Members of Ak Bars Kazan and the legendary CSKA Moscow.
Goddess Kaat and I were in Russia last month and between studying, working and playing, we managed to get in four KHL hockey games. We went to three different venues and saw six different teams in total. With five teams in the Moscow area these “devochki” could have seen twelve games in the fourteen days we were there!
We also got to take a trip outside Moscow to visit a friend who used to play in the NHL but has now found a home in the KHL. Listening to his experience was fascinating, and something that goddess Kaatiya will publish a feature in a major online news site.
We quickly discovered that Russia is a different world. Whereas Americans have seemingly endless amounts of disposable income, Russians have very little. The middle class is almost non-existent. People either have money or they don’t, and even with the top end tickets going for a mere 500 rubles (that’s about $16 US) few people can afford to spend that kind of money on a regular basis.
So how is the average KHL team financed? We’ve all heard about the insanely high salaries these former NHL players are getting and it certainly isn’t from game revenue. No, KHL teams are hobbies of Russian Oligarchs who gained control of the oil industry after the breakup of the Soviet Union. There’s some advertising and sponsorship as well, but the low attendance certainly isn’t a concern. Yet let’s not write off the fan experience, because it’s something everyone should enjoy in their lifetime if they can. Here are some observations as a fan that I found interesting and vastly different from the NHL:
1.) Going to a KHL game is like stepping into a time warp. Imagine a 1970s NHL game – minus the beer (No alcohol is sold in any of the arenas.) If you miss the organic experience with small, but hardcore, audiences, you will love most KHL games.
2.) Most arenas are small and old. Most seat less than a decent college arena. Even the new ones are quite small by NHL standards, maxing out at 8,000-10,000 seating capacity and at best two-thirds of the seats are sold.
3.) Security is tight — in some respects. Guards dressed in intimidating military-type garb are quite prevalent in some arenas, sometimes requesting to check your bag 4-5 times before you get to your seat. However, once you’re in, no one cares if you sit in an open seat that’s not yours and people are very respectful of other people’s seats.
4.) Food and drink are not allowed in the stands. At all.
Cheerleaders, some more professional than others, are a staple at KHL games.
5.) Concessions are more like that at a high school football game: A couple of stands with candy or bread with salted fish and usually a table in the concourse with a woman pouring hot tea for around 25 rubles a cup.
6.) At most arenas, both teams enter and exit at the end of the ice where the Zamboni doors are.
7.) There are no rink-side seats. Instead there is a walkway for rink/team personnel behind the glass. Also, no one wants to sit low. The higher the better, and seats are sold from the top down.
8.) Fans may be sparse, but they are extremely knowledgeable and are into it! It’s like a European soccer match with organized chants, drums, bells and whistles.
9.) Each arena reserves a section for the opposing fans that can also bring drums, bells, etc. That section is understandably carefully guarded.
All this isn’t a negative from a fan’s perspective. In fact, as I’ve said it’s a blast.
Now to the part you’ve all been waiting for and, of course, the hockey player in me won’t let me go without talking about the game. As with the fan experience KHL hockey is really quite different than the NHL.
What makes it different? It’s hard to grasp at first. Our first game was CSKA (the famed Russian Red Army team) vs Ak Bars Kazan, a perennial contender in the KHL (and in the former Russian Super League.) Talk to a few NHL players who play or have played there and they’ll give you contrasting opinions: “It’s slower, but more skilled,” or “It’s not as physical, but it can’t be because guys are so much faster.” After watching, I don’t dismiss that these guys are fast or skilled, but as goddess Kaatiya artfully described, there was an awful lot of loitering at the blue line.
Like most of Russia, walking into the Ice Palace where CSKA plays is like walking into a time warp so perhaps the “ambiance” affected my perspective to an extent, but the first thing that struck me is how slow the game was. It really looked like my husband’s recreational hockey team. Sure, the guys were skilled and maybe the ice was a bit bad in the old arena but still, even sitting down low the play just looked slow.
