Jokerit to KHL: Russians Buy Their Way into Finland
Russia's biggest bear, Vladimir Putin, has a sporting agenda and enough billionaire buddies to get it done.
The question is going to be, if their current business model doesn't change, how long they feel like staying the course.
Back in the bad old days, the Soviet Union believed superiority in sports promoted the communist cause, and frankly, if nothing else, it kept the juggernaut that was its athletic factory front and center in all international competition. Not the least of these was the cold machine that was the national hockey program, which cut a swath through all that came before it.
Until, at least, 1972, when the Canadians beat the Soviets in the legendary Summit Series. Then came 11 January 1976, when the Soviet Red Army -- the crown jewel of Russian club hockey -- met the Philadelphia Flyers in full Broad Street Bullies mode. After that, of course, was the 1980 Miracle on Ice where American college kids stunned the Russians into numbness.
Within the decade, the Berlin Wall fell, and all that comprised the Soviet sham crumbled with it.
As capitalism took hold in fits and starts throughout Russia and its neighboring states, the region saw the rise of its own robber barons, similar to those of the USA in the late 19th century. Given Russia's immense natural resources and a friendly ex-KGB officer holding the highest political office in the land, this cabal now has the wherewithal to re-establish any aspect of the nation's persona that it sees fit.
And it seems that a good number of these dudes have fond memories of Soviet sporting dominance.
The first billionaire to hit the spotlight was Roman Abramovich, who picked off the posh but underperforming Chelsea Football Club, apparently on the advice of Sven-Göran Eriksson and inspiring London headline writers to re-christen the team as Chelski. Later, Mikhail Prokhorov purchased the NBA's Nets, moved them to Brooklyn, and built a palace that will soon be shared by the New York Islanders.
Much of the Western business world is intrigued with the Russian über-rich's approach to sporting endeavors. It took Abramovich nine years to turn a profit at Chelsea after pouring £630million into the club. Similarly, Prokhorov believes he can do the same with the Nets. With his deep pockets and his incredible luck, no one is betting against him.
All this provides perspective to the attempt of a faction of hard cash comrades to achieve their ultimate goal, which is to restore Russian hockey mastery. This is the raison d'être of the Kontinental Hockey League. This isn't Russians succeeding in other nations' top leagues. This is Russians succeeding in being the top league once again, at least in their own minds.
Stretched over nine time zones, with a mixture of dilapidated barns and modern arenas, and with players' uniforms swathed in advertising logos à la Nascar drivers, the KHL has spent nine years attempting to stabilize itself while venturing forth into the rest of Europe. Outposts in currency-challenged Eastern Europe weren't so tough; the goal is doing so in the West, and couched amid the league's recent successes, this is finally happening.
Jokerit of Helsinki will join the KHL for the 2014-2015 season.
The move has sent shock waves through much of the European hockey community. This is one of Finland's best known clubs. However, it has fallen on hard times of late, not winning an SM-Liiga title since 2001-2002. Worse, Jokerit's arena was in disrepair, which gave Putin's confidante, Gennady Timchenko, the opening he needed. Clearly acting with the approval of Russian hierarchy's top echelon, he orchestrated a move to buy the building and purchased a minority share of the club soon thereafter.
It's interesting to note that Timchenko opted to take only a minority stake in Jokerit. He's a dual citizen, also holding a Finnish passport, but it seems he sees value in maintaining the established owner, Harry Harkimo, as the team figurehead. It's an arrangement that appears to resemble how the Soviets set up shop in their old satellite states of the Eastern bloc. Apparently, from the new oligarchs' point of view, the bad old days are the good old days once again.
Until now, each European nation has been content with its own hockey system being a 'feeder' of sorts to the NHL, understanding that its best players would go there for fame and fortune at the highest level of the game. Each nation was well aware that Russia has never really accepted this subordinate role and diligently cast a wary eye in its direction. Thus, until now, each nation has been able to rebuff KHL efforts to pull a western European team into its fold. Some efforts were impractical, and some were flat rejected.
But the KHL is determined that Jokerit will ultimately be joined by other teams in other nations where hockey is a mainstay on the sporting menu. And then the KHL intends to compete with the NHL for the top talent there, thus claiming equal billing at the pinnacle of the game. If it does, the NHL will be hard pressed to harbor any thoughts of itself placing franchises in Europe.
Whether or not the KHL's ambition succeeds will come down to its business model. Can it copy the NHL in that respect? If so, its governors may grudgingly have to do more to boost local economies so fans can afford higher ticket prices and cable/satellite/online subscriptions. Right now, though, the financial taps need to be turned on all the way, and it's going to stay that way for some time to come.
But the Russians are renowned for patience. And if Abramovich can afford to plow the equivalent of $1billion into one team over the course of a decade, it's a given his peers have the same capability. Whether or not they will is what the hockey world will be watching. After all, Chelsea is in the world's richest league. The KHL has no chance at that sort of infrastructure.
Perhaps the upcoming Sochi Olympics will shed some light on the matter. If the KHL's governors continue to prop up their franchises after intense Russian efforts to win hockey gold are culminated, that will be a sure sign the league is resolved to complete its mission.
And if so, Jokerit will surely be the forerunner of KHL westward expansion. What that implies for the rest of European hockey is anyone's guess.