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Eye On Europe: KHL president Medvedev eyes expansion and discusses state of the league

Alexander Medvedev - president of the Kontinental League; member of the KHL’s St Petersburg team SKA’s board; and council member of the International Ice Hockey Federation - is right at the epicenter of European hockey.

Happy with the KHL’s first year, which included the signings of several former NHLers and a number of top European and Russian players, Medvedev is looking forward to changing the European - and global - hockey landscape further.

“The NHL should understand that the world has changed and we will never go back to a time where it’s a one-way street from Europe to North America,” he told THN.com at the World Championship.

“We want to cooperate with the NHL. Instead of fighting for the very limited number of very good players and the limited number of good players out there, we should create a system where we can develop even more very good players – and they should decide where they want to play,” said Medvedev.

Since the NHL and the IIHF don’t have a transfer agreement in place, the marketplace is more unpredictable than in the past and the NHL’s participation in the 2014 Sochi Olympics is on the line.

“We should have a real, comprehensive agreement that covers not only transfers, but also club competition on international level and national team competitions,” Medvedev said, smiling. “To threaten to not send players to Sochi is…if you’re afraid to come to play then sure, but I don’t want to have a hostile relationship.”

He added: “Olympic hockey is a top priority for every player, whether you’re a pro or an amateur and the history of the Olympics is even longer than the history of the NHL.”

In just one year the KHL has made an imprint on international hockey with its huge paychecks to European players and speculated expansion plans in Western Europe. Currently, the league consists of 24 teams – 21 in Russia and the remaining three in Latvia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.

Still, it’s not without its problems. Many of the big investors and sponsors have been hit hard by the declining oil prices and the economic downturn in general.

Gazprom, a giant oil and gas company Medvedev is the deputy chairman of, was the world’s third largest company in April 2007, worth almost $350 billion (US). A year and a half later - in December 2008 - its worth dropped to just $85 billion (US).

According to reports from Russia during the season, as many as a dozen teams had problems meeting payroll and some still have their players waiting for parts of their salaries.

“We should make a difference between the league and the clubs,” Medvedev said. “The league is very strong, it’s owned by state-owned companies, private companies and the clubs. We have taken the best lessons from the NHL and European hockey.

“But some of the clubs themselves are in debt. We decided to not let the clubs that can’t refinance their debts to participate in the KHL. We have an auditing committee in place and a trade union that is also a major source for information. I would say that four, five clubs at most, are in jeopardy and if they don’t make it, they will play in the second division in Russia.”

Any contraction of the league is expected to be temporary. Two weeks ago, five Swedish Elitserien teams – Djurgarden, Frolunda, Farjestad, HV71 and Linkoping – said that they would not renew their partnership contract with their league, fueling speculation they could join the KHL. Similar rumors have been floating in Finland among five teams that play in the Nordic Trophy – a pre-season Nordic league – with the five aforementioned Swedish clubs.

Farjestad’s CEO, Hakan Loob, has sent a letter to Medvedev, inviting him to discuss the alternatives.

“It’s all speculation, but I don’t think anybody can challenge the fact that the future of hockey lies not in isolation, but in internationalization,” Medvedev said. “There are different options on how to develop hockey in Europe. We’re ready to discuss which options to choose and how to do it. We’re not saying that our way is the best, but we don’t think that not changing anything is the answer, either.”

An official presentation on how the KHL sees the development of European hockey will take place in October or November, but Medvedev says rumors that the KHL tried to destroy the Swedish League couldn’t be further from the truth.

IIHF president René Fasel said his organization does not approve clubs playing in the KHL without the approval of their national federation.

Not only is Medvedev an IIHF Council member, he was also the deputy chairman of one of the big investors behind the Champions League – a club competition for the European champions that launched last fall.

The CHL expansion to cover 22 countries has already been put on ice and there’s reason to believe the future of the competition is in jeopardy, due to problems with investors.

“We launched a Sputnik and now we know that the first season was a success,” Medvedev said. “We know the NHL is willing to participate in it, but I don’t think it’s right to fight off all the previous investors. We have invested a lot of money in it.

“If I didn’t believe in the CHL, I wouldn’t have invested in it,” Medvedev added. “I still believe in it and we’re committed to spending money further on, but we’d like to see that it’s done in a cordial way with a mutual understanding on how to market the league, how to handle the logistics and so on.”

While wearing several different hats – many at the same time – Medvedev’s sudden rise to the top of the hockey world gives him the power to make his vision come true.

“The KHL did a lot in just one year,” Medvedev said. “Belarus and Latvia are in the quarterfinals at the World Championship, we have 78 KHL players in the top eight teams here and even the U.S. and Canada have KHL players. In five years, we’ll have better hockey than today and the KHL will have a European dimension.”

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Eye on Europe will be featured on THN.com every Friday throughout the season. Risto Pakarinen is a Finnish freelance writer, based in Stockholm, Sweden who also writes for NHL.com and IIHF.com. When not writing about European hockey on THN, he's probably writing about hockey at ristopakarinen.com/hockey as Puckarinen. 

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