Chris Simon, former NHLer and one of the KHL's most popular players, has found a home on Vityaz Chekov.
The other thing that became immediately apparent was the lack of hitting. Guys seem to go out of their way to not hit or get hit. Seriously, I’ve seen more physical play in a women’s game, where hitting is illegal, than I saw in the KHL.
I have to say it was quite a shock. I had heard so much about the league and the level of play. It has been touted by many players and staff as close, if not equal, to the skill of the NHL. I often wonder if this isn’t wishful thinking, or some kind of justification for jumping ship when you just can’t hack the NHL. Nikita Filatov of CSKA (and still property of the Columbus Blue Jackets) definitely stuck out as probably the most talented on the team, but even he has learned the art of slacking in the KHL.
I don’t doubt that the talent and skill are there. In Dave King’s book “King of Russia” he talks about the incredible training the teams do year round and the demands these players are met with every step of the way. So one has to wonder where this tremendous skill is during the games.
The answer became clearer at our last game. It was in Mytishchi, Moscow Oblast where Atlant plays. This arena is new, built in 2007 and hosting that year’s World Cup. Although small, it is incredibly modern for Russia. One could enter from the lower level or above the seats and security forces were minimal. More women and families were in attendance that night and the crowd was at near capacity.
Yet is the product on the ice that impressed us most. Atlant was hosting Dynamo Riga of Latvia. For those of you who know little of Soviet history, Latvia was once an unwilling republic of the USSR and now that they have their independence, hostilities run even deeper. Of no coincidence is that two-thirds of the Riga players are Lativan and much to the annoyance of the Russians have added the Cyrillic “c” (which translates to a latin “s”) at the end of their surnames (e.g. “Janis Sprukts”). Of course, these are displayed on the backs of their jerseys and are a proud statement of their Latvian ethnicity.
Such a rivalry produced a far better product on the ice than even the proclaimed “super match” between Moscow Dynamo and Atlant we had seen earlier that week. Tempers ran high with former Columbus Blue Jacket, New York Ranger and current Atlant player Nikolai Zherdev playing an NHL-style, physical game. Riga boasted former NHL players Sandis Ozolinsh and Marcel Hossa, clearly the best players on their team.
The pace of the game was fast and furious and, while still far less physical over than the NHL, we could finally see the speed of these players. Atlant quickly got up 3-0, but Riga eventually found its wheels and began firing back, winning 4-3 in overtime. It was by far the best game we attended, yet we were left wondering why it took four games to finally see the talent shine though.
All that being said, KHL hockey is a great product. If you long for the nostalgia and down-to-earth feel of the WHL days, this is the place for you.
Goddess Sasha with Nikita Filatov at "Red Machine," the pub at the Ice Palace.
Like much of Russia, the production is a bit 1970s. Pre-game skates are rather informal and each team has its “puck bitch,” who has to collect the pucks at the end of the warm-up. The same songs — pre-hair band, mid-eighties metal — are repeated throughout the game. Both teams stand together patiently at the entrance of the ice during the pre-game festivities. You can even see big stars like Nikita Filatov hanging out post-game at the pub adjacent to the arena with the few fans who can afford a beer out. The big difference is, the talent on the ice is definitely 21st century, even if you don’t always see it.
That being said, we love Russia and its hockey-crazed fans, so much in fact that the goddesses are making a return trip next fall for more fun and hockey. Heck, if I could land a job as a strength and conditioning coach for a KHL team I’d do it in an instant. I love Russia and its people that much. It’s not the fans’ fault they can’t attend more games. And while the league is not dependent on ticket sales for revenue, perhaps it is going to take more fans to bring up the level of excitement and play in the league. It may not be NHL quality, but it’s the closest you’ll find anywhere.
Only time will tell if they can compete with the NHL. But don’t let anyone fool you. It is a far cry from what the NHL is now and anyone who bolts from the NHL is doing so for the money, not for the level of play.
Photos: By Goddess Sasha and Goddess Kaatiya. Copyright 2010. All Rights Reserved.