STOCKHOLM – The Swedish development company HUB and Russian KHL are no longer partners in the feasibility study on a European pro hockey league. Also, former HUB CEO Håkan Loob returns to his position as CEO of Färjestad Karlstad.
“The KHL is no longer involved in HUB, we’re driving it on our own now, within Swedish hockey,” Loob told IIHF.com. His position has been taken over by Per-Anders Örtendahl, chairman of HUB and of Frölunda Gothenburg.
“Our goal is to create a major dialogue with clubs in Europe, to create something that builds on the existing structures, and that won’t strain the clubs’ economies too much,” said Loob. We need to increase the international contacts between the professional hockey leagues in Europe.
Two years ago, European club hockey seemed to be on a major upswing, and it was just a matter of time before one of the actors would launch a pan-European league. The IIHF kicked off the Champions Hockey League to rave reviews in 2008-2009, but the withdrawal of financial backers one year ago dug a hole under the league, too deep for it to recover.
All eyes were also on the Russian Kontinentalnaya Hokkeynaya Liga (KHL), and rumors about its expansion have been going around since the launch of the league, in the fall of 2008.
Swedish clubs Djurgården, Frölunda, Färjestad, HV71, and Linköping also launched their project to kick off a pan-European league. Many observers believed that this was the beginning of them leaving their national league for something pan-European, possibly driven by the KHL, which from the very beginning has been blunt about their plans to expand to western and central Europe.
Instead, the Swedish elite clubs decided to do a feasibility study about the future of Swedish and European club hockey and founded the development company HUB, with representatives from other Elitserien clubs on the board. To finance the study, HUB turned to the KHL, who happily confirmed their involvement.
“The KHL is a part of this because they share our interest to develop club and league hockey in Europe,” Örtendahl told Swedish media last fall.
But now, their interests seem to differ.
“We had an agreement, but some things weren’t fully followed so it was terminated. The five Nordic Trophy clubs will finance it further, but the KHL did invest a certain amount in Phase 1,” Loob says.
The KHL didn’t respond to a request to comment, but on Tuesday, KHL President Alexander Medvedev launched into a tirade about the Swedish hockey executives in an interview with Russian Sport-Express.
“Everything that has happened once again shows that the federations of several European countries have strange views on European hockey. First, I have in mind the Swedes who stopped the KHL’s expansion, blocking AIK Stockholm’s entry in our league, even if the club now plays in the second division and is doomed to financial, sporting and commercial stagnation,” he said.
Medvedev then accused the Swedish Elitserien for also stopping the reincarnation of the Champions Hockey League, a project that was terminated in the spring of 2009 when the gas giant Gazprom (where Medvedev is the vice-president) was one of the investors and sponsors who pulled out of the CHL.
“I do not understand what the Swedes want and what they seek. I would like to ask: how do you see the development of European hockey? You want to vegetate on the margins of the NHL?” Medvedev said.
In an argumentation that few had difficulties to follow, Medvedev linked the Swedish resistance to the KHL expansion with the Swedish national team’s loss to Slovakia in the quarterfinal of the Vancouver Olympics.
“Look against whom Sweden lost in the Olympics,” Medvedev asked rhetorically in the Sport-Express interview. “They lost to an opponent clearly of lesser calibre. The players become older and older. And who will replace them on the national team?”
“Those problems exist in Russian hockey as well, but we are at least trying to do something about them.”
According to both Örtendahl and Loob, HUB still has an ongoing dialogue with the KHL. But maybe not about money, and maybe not about joining the KHL.
“We’re more than keen on discussing inter-league play with the KHL. One thing that has changed is that the clubs have signed a contract to play within the Elitserien until 2012, so the time frame is different now. We have to keep the project afloat, though, and continually work with it, and with future financing: What would we have to do to be able to drop the puck in 2012,” he adds.
That remains the billion dollar question.
The Finnish-born writer is based in Stockholm, Sweden, and covers the Swedish and Finnish hockey scene for IIHF.com.