhny Novgorod defeated SKA-1946 St. Petersburg to win their first ever Kharlamov Cup. The win ushered in what is certainly going to be a summer of massive changes in the MHL – the country’s two-tier league for the 16-20-year-old set. For a couple of months now there have tales floating about of massive reorganization of the junior game, and we finally have some early indications of what it might all might look like when it’s done.
The kerfuffle, if we can call it that, over the junior hockey setup in Russia began back in February, when the Russian Hockey Federation announced that it was turning over complete control of the championship to the KHL. This led to some panicked rumours about what the league had in mind, including worries about a drastic cutback in the number of youth teams operating in the country. The main fear was that the KHL would restrict junior hockey only to those teams affiliated with a KHL club, leading to the mass folding of independent junior teams and those affiliated to clubs in the minor professional league, the VHL. These ominous pre-suppositions have, fortunately, proved largely unfounded, and late last week we got a preliminary look at what will actually happen.
The MHL’s top division (MHL-A), played last season with 39 teams, plus another 31 in the second-tier MHL-B. For 2015-16, MHL-A will indeed be shrunk, but only to 30 teams, and it appears that most if not all of the “extra” teams will head to MHL-B rather than disappear entirely. The 30 MHL-A teams will play in two conferences, organized roughly geographically, with no inter-conference play until the Kharlamov Cup Final. And here, per the MHL itself, is the preliminary list of MHL-A participants for next season, with their KHL or other pro affiliates in brackets (and I stress that this is a preliminary list — do not be at all surprised if there is a change or two between now and September):
|WEST CONFERENCE||EAST CONFERENCE|
|Almaz Cherepovets (Severstal)||Avto Yekaterinburg (Avto)|
|Amurskie Tigry Khabarovsk (Amur)||Belye Medvedi Chelyabinsk (Traktor)|
|Atlanty Moscow Oblast (Vityaz)||Chaika Nizhny Novgorod (Torpedo)|
|Berkuty Kubani Krasnodar (Kuban*)||Irbis Kazan (Ak Bars)|
|Dinamo-Raubichi Minsk (Dinamo Minsk)||Kuznetskie Medvedi Novokuznetsk (Metallurg Novokuznetsk)|
|Dynamo St. Petersburg (Dynamo Moscow)||Ladya Tolyatti (Lada)|
|HK Riga (Dinamo Riga)||Mamonty Ugry Khanty-Mansiysk (Ugra)|
|Krasnaya Armiya Moscow (CSKA)||Olimpiya Kirovo-Chepetsk (Independent*)|
|Loko Yaroslavl (Lokomotiv)||Omskie Yastreby Omsk Oblast (Avangard)|
|MHK Spartak Moscow (Spartak)||Reaktor Nizhnekamsk (Neftekhimik)|
|MVD Balashikha (Dynamo Moscow)||Sarmaty Orenburzhya Orenburg (Yuzhny Ural Orsk*)|
|Russia U18 National Team (FHR*)||Sibirskie Snaipery Novosibirsk (Sibir)|
|Russkie Vityazi Chekhov (Vityaz)||Snezhnye Barsy Astana (Barys)|
|SKA-1946 St. Petersburg (SKA)||Stalnye Lisy Magnitogorsk (Metallurg Magnitogorsk)|
|SKA-Serebryanye Lvy St. Petersburg (SKA)||Tolpar Ufa (Salavat Yulaev)|
The asterisk (*) denotes teams not affiliated with a KHL club.
Probably the most intriguing item in that list of teams is the inclusion of the Russian U18 national squad. This sort of thing is not unprecedented in European hockey; Slovakia’s U20 junior team has played a partial schedule in that country’s top professional league for several seasons now as HK Orange 20. However, a number of questions remain about the Russian U18 team’s inclusion. Whence will it draw its players, and under what rules (i.e., will there be limits to ensure that no other teams see their rosters pillaged too deeply)? How will the team do? Even with the reduced upper age limit in the MHL (we’ll get to that item in a bit), the U18ers will still be facing older competition most nights, and the difference between 19 years old and 17 can be a big one. And — most importantly from the point of view of the Russian Hockey Federation — will the gambit pay dividends on the international scene? Russia has not won the IIHF World U18 Championship since 2007, and more alarmingly has not even been on the podium since picking up a bronze medal in 2011. The first of those questions, regarding regulations and the U18 team’s roster, should be answered in fairly short order; for the others, we will have to wait for the 2015-16 season to unfold.
