Weekly Russian Hockey News Notes: August 24th, 2015
So here we are, just a half hour or so from the opening faceoff of the 2015-16 KHL season! SKA St. Petersburg will take on CSKA Moscow, in St. Petersburg, starting at 7:30 pm Moscow time. Before that happens, however, we have some late off-season news to deal with, including a decision by the Russian Ministry of Sport that cast the roster preparation of a number of teams into chaos. Read on (oh, and I will make a Gagarin Cup prediction…)!
The chaos of the last seven days stemmed from league-wide confusion over what exactly the rules for foreign players on Russia teams will be this coming season. Last week, we were told that players from Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kygyzstan, and Armenia would not count against the Russian KHL clubs’ limit of five foreign players per team. This decision, it seemed, had been made in accordance with the labour laws of the Eurasian Economic Union. Fair enough, and everything seemed set.
“Not so,” said the Russian Ministry of Sport last week, startingly announcing that in fact, players from those four countries WILL count as foreign if employed by KHL teams. The KHL responded to this by sticking to its guns, insisting that the EAEU law held precedence. And that is roughly where we stand now, with negotiations going on between all interested parties but no real resolution yet. For KHL teams, this could not come at a worse time; with the new season imminent, they are suddenly faced with uncertainties about which players they are actually allowed to use. In addition, if clubs do have to cancel some contracts to be in compliance with the new rule, there will be some financial penalties associated with that. And, of course, this is all very hard on those players who must suddenly worry about whether they have got jobs for the new season.
One element complicating this situation is that the governments of Belarus and Kazakhstan, trying to strengthen their countries’ national teams, have been quite liberal in giving citizenship to North American hockey players who have played for the KHL clubs in those countries. I doubt very much that the Ministry of Sport and the Russian Hockey Federation have as much difficulty with “actual” Belarusans and Kazakhs playing for Russian teams in the KHL. However, to give just one example, last season saw CSKA Moscow goalie Kevin Lalande (born in Kingston, Ontario), not counted as a foreign player, as he had taken Belarusan citizenship during his three-year tenure with Dinamo Minsk. That sort of thing has raised some eyebrows, and is likely at least part of the reason for the Ministry of Sport’s decision this week.
For now, we wait to see what happens next, as this story is by no means over. The best solution, likely, is postponement of any final decision until next season, or at least until later, which would allow KHL teams to carry on for now with the rosters they have built and give them some time to adapt to any new rules.
The confusion over the foreign player rules has already cost one KHL team dearly. Lokomotiv Yaroslavl were forced this week to unload forward Geoff Platt, as they were unsure if they would actually be able to play him. Platt, from Toronto, is another Canadian with Belarusan citizenship, and played for the latter country at the 2014 World Championship. Last season with Lokomotiv, he saw the ice in all 60 games, scoring 17-13-30 and leading the team in goals. For 2015-16, however, he will be part of the powerhouse CSKA Moscow lineup, for whom he has signed a one-year contract.
Platt’s unexpected departure is a huge blow to the Lokomotiv forward corps, which had already bid farewell to Pittsburgh-bound Sergei Plotnikov this summer. The team does have seem nice new acquisitions to look forward to — goalie Alexei Murygin and Swedish defenseman Patrik Hersley, to name two — but it is difficult right now to see them as serious Gagarin Cup contenders.
Time for a little bit of international hockey news. It remains unknown whether the NHL will participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea; negotiations are ongoing on the subject. This week, however, Alexander Ovechkin announced that, whatever decision the league and IOC come to, he will be Pyeongchang with Team Russia. I doubt very much that he is the only NHL player having such thoughts, so we will see what happens!
Also in international hockey news, the Russian Hockey Federation has been fined 80,000 Swiss Francs (c. $85,000 USD) by the IIHF. The fine is punishment for the Russian national team leaving the ice prior to the playing of “O Canada” after the gold medal game at the most recent IIHF World Championship this spring. All indications are that the FHR will not appeal the decision, but will simply pay the fine.
There was some women’s hockey pre-season action this week involving Russian teams. Biryusa Krasnoyarsk, who are affiliated with VHL side HK Sokol, were in Slovakia to take part in the the 2015 Women’s Hockey Challenge. Biryusa came second in the four-team tournament, defeating HK Poprad of Slovakia by a 2-1 score and Czech side Slavia Prague by 7-4. However, despite a hat-trick from Valeriya Pavlova, the Siberian club lost 6-4 in the tournament-deciding game to EHC Sabres Vienna.
