KHL Set to Expand in to China
While much of the hockey world has been talking about NHL expansion in to Las Vegas or Quebec City, it’s the Kontinental Hockey League that will be adding to it’s ranks.
An as yet unnamed team is set to play out of Beijing’s MasterCard Centre as of next season, signalling hockey’s first significant foray in to the world’s biggest economy.
Plans are reportedly being drawn up to incorporate an affiliate team in the Chinese domestic league, as well as junior teams tied to the new KHL franchise, with Roman Rotenberg, Vice President of the Russian Ice Hockey Federation, telling TASS.ru:
“The task is to build a hockey vertical: a KHL team, a second team playing in the Chinese league, a team in the youth league and mass involvement so that all who wish can play ice hockey and there should be more ice rinks that are public and open for all. This is a priority task.”
TASS also noted that former Detroit and New Jersey blue liner Slava Fetisov, now a member of the KHL’s board of Directors, has mentioned the possibility of up to two teams being formed in China previously, with Beijing now set to be the first such set up , with Seoul, South Korea also viewed as a possible destination for a league former President Alexander Medvedev once said could expand to as many as 64 teams.
With clubs from Belarus, Croatia, Kazakhstan Latvia, Slovakia and Finland already competing against no less than 22 Russian sides, the idea that the KHL could genuinely become a global league will certain benefit from a participant outside of Europe, but the long term viability of the project continues to be met with a certain degree of cynicism.
While attempting to position itself as a direct rival to the NHL, the league has been repeatedly dogged by stories of financial difficulties at various organisations, with Lev Prague folding last year and HC Sochi reportedly unable to pay it’s players for months as club owners saw personal fortunes fall as oil prices crashed and international sanctions were levelled against Russia.
As a result, regional government and state-run businesses are still leaned on to pump money in to a number of teams in order to keep the club going and as such, it is perhaps no surprise to see the KHL press for expansion in to China. Again, this is the world’s biggest economy, and the marriage of both Russian and Chinese investors ensures there is a financial stake in the teams success for both sides.
With Beijing set to host the 2022 Winter Olympic Games, the chance to welcome a top tier hockey club in to the city could present its own benefits for the Chinese government, who continue to press on with a number of projects to bring about greater sporting success for the nation.
Thus, on the surface it appears to be a mutually beneficially move for both the league and the sport in China. The KHL will be hoping for a financial spike as well as renewed interest in expanding the league – after attempts to spread further across Europe, even as far as Great Britain, appeared to crumble – while China adds another feather to it’s ever growing sporting cap.
It certainly appears to be the kind of positive news story the KHL could do with – aside from the financial problems, numerous other ‘horror stories’ have come out of Russia over the years, from injury mismanagement to accommodation nightmares, so a successful advance in to hitherto unknown marketplace would be a significant boost to the league’s profile globally.
Still, one can’t help but wonder if the NHL won’t be keeping a close eye on how this new Beijing club fares, and whether the hockey market there is ripe for picking.