Schedules and Suchlike
The on-ice competitive portion of the 2017-18 KHL hockey season is officially underway, albeit only in exhibition game form! Barys Astana took on their VHL farm team, Torpedo Ust-Kamenogorsk, on Friday and… lost 6-2. Ah well, (very, very) early days yet (and Torpedo are an extremely strong VHL team, too). Read on, a look at newly-released schedules, league compositions, and the like!
The KHL released its 2017-18 schedule this past Wednesday, and action will get underway on August 21st, when 2016-17 regular season champions CSKA Moscow visit defending Gagarin Cup champs SKA St. Petersburg in the season’s traditional curtain-raiser. The rest of the league swings into action in the days following, and here are a few notes on the calendar for 2017-18:
- The season has been shortened to 56 games from 2016-17’s 60 matches, a move made to relieve some scheduling pressure during an Olympic year.
- Speaking of which, the KHL will break for 33 days for the 2018 Winter Olympics, with no games scheduled from January 24th to February 25th (for the 2014 Olympics, the league took a 27-day break, so this basically a full week more).
- The usual international hockey breaks for the Euro Hockey Tour stages in Finland and Russia take place in November and December; November 7th-11th for the former and December 13th-17th for the latter.
- As has become tradition, no KHL hockey will be played on September 7th, in memory of the 2011 Lokomotiv Yaroslavl air disaster.
- All-Star Week festivities will be held in Astana, Kazakhstan, from January 12th-15th.
- Jokerit Helsinki and Amur Khabarovsk face the toughest starts to the season, with each playing eight road games before their first home date. Amur do not play in the friendly confines of their Platinum Arena until September 11th, while it will be September 16th before Jokerit fans make the trip to the Hartwall for their team’s home opener. Admiral Vladivostok (home opener: September 11th) and Kunlun Red Star Beijing (September 9th) play their first seven games on the road. On the plus side for those four teams, they will get fully a quarter of their road schedules out of the way right at the beginning.
- There will be just a handful of regular season games left when play resumes after the Olympics, as the playoffs are scheduled to start on March 3rd. This situation led to some high drama in 2014, as Lokomotiv, at that moment sitting outside a playoff spot, spent the Olympic break adjusting to the ways of newly-hired head coach Dave King. It worked; King’s Yaroslavl side won all four of their remaining games once play resumed to clinch the last post-season berth, then went all the way to the Conference Finals.
- The Gagarin Cup Final will being on April 14th, and will wrap up on April 26th at the latest. If the series does go seven games, it will bring the season’s end quite close to the beginning of the 2018 IIHF Men’s Worlds in Denmark. That tournament will see its opening faceoffs on May 4th.
One other bit of interesting calendar-related news from the KHL this week: the league hopes to announce by mid-March which three unlucky teams will be leaving the league after 2017-18 to get to the desired 24 squads for 2018-19 (see previous posts here and here for more details). KHL administration did come in for some criticism this spring for punting Metallurg Novokuznetsk after the free-agency period had begun; a number of players had signed for Metallurg with all parties assuming that the team would be in the KHL, which led to understandable bad feeling. KHL free agency begins on May 1st, so announcing much earlier which teams will not be returning should help with that.
The arrival of the schedule, and of mid-July, means that it is just about time here at the blog for the team-by-team preview series! That will commence next week, and I did last summer I’ll be starting at the bottom of the previous season’s standings and working up. Normally, that would mean Metallurg Novokuznetsk would be first up, but as we have already discussed they are no longer in the KHL. So first up will be Dinamo Riga, probably on Tuesday or Wednesday.
A step below the KHL, in the VHL, the 2017-18 list of participating teams has been confirmed, and it’s an interesting one! The VHL was a 26-team league last season, but will enter the new campaign with 27 clubs after a summer of immense turnover.
Four teams have left the Russia’s second-tier men’s professional league. Kristall Saratov actually ceased operations partway through 2016-17, meaning that the league finished with 25 active teams, and it is no surprise that they will not return. THK Tver, regular season champions in 2015-16, survived last season only because the Russian Hockey Federation used the club as the base for the country’s men’s Universiade team; that partnership is now over, and THK will not return at least for the coming season. And Ariada Volzhsk have also withdrawn, having lost their affiliation with the KHL’s Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk. Neftekhimik’s intervention saved Ariada in the summer of 2016, but the Nizhnekamsk team decided not to continue that arrangement for the coming year.
