KYIV – The Russian Kontinental Hockey League will be spread over the same four countries in its third year with one team from Belarus, Kazakhstan and Latvia. Ukraine nearly joined the trio, but they will have to wait until 2011 to make another bid.
Budivelnyk Kiev was approved to join the league and the schedule was ready. Lada Togliatti and MVD Balashikha (after the merger with Dynamo Moscow) were to be cut from the KHL and would have been replaced by Budivelnyk in the Western Conference and Yugra Khanty-Mansiysk, the winner of the second-tier league, in the Eastern Conference.
It would only be fitting as Kyiv is called the “mother of Russian cities” in Russian literature.
But Budivelnyk – the name means “builder” in Ukrainian – was cut before the season began due to arena problems, which means that the KHL will have 23 teams – the lowest number in the young history of the league.
Originally the KHL hoped to further expand, but AIK Stockholm was promoted to the highest Swedish league and will stay in Sweden. Lithuania’s football club Vetra Vilnius didn’t have the money to fund a hockey team for the KHL and Czech second-tier club Hradec Kralove was not allowed to leave the country. Now, the Ukrainian plans have been put on ice.
“Budivelnyk’s entry in the KHL would have been a significant step forward for the revival of Ukrainian hockey and for the expansion of the league,” said KHL president Alexander Medvedev.
Everything looked good for the Ukrainian hockey dream. Josef Jandac, a former assistant coach of the Czech national team, was hired and about 20 players signed or almost signed with the Ukrainian team including Latvian national team goalkeeper Edgars Masalskis, Czech internationals Leos Cermank, Petr Gregorek, Tomas Kudelka and Petr Vampola, and several Ukrainian players including KHLers Konstantin Kasyanchuk, Vitali Liutkevych, Gennadi Razin, Vadym Shakhraychuk, Sergi Varlamov and Alexei Zhitnik. The club also had its staff, a pre-season schedule, even a web site.
The roster also included Ukraine’s national team goalie, 36-year-old Konstantin Simchuk, who played in the highest Russian league from 2001-2009.
“For 20 years Ukrainian hockey had huge problems. It was almost dead. And Budivelnyk is a miracle for all of us – fans, professional players, young players and children,” Simchuk said before hearing the news. “I am sure that the arena would be full of fans at every game.”
The club was presented to the public in March by the club president Bogdan Gulyamov, who wants to expand the sport club with a hockey team and a new 12,000-seat arena for both hockey and basketball.
The team is backed by Ukraine’s largest bank, PrivatBank. Budivelnyk also got green light from the Ukrainian Hockey Federation and its vice-president Vyacheslav Zavalniuk joined the club in the same position.
Ukraine was represented in the top Soviet league by Sokil Kyiv and after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the club was allowed to play in the Russian top league until it closed its borders for foreign teams in 1996.
Like in other nations, professional hockey did not flourish after that because the market was not big enough for a domestic league. Since then, the country’s most storied hockey club played in the Ukrainian league with stints in the Russian second-tier league and most recently in the Belarusian Extraliga. But the KHL hasn’t been a serious option for Sokil because there was no money for a KHL budget.
That’s why the initiative from Budivelnyk was welcomed with open arms.
KHL representatives came to Kyiv to visit the Sports Palace and the backup venue, the Terminal Arena (1,500 capacity) 25 kilometres away from Kyiv in Brovary.
The arena became the missing piece in the puzzle. The 50-year-old Sports Palace in downtown Kyiv typifies aging Soviet city halls rather than the “NHL of the East”. That’s why it will be renovated for 87 million hryvnia (€8.7m) for the 2011 IIHF World Championship Division I and should reopen its gates in March as a modernized 7,000-seat venue.
Budivelnyk hoped to change plans and have a less extensive renovation under their own command by October, but couldn’t agree with authorities. Another arena for thousands of people does not exist in Kyiv, while playing the season in the backup venue was not an option.
“We could allow them to play there a month, or maybe two if we closed our eyes, but they can not play a whole season at a practice rink,” KHL vice-president Vladimir Shalayev said to Sovietsky Sport
Playing far away in bigger arenas in Dnipropetrovsk or in Belarus was also not an option. “Budivelnyik was created as a club for Kyiv and the first KHL club of the country should play in its capital,” Gulyamov said.
“It is bad news, but we will not give up our plans so easily. We agreed with the KHL that Budivelnyk will play in the 2011-2012 season under the condition that we have a suitable arena. We will do everything possible for Ukrainian hockey. We lost one year, but we gained experience and we look into the future with optimism.”
For now Budivelnyk and the KHL remains a dream and Sokil Kyiv without a suitable arena and playing in the Belarusian and Ukrainian leagues the reality for the city of 2.8 million people.
Ukrainian hockey fans hope that everything will improve next year when the Sports Palace will be renovated. Sokil Kyiv plans to play the later stage of the season there after the opening and the Sports Palace’s first big hockey event for many years will be the World Championship Division I Group A, April 17-23, 2011.
Since getting relegated from the top division in 2007, Ukraine took Division I silver in three straight years. Now they hope to earn the promotion and to defeat the likes of Kazakhstan and Poland on home ice. Claiming Division I gold and moving back to the top nations could be a welcomed kick-off for Ukrainian hockey to reach the next level in club hockey, too.Notebook:
- 21 KHL players from the 2009-2010 season have Ukrainian passports or were born in Ukraine, although some represented Russia internationally including Anton Babchuk, Nikolai Zherdev and Alexei Zhitnik.
- Pittsburgh Penguins wingers Ruslan Fedotenko and Alexei Ponikarovsky hail from Kyiv and played for Ukraine in the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.
- Six import players are allowed for the Russian KHL teams. (The import rules for foreign KHL teams are regulated by the respective nations.) The increase will create a record number of foreign players in the Russian league, creating controversy. “As a sportsman and as a leader I’m against the dominance of foreign players,” Vladislav Tretyak, the president of the Russian Hockey Federation, said to lifesports.ru. “We need to prepare the players in view of Sochi, but now young players sit on the bench or go abroad. We have 130 foreign players in the KHL and most are average players that take the spots that belong to young players. We are not ready to open the doors like the NHL.”
- The Russian Hockey Federation plans to reintroduce a B national team with young players that could play in several tournaments and be coached by former NHLer Andrei Nazarov. The federation is also discussing with its coaching tandem of Vyacheslav Bykov and Igor Zakharkin about a contract extension - likely until 2014.
- The second-tier league Vysshaya Liga has a new KHL-like logo and will be branded as VHL. It is from now on jointly run by the federation and the KHL. The league includes 20 teams divided into an Eastern and Western Conference. The league includes Lada Togliatti after its exclusion from the KHL, but lost two traditional clubs with Krylya Sovietov Moscow and Khimik Voskresensk. Both were given a one-year time-out from the league. The league also includes one foreign team with Torpedo Ust-Kamenogorsk from Kazakhstan.
- The Belarusian Extraliga will continue to have foreign teams. Ukraine’s Sokil Kyiv will play another year while Liepajas Metalurgs will be the only Latvian entry because the Dinamo Riga Juniors join the MHL, the KHL’s junior league. The Lithuanian Ice Hockey Federation also expressed interest in sending a team. The Belarusian teams in the top league are: Yunost Minsk, Shakhtyor Soligorsk, HK Gomel, Khimvolokno Mogilyov, Keramin Minsk, Neman Grodno, HK Vitebsk, Metallurg Zhlobin, HK Brest, Shinnik Bobruisk, Khimik-SKA Novopolotsk.