Another intriguing women’s pre-season tournament starts this coming week, in Ufa. Local team HK Agidel (part of the Salavat Yulaev Ufa club), will welcome three other teams to the city for games from the 25th to the 28th of August. Those other participants will be Agidel’s Russian Women’s Hockey League rivals SKIF Nizhny Novgorod, Kazakh women’s league champions Aisulu Almaty, and a representative team composed from players from other ex-Soviet republics. We will check in on how it went in next week’s news notes!
As noted above, the KHL season begins tomorrow, but so does one of the big pre-season junior tournaments in Russia. The Junior Club World Cup will go on in Sverdlovsk Oblast (Yekaterinburg, Nizhny Tagil, and Verkhnyaya Pyshma are the towns involved), and will feature eight U20 teams from seven different countries. This year’s participants are:
- Avto Yekaterinburg (MHL)
- Chicago Steel (USHL)
- HK Riga (MHL)
- Snezhnye Barsy Astana (MHL)
- Chaika Nizhny Novgorod (MHL)
- TPS Turku U20 (Finland)
- Djurgårdens IF U20 (Sweden)
- Dinamo Bobruisk (Belarus)
No teams from the Canadian junior leagues in this year’s event, although they have taken part in the past.
And the last of the KHL’s big pre-season tournaments wrapped up last week. In Magnitogorsk, at the Ivan Romazan Memorial Tournament, Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg emerging as surprising victors, defeating Avangard Omsk, Sibir Novosibirsk, and Traktor Chelyabinsk while only losing in overtime to hosts Metallurg. For Avtomobilist, the 3-1 win over Avangard must have been especially satisfying; they had lost 8-1 to the Omsk side earlier in the pre-season. Traktor earned second place at the Romazan tournament, while Avangard ended up in third.
In Riga, at the Latvian Railways Cup, Ak Bars Kazan won the honours, defeating Lokomotiv Yaroslavl 2-0 in the final. It was only one game, and an exhibition game at that, but Ak Bars will have been very happy to see young Fyodor Malykhin with a goal and an assist. Malykhin was considered one of the best prospects in Russian hockey when he came over from Avtomobilist last summer, but he had a dreadful 2014-15 campaign in Kazan (37 gp, 6-4-10 after 54 gp, 22-22-44 the year previous). Host team Dinamo Riga took third place, beating Dinamo Minsk in the bronze medal game.
Finally, defending KHL champions SKA St. Petersburg won their home tournament, the Nikolai Puchkov Memorial, by beating Jokerit Helsinki, HK Sochi, and Severstal Cherepovets. It was a nice way for SKA to finish what has been something of a trying off-season, with key players departing, their coach Vyacheslav Bykov unexpectedly stepping down, and the rocky beginning to the reign of his replacement, Andrei Nazarov. HK Sochi did enough to take second place at the Puchkov tournament.
We discussed last week the KHL’s announcement that there will be a 2015-16 regular season game held in Italy in October, and now you can possibly add another entry to the “exotic locations” file. Medveščak Zagreb are angling to hold a pair of KHL games at the ancient Roman amphitheatre in Pula, Croatia. The stadium was completed in the late first century A.D., during the reign of the Emperor Titus, and obviously remains in very good shape. Medveščak have played there before, hosting a couple of matches at the amphitheatre in 2012, when the team was in the Austrian League.
Sticking with the topic of places, there was an interesting comment this past week from IIHF President René Fasel. Fasel stated that he would like to see not one, but two Chinese teams in the KHL eventually, to help boost participation in the sport in advance of the Chinese-hosted 2022 Winter Olympics. With the KHL, the Chinese Ice Hockey Association, and the IIHF all now firmly on board with this project, it is beginning to look very much like it will go ahead, with a Chinese KHL entrant possible as early as next season.
In the meantime, roll on the 2015-16 season. We’ll keep you up-to-date on all the goings-on of the season right here, so I hope you will drop by often! There is much to look forward to, including next spring’s Gagarin Cup final, when — you heard it here first — CSKA Moscow will defeat Salavat Yalaev Ufa in six games!