October 05, 2010
What was your interest level in the NHL's first game on Russian soil in 20 years?
The Carolina Hurricanes lost to SKA St. Petersburg on Monday, 5-3, in an exhibition game. For North American fans, there were some newsworthy moments, like when Coach Paul Maurice held star Eric Staal(notes) out of the third period because of the KHL team's chippy play:
"It seemed like they were getting closer and closer to his knees and there wasn't a big concern on the ice about it," Canes coach Paul Maurice said of pulling Staal. "He's a National Hockey League star player and he should be playing in the National Hockey League."
One gets the sense that by the end of the game, the goal was survival for an NHL team playing a meaningless exhibition game against an opponent for whom the game meant a hell of a lot more. The "NHL super team!" Phoenix Coyotes may see the same kind of thing when they meet the KHL's Dinamo Riga in Latvia on Wednesday morning.
There's no question that NHL games in Russia are important, because that's an untapped market and native land to some of the League's brightest stars.
But is it really worth it for the NHL to continue to face KHL teams in the exhibition season?
This wasn't a question being asked when the Rangers met Metallurg in the 2009 Victoria Cup, defeating the KHL club, 4-3. But that, at least, had something on the line.
Which isn't to say there wasn't something on the line for SKA against Carolina. It clearly meant a lot to KHL loyalists who have suffered through snide remarks about it being a "beer league." It clearly meant more to Russian media, who covered the game with vigor and had quotes from NHL ex-pats like Sergei Zubov(notes) calling it "an episode of the rivalry between KHL and NHL, Russia and Canada." (Raleigh evidently being confused with Regina.)
In North America, the game didn't have that impact. At all. We linked to a Hurricanes feed on the game in Puck Headlines, but had a few readers rightfully asking where the rest of the coverage was. The game's coverage in the hockey media was dwarfed by coverage of the KHL announcing it had "signed a formal agreement to mutually respect each other's player contracts and bring an end to several years of contentiousness over the rights to players" before Gary Bettman told the Canadian Press 'yeah, not so much.'
Sure, playing KHL teams exposes Russian fans to the NHL product. But it also elevates the KHL to that of an equal; which, from a global marketing perspective, would some counterintuitive for the NHL. Still, it might make sense in an international tournament or in a series of games; but in an exhibition one-off, it has no upside for the NHL.
Where this relationship is headed, according to the KHL's president in an interview with Pierre LeBrun:
There are benefits to a good working relationship with the KHL, such as bans on player poaching and, way down the line, dual participation in international tournaments. (And our own pet theory of a merger.) But exhibition games, in which the KHL is already in-season and the NHL teams are just trying not to get knee-capped by some overzealous Russian?
The question is, will the NHL's Premiere Games ever go to Russia? "We're hoping for that idea," Medvedev said. "It would have interest from the public, especially if you combine with [preseason] games between KHL and NHL teams. ... I think it would be a great idea to bring those teams that have Russian players like Washington with Ovechkin and Pittsburgh with Malkin. I'm 100 percent sure it would be sold out."
Medvedev, who doubles as the board chairman for SKA St. Petersburg, a club that features Alexei Yashin(notