CARDIFF, Great Britain – Reports earlier this summer suggested that the KHL’s next expansion franchise might go to London – potentially launching the Russia-based league into the English-speaking world for the first time.
There’s still a long way to go before the likes of CSKA Moscow or SKA St. Petersburg find themselves facing off on the banks of the Thames, but hopes are high that a new club could arrive soon to follow in the footsteps of this season’s ambitious move into China.
And that prospect has been broadly welcomed in Britain, where the arrival of a club in the capital and the chance to bring a higher level of hockey could be just what’s needed to boost the game locally.
With Medvescak Zagreb becoming the first KHL team to play in Britain this month, taking on Elite League runner-up Cardiff Devils in two exhibition games, it seemed like an ideal time to hear more about the prospects of the KHL expanding into London.
Among the fans
The Cardiff Devils celebrate 30 years in hockey this coming season, and many of the fans have followed them throughout that time. The chance to see KHL stars in action wasn’t something they wanted to pass up. Aside from the two games, Medvescak staged open training sessions on three evenings during a week-long training camp in Wales. Several hundred locals came along each time – a decent turn-out in a city where, Gareth Bale notwithstanding, rugby is traditionally the number one sport.
At the games there was also plenty of enthusiasm and appreciation for the skill levels of the KHL. “It’s like watching a game on fast forward,” commented one fan. “The decision-making is so much faster, the skating is quicker. It’s great to watch.”
From the ice
Cardiff’s GB international defenceman Josh Batch is the kind of young British player who might benefit most from the chance to play at KHL level in his homeland. Now 24, he’s established himself on the blue line for club and country, but had to head to North America as a teenager to maximize his potential.
“You could see this weekend how the KHL’s standards compare with our Elite League,” he said as Zagreb eased to convincing 6-0 and 4-1 victories. “It would be a big step up for us, but I’m sure it would be good for everyone in the UK to see that kind of standard of hockey.
“I think it could also bring a lot of exposure. A team in the capital would reach a big audience and get increased media coverage, which can only help the game.”
As for playing at that level himself, Batch is modest. “I’m not sure what kind of rules they would have on imports and local players so we’d have to see if there was a chance,” he said. “If it did arise, that would be great, but I think it might be a little way off just yet.”
Batch is used to playing Croatia in World Championship action with Great Britain, where he has encountered Medvescak captain Mike Glumac. Born in Canada but with Croatian roots, the right winger has been in Zagreb throughout the KHL era and has seen first-hand how the club’s higher level has helped Croatian hockey.
“Medvescak as a club has been around for a while, so I’m not sure we’d ever see an overnight boom in the lower age groups,” he said. “Hopefully being in the KHL does help make them more attractive to younger kids. Hockey isn’t going to replace football or basketball in Croatia, but if we’re seeing a bit of an upswing that’s a good thing for us.
“The development team [in the national program] has a couple of players that have been with us at Medvescak, so anything that helps to develop our younger players can only help our national team down the road.”
From the boardroom
Devils owner and GM Todd Kelman might seem to have more reason than most to fear a KHL franchise hogging the UK hockey limelight – but on the contrary the Calgary-born former D-man believes London could be the perfect fit for a new team.
“There are some owners in our league who don’t like the idea, but personally I think it’s good for our league and good for hockey generally in the UK,” he said. “Fans here are quite clan-like in their support, so in a town like Swindon, maybe an hour and a half from London, I don’t think they’ll suddenly stop supporting their Wildcats and go to London every weekend, and the same with the Devils.
“London is the only city in the UK that could ever sustain a KHL team. I think it would be great for the KHL and as someone in management in UK hockey I’m really not worried about it at all. If anything it will raise the whole media profile for hockey. At the moment we get local coverage but the game gets nothing nationally in the papers or on TV and I think the KHL could do that.”
And even if fans in Britain tend to be pretty tribal about following their local team, London’s size and diversity makes it possible to build a fan base there.
“Think about the budget it would take to support a KHL team,” Kelman added. “It’s the kind of money a lower level football team has, so it’s not crazy money. You’ve got hundreds of thousands of Russians living in London, you’ve got Americans and Canadians who’d be interested in seeing hockey. Think of the way London embraces different sports like the NFL, or how they sold out those NHL games in about 45 minutes a few years ago.”
The official position
News of a possible KHL team in London emerged last month when the league management confirmed that IHUK had raised no objection to the proposal. At this stage efforts are beginning behind the scenes to see if the plan can be achieved. Until now there has been no formal application for a club entry.