However, the biggest blow to the VHL this off-season has probably been the departure of Dynamo Balashikha, just weeks after they were crowned 2016-17 Bratina Cup champions. The departure is through no fault of league or team — the Balashikhans simply got caught up in the ongoing mess at parent club Dynamo Moscow, discussed here and here. As a side note, hockey fans in Balashikha, just east of the capital, have now had some futher bad news: Dynamo Moscow’s junior team, formerly HK MVD Balashikha of the MHL, is also reported to be leaving, to play as MHK Dynamo Moscow at the parent club’s home arena.
To happier news, then, and the five new VHL arrivals. The above-mentioned Metallurg Novokuznetsk, having been struck off the list of KHL teams, will continue on in the lower league, and hopefully can find some on-ice success for their long-suffering fans. Gornyak Uchaly are another newcomer, as the team from Bashkortostan will serve as farm club for the KHL’s Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg. Gornyak were the 2016-17 champions of the NMHL, Russia’s second-tier men’s junior league, and will now try their hand at the professional game (whether the NMHL squad will continue remains to be seen). The third Russian team joining VHL this season is CSK VVS Samara. CSK VVS were a top-division team in the old Russian Superleague up until 2000, but most recently had been playing in the third tier of professional hockey.
The other two VHL newcomers are both from China, and that of course is the big news of this off-season. Kunlun Red Star Beijing’s farm team, Kunlun Red Star Heilongjiang, will play out of Harbin, in the country’s northeast (Heilongjiang is the name of the province, and the name of the river known in Russia as the Amur). That new arrival was announced some time ago, but just a couple of weeks ago came news that the city of Jilin, in the eponymous also-northeastern province, is launching a VHL team un-affiliated with Kunlun Red Star. The new team will be named Cheng Tou Jilin (I am much obliged to Longmou Li and Tomáš Vorčák for clarifying the proper transliteration of that name) This is all part of a major shift by the VHL in the direction of Asia, and I refer you to this post for further details on that. Kunlun Red Star and Cheng Tou will join Saryarka Karagandy and Torpedo Ust-Kamenogorsk, both based in Kazakhstan, to double the size of the VHL’s non-Russian contingent, and there may very well be more to come.
So, 27 VHL teams for 2017-18, and here is that complete list:
- Bars Kazan
- Buran Voronezh
- Chelmet Chelyabinsk
- Cheng Tou Jilin
- CSK VVS Samara
- Dizel Penza
- Dynamo St. Petersburg
- Gornak Uchaly
- Izhstal Izhevsk
- Khimik Voskresensk
- Kunlun Red Star Heilongjiang
- Metallurg Novokuznetsk
- Molot-Prikamye Perm
- Neftyanik Almetyevsk
- Rubin Tyumen
- HK Ryazan
- HK Sarov
- Saryarka Karagandy
- SKA-Neva St. Petersburg
- Sokol Krasnoyarsk
- Sputnik Nizhny Tagil
- Toros Neftekamsk
- Torpedo Ust-Kamenogorsk
- Yermak Angarsk
- Yuzhny Ural Orsk
- Zauralie Kurgan
- Zvezda Chekhov
A last observation on that list: the presence of Buran Voronezh comes as a surprise, and a pleasant one. Buran were so cash-strapped by the end of 2016-17 that they forfeited their last few road games to save the travel costs (the team had already been eliminated from playoff contention), and I had assumed even quite recently that they were finished as a VHL club. It may yet all end in tears, as there remain significant hurdles to overcome, but for now Buran are still with us.
Update: An answer arrives on how Buran made it to the new season! They have recently concluded an affiliation agreement with Dynamo Moscow, which neatly wraps up the questions of Buran’s survival, Dynamo Balashikha’s lack thereof, and what Dynamo Moscow were going to do for a farm team.
As mentioned above, KHL previews are on the horizon, but between now and when the first of those appears, we will have a women’s hockey update, and perhaps a little something else as well. Thank you, as always, for reading!