As for the rest of the list, it’s obviously slanted towards the KHL, although not to the extent that was feared. Apart from the U18 team, run by the FHR, next season’s MHL-A will include two teams with a VHL affiliate: Berkuty Kubani (part of the Kuban Krasnodar club), and Yuzhny Ural Orsk’s new junior club, Sarmaty Orenburzhya in Orenburg. There will also be an independent outfit in the form of Olimpiya Kirovo-Chepetsk.
The U18 squad is one of three newcomers to the league — the others are the afore-mentioned Sarmaty Orenburzhya, who will replace departed independent club Belye Tigry Orenburg, and Dinamo-Raubichi Minsk, replacing Dinamo-Shinnik Bobruisk as the MHL affiliate of Dinamo Minsk. Dinamo-Shinnik, it is believed, will take part in the Belarusian Extraleague next season.
It should be noted that not all KHL teams will have an MHL-A affiliate under the proposed plan. Some of the big league’s non-Russian teams (Jokerit Helsinki & Medveščak Zagreb) have their youth programs in their own domestic leagues. HK Sochi and Admiral Vladivostok, as relatively newly-formed outfits, are still constructing their youth programs, and so do not yet have full junior teams. And, sadly, neither Atlant Moscow Oblast nor Slovan Bratislava are expected to be part of the KHL in 2015-16 due to financial exigency. The former’s junior club, Atlanty, will probably be taken over by Vityaz Moscow Oblast. If this does happen, then Vityaz, SKA St. Petersburg, and Dynamo Moscow will all have two affiliated teams in MHL-A.
For the sake of brevity, I won’t discuss all the teams departing from MHL-A in the reorganization, except to note that they include most of the independent and VHL-affiliated clubs. I would expect a certain number of them to reappear in MHL-B, but several will no doubt vanish from the scene entirely. There is, however, one that I would like to mention specifically — I was saddened not to see Sakhalinskie Akuly, the “Sakhalin Sharks” from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, on the preliminary list of MHL-A teams for next season. That team’s founding, in the summer of 2014, was seen as a big stride forward for the development of the game in Russia’s far, far, East, and I very much hope that they have not disappeared for good.
Enough for now about the composition of MHL-A, then — how will it all work? The plan, and once again it is a preliminary one, is to have each team play 56 games, four apiece against each of its conference-mates. The top eight in each conference will make the playoffs, with the eventual conference champions meeting to determine the destination of the Kharlamov Cup. This means that the playoffs will be shortened by one round compared to previous years, when 32 teams qualified for the post-season. Previous seasons have also featured promotion and relegation between the two MHL leagues, but we have no word yet on whether that will continue (Update: Some unofficial indication today that promotion and relegation will in fact continue).
The MHL will be a younger league than in past seasons; only kids born in 1996 or later will qualify to play in it, meaning that the oldest players will just have turned 20 when the 2015-16 season ends. Previously, 21- and even some 22-year-olds were permitted to play in the league.
And, finally, we come to the part of the proposed program that may be a bit contentious. Among the announced changes is a rule requiring Russian teams in MHL-A (i.e. all of them except the teams in Riga, Minsk, and Astana) to use only Russian players. Now, I did a spot-check of six, randomly-chosen, Russian teams from last year’s MHL-A and found only four non-Russian players in total, so this is hardly likely to shake things up too much. And other junior circuits, including the Canadian Hockey League, have import restrictions of their own. However, I also have the nagging thought that artificially reducing competition for spots on top-level spots on junior teams may not be of benefit to the development of Russian hockey. Of course, the FHR would like as many spots as possible available to young Russian hockey players to keep them from leaving for North America, especially given the reduced number of teams in MHL-A, and that’s understandable too.
Are these good changes, taken as a whole? Well, including the caveat that they are not yet carved in stone, I think we need to say a tentative “yes” to that, by and large. Reducing the number of teams in MHL-A should make for better competition, both at the top level and in MHL-B. And it is reassuring, not to mention crucially important, that provision has been made for independent and VHL-affiliated junior squads to play on, even if it is in the lower league. Finally, while I do have some mild concerns, as noted, about restricting most of the lineups to only Russian kids, I’m a fan of the tightening of the age limit. In any case, the reorganization of Russian junior hockey, and its effects, will be one of the big stories of the 2015-16 season, and we will keep a close eye here on any further developments in that sphere!