MOSCOW, August 28 (R-Sport) – The KHL must dodge outside influence from the Russian hockey federation and make “serious concessions” with its stringent roster policies if it wants compete with its North American counterpart, the NHL, Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk head coach Vladimir Krikunov said Wednesday.
Krikunov, who has coached in the KHL since its inception five years ago and guided Russia at world hockey championships in 2005 and 2006, called the eight-country league “half-amateur” and wholly reliant on the federation.
The comments are unusually strong for someone with close ties to the league and the federation, both of which benefit greatly from state funding.
“Now it’s a half-amateur league that depends on the Russian hockey federation,” Krikunov, 63, told R-Sport.
The coach said contentious rules limiting teams to five foreign players and mandating each carries two players born after 1992 should be abolished because they weaken the quality of play. He also said the four-country Euro Hockey Tour, which halts the KHL’s schedule for two weekends in November and December, has to go.
“If the KHL is going to become a commercial league … and work under NHL principles, then all limitations should be lifted,” said Krikunov, who has also coached Ak Bars Kazan and Barys Astana as part of a 24-year career behind the bench.
The federation has long put pressure on the KHL to serve the interests of Russian hockey at large. Federation president Vladimir Tretiak told R-Sport in May it was the league’s duty to organize its regular season schedule around the interests of the men’s national team.
The next month it was announced the KHL will break a full two weeks before the start of the hockey tournament at the Sochi Olympics on February 12, 2014.
While the KHL is regarded internationally as the next best thing after the NHL, the league has faced criticism over the years for its lack of big-business character and failure to market itself profitably – not only across Russia’s vast territory but in Belarus, Latvia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Croatia’s Medvescak Zagreb is a newcomer this season and Helsinki-based Jokerit is set to join in 2014-15.
Krikunov said the ongoing expansion signals promise but suggested the league, which benefited from ESPN network exposure during the NHL lockout last season, has failed to capitalize fully on its rapid growth. Last season's revenue figures were not immediately available.
The NHL was projected to bring in a record $2.9 billion in 2012-13.
“We’ve got teams from big European cities: Riga, Prague, Bratislava, Zagreb, and Helsinki will join next season. If we add a couple more capital cities, then the league will be very interested,” Krikunov said.
“But the KHL needs to develop to try to earn money. Right now our hockey depends completely on state funding. And it won’t last forever.”