KHL loses three teams, finds three replacements elsewhere

One day you’re up, fighting for cup victory in game seven, and the next day you’re gone.

Well, to be less dramatic: it took a few weeks for Lev Praha of the Russian KHL to start gasping for life. First, they lost to Mike Keenan-led Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the Gagarin Cup finals. Now comes the news its shareholder owners Yevgeni Myshkovskii and Petr Speychal haven’t got enough in the kitty to continue. The club’s budget last season said the club needed $40 million (Canadian) to operate.

According to news out of Prague, no such money is forthcoming, and the club will have to fold.

The owners issued a statement forthwith, denying they are quitting. They are dealing with the situation, they said, and next Monday would be the deadline for a definitive answer. Until then, the owners added in an official statement, all news about the club’s demise are pure speculation.

As (wrongly) attributed to Mark Twain, and paraphrased, news of their death was greatly exaggerated. Except, the reports come from a region known for yet another pearl of wisdom: don’t believe any rumours until they’ve been officially denied.

Just to make matters more involved for the KHL, the venerable Spartak Moscow is headed to the poorhouse, too. In addition, Donbass Donetsk won’t be able to play because of the tense political (and military) situation in Ukraine. Donetsk, after all, is one of the neuralgic points in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia.

Here’s the main issue: for whatever reason, Russian oil and natural gas giant Gazprom has decided to cut its epenses on professional hockey in half. Gazprom just happens to be KHL’s main sponsor. To what degree sponsoring the KHL made any economic sense to Gazprom in the first place is hard to fathom. After all, Team Russia’s main sponsor at international events is another Russian company. One that exports weapons. So says its logo on Team Russia’s official jerseys.

Of course, says the KHL, no need to worry: we have Finland’s Jokerit Helsinki joining as of next season, and a team from Sochi, and another one from Togliatti. The former club, HC Sochi, a.k.a. Sochi Leopards, has former NHL player Vyacheslav (Slava) Butsayev as its coach. The latter, known as Lada, used to be Torpedo. It was kicked out of the KHL in 2011 because it didn’t have a good enough arena. It was renamed Lada because the Soviets used to build their version of the Italian car, Fiat, under the nickname of Lada, in a local car factory.

So far as Lev Praha is concerned, the first signs of trouble emerged earlier this spring. According to early June quotes from Rashid Khabibulin, the team’s sports manager, there were issues when the club tried to negotiate a new lease deal with Prague’s O2 Arena. He didn’t specify what issues then, but now, say some Czech insiders, it is becoming obvious what they were. Lev wanted to pay less than what the arena owners had been asking for.

Several Lev players, approached by the media, tried to put brave faces on: it’s not official yet, they would all say, and they hope the owners will find a way.

Only the owners’ bankers know whether this optimism is justified or not.

And they’re not telling.

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