Will MHL shut the door?

Russian junior league turning inward

18.06.2015
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Latvia plays host Russia at the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship in Sochi. For Latvia’s MHL entry HK Riga games in the Russian league are put in question after the MHL’s recent announcement. Photo: Francois Laplante / HHOF-IIHF Images

MOSCOW – As of next season the MHL, Russia’s major junior league, will only consist of Russian teams and will no longer operate as a cross-border league, as opposed to its senior KHL counterpart.

The changes were announced by long-time Russian national team player Alexei Morozov, who was last week appointed as new managing director of the MHL (Molodyozhnaya Khokkeinaya Liga).

“In the [MHL] championship there will definitely not be [foreign teams],” Morozov answered the question on the league’s website.

He did add that the second-tier MHL-B will remain open to foreign teams. “However, for example Red Bull Salzburg refuses to play there.”

During the last few years junior club teams from Austria, Belarus, the Czech Republic, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Slovakia and Ukraine have participated in the league. Lithuania and Moldova were also in the system with teams in the MHL-B. Even a further expansion to Asia was considered, in recent years for example the IIHF Ice Hockey U20 Challenge Cup of Asia saw juniors from countries such as Japan and Korea play against MHL selections from Russia and Kazakhstan.

The geographic growth of the MHL drastically changed the way elite junior players were developed in some of Russia’s neighbouring countries, and closing the MHL less than three months before the start of the season will pose a major challenge for the development system in some of these nations.

By not allowing foreign players on Russian MHL teams either, the MHL hopes that more Russian prospects can play at the top junior level of the country. Morozov also announced that the league will reduce the number of regular-season games to 44.

“We had a lot of complaints that the young guys didn’t have enough time to recover and to practise. They not only need to play games but also spend time with practices to constantly improve their skills,” Morozov said. “And by not allowing foreign players on Russian teams, more Russians will have the chance to play in the MHL.”

While the composition of the league is not determined yet, the number of teams is set to shrink from the 39 teams it included last season. It’s also planned that only junior teams of KHL clubs will be allowed to play in the MHL, which means that several Russian teams may have to leave the top junior league as well. Among those fighting for survival is Sakhalinskie Akuly, the team that joined just one year ago from the Far East island of Sakhalin that is now also in danger of being cut off from the MHL map.

The change in direction will be a challenge especially for the Russian neighbourhood that counted on the openness that started with the launch of the KHL in 2008. While roughly 84 per cent of the players in the MHL were Russians, especially the KHL clubs from Belarus, Kazakhstan, Latvia and earlier Ukraine put high efforts into their junior teams to have the top U20 players of their country compete in the MHL. The higher level of competition was appreciated by the players and certainly their national team coaches.

Now their future will be open although the last word is probably not spoken yet. Latvia’s Dinamo Riga and Kazakhstan’s Barys Astana publicly reacted to the threat of their junior teams’ exclusion and announced that an expulsion from the league is unfounded. They insist that as KHL clubs they have the right to have a team in the MHL and emphasized that their junior teams – same as Dynamo Minsk’s – were already provisionally admitted for the 2015/2016 season by the old MHL leadership.

So don’t be surprised if these three teams from the former Soviet republics will remain in the league after all when its final composition will be announced next month.

Meanwhile two other teams are sure to leave. Energie Karlovy Vary from the Czech Republic withdrew its team already during the last season due to financial difficulties.

Red Bull Salzburg also entered a team with top Austrian and German juniors to compete in the league and will now have to leave after one year. Due to the silence from Moscow in the last few weeks the club recently entered a farm team in Austria’s second senior league INL for next season and also announced to organize a series of games against top junior teams from Canada, the USA, Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Switzerland and other countries instead of playing in Russia.

But not only for some clubs, also for several players from countries like Slovakia, Ukraine or even Japan the stints in Russia will end unexpectedly since their Russian clubs won’t be allowed to ice import players anymore. They will now have to look for other options such as playing in their native countries.

MARTIN MERK

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