Chernyshenko Talks Tough
As Team Russia trundles along at the World Championship (today’s 3-0 win over Czechia booked a Saturday semi-final date with old rivals Canada), the KHL has been moving forward with its plans for next season and beyond. The league’s top executives met on Tuesday, and the end product was some blunt speech from KHL President Dmitry Chernyshenko on the subject of contraction, team debt, and the like. Read on, for some choice quotes from Chernyshenko, and some discussion thereof.
Chernyshenko’s post-meeting comments were reported at the league website, and the quotes I have used here are from the site’s English-language translation (the original Russian version is here, and I can tell you that the translation is a decent one). The President’s comments covered a wide range of territory, and I encourage you to check them out. I do not intend in this post to explore all of what Chernyshenko had to say, but one area that was touched upon was the possible league line-up of teams for next season. Said Chernyshenko:
“We analyzed a large quantity of data and mathematically calculated that, at this given moment, the optimum number of clubs in the League is 24. We have realized that revising the number of member clubs and optimizing their staffing structure will enable us to solve the problem of spending cuts and also stimulate the labor market. At the moment, the highly skilled players are spread too thinly among the clubs. It follows that the quality of play will improve, and with it the entertainment value and commercial potential of the League.”
Contraction talk has been rumbling away in the background through most of this past season, and we see now that it was no idle chatter. The KHL currently has 29 teams, which means that five must go to reach that ideal 24. And perhaps not just five, either; Chernyshenko also indicated in his comments that the league remains very interested in expansion into Russia’s near abroad, both in Europe and Asia.
Now, the immediate question of course is: which teams will be shown the door? Chernyshenko did not name names on this occasion, but we can garner some clues from his statements. When addressing the ongoing issue of teams in debt (usually although not always through arrears in wage payments):
“I am not satisfied with the current situation. We still have some time before the Board of Directors meet, and we must decide whether to admit clubs which have not provided all the information. There are several teams who have not done so, and I believe this is far from ideal, and I shall put this question before the Board of Directors – we continue this unhealthy practice of tolerating debts to players and shifting them from season to season. We found there to be essentially the same level of debt in the League, concerning almost the same clubs. The average period of delayed payment sometimes exceeds 100 days. It seems that some clubs take money from sponsors, pay off old debts, and then accumulate new ones. And considering the proportion of debts in respect of the budgets of certain clubs, I believe this practice is disrespectful to the players and to the League. The amounts, in my opinion, are not crippling.”
During the 2016 off-season, the KHL stated quite strongly that it was considering ousting any teams with wage debts, although it ultimately backed off on the threat. However, Chernyshenko went on to say in this week’s comments that the old system, under which the league worked with teams and the KHL Players’ Union to re-structure wage debts, was no longer acceptable; it sounds, perhaps, like the league in 2017 is prepared to follow through on the notion of expelling clubs in arrears. We shall see; clubs have until the end of this month to clear up debts from the 2016-17 season.
Chernyshenko also addressed the combined effects of financial problems and uncompetitive teams (these issues, obviously, complement and feed off of each other in a vicious sort of circle):
“[W]e have clubs in the League which receive funding from public sources, yet do not compete successfully in the Championship and continue to languish in the lower reaches of the standings, doing little to attract interest in the League. Spending on these clubs amounts to several billion rubles, without any economic effect. There are clubs that gather a large number of spectators and have high ratings for broadcast games, and others that drag down the financial efficiency of the KHL and do not even pay their way in the tournament. Often the matches involving these clubs do not break even.”
Those last two statements give us something of an idea, and an unsurprising one, of where Chernyshenko might be looking to make cuts to the KHL. So, back to the original question of which teams might be on their way out this summer. We already probably know one answer: it is all but 100% assured that Medveščak Zagreb have played their last KHL games, at least for the near future. The Croatian club’s enthusiastic fans and splendid game-day atmosphere in the Dom Sportova arena drew deserved plaudits, but the brutal truth is that Medveščak had some serious difficulties. Often in the news for financial reasons of the wrong kind, the team struggled on the ice, making the playoffs just once in its four KHL campaigns (that was in 2013-14, Medveščak’s first KHL campaign). It was a sadness, but not a huge surprise, when it was announced this spring that the team will be joining the Austria-based EBEL for the coming season.
KHL fans and observers likely have their own mental lists of candidate teams for contraction, and those lists likely vary somewhat. However, I would venture to suggest that from none of those lists is absent the name of Metallurg Novokuznetsk (indeed, that is a team that has been mentioned frequently in media reports of Chernyshenko’s comments this week). Although a decent enough squad during the Russian Superleague years, “Kuznya,” as they are colloquially known, have never seen the KHL post-season; their best KHL season was 2011-12, when they went 24-30 and finished ninth in the East Conference, one spot back of the playoffs. Four times in the KHL’s nine-year history, Kuznya have ended up dead last in the league, including in both of the two most recent seasons. And the money troubles have been right there too, particularly early in this most recent season, when the club’s day-to-day existence appeared for a time to be under threat.
Losing Metallurg Novokuznetsk might be, in the cold light of day, better overall for the financial and sporting health of the KHL, but it is not a move that would come without a cost. During the crisis last October (see link immediately above here), I summed up the problem, and Kuznya’s possible salvation, thus:
“One thing that might save the team from Siberia’s industrial heartland? Kuznya’s record as a hockey development centre is genuinely admirable. Recent graduates of the club’s youth ranks include established goaltending stars Sergei Bobrovsky (Columbus Blue Jackets) and Ilya Sorokin (CSKA Moscow), along with emerging talents such as Anton Slepyshev (Edmonton Oilers) and Kirill Kaprizov (Salavat Yulaev Ufa). Keeping such players at Metallurg for their pro careers has proved impossible for financial reasons, but the fact remains that the Kuzbass produces hockey players at a very nice rate, and the powers that be in the Russian game will want to preserve that.”
The problem of maintaining grassroots player development in the Kuzbass is likely to be one of great interest to the Russian Hockey Federation, a body which does have some significant say over what the KHL does and does not get up to (not all the say, mind you, but some). On the question of removing Kuznya from the KHL, there is likely also to be some serious pushback from both city and regional governments. So President Chernyshenko may have some diplomatic manoeuvring to do if Kuznya are indeed one of the clubs that he is looking to remove from the KHL lineup.
My own view: I have a profound soft spot for the team, particularly given its long history in Russian hockey (Kuznya were founded in 1949), and it would be very sad to see them go. However, as long as the strong hockey development in the region can be preserved, it might be the better move for all concerned — particularly if Metallurg Novokuznetsk, rather than simply ceasing to exist, could for example continue on in the second tier VHL, and perhaps enjoy more success at that level. And the problems that Chernyshenko must confront with the KHL are real ones, and some unsentimental measures may be required to solve them.
There are certainly more candidates for contraction, and as noted it looks like the number of teams leaving may be at least five. Ugra Khanty-Mansiysk is another team whose name has come up frequently this week, and one worthy of some discussion as well. That, however, will have to come in another post, perhaps after the Board of Governors meeting next week. For now, we await further and more specific news on this matter. Thank you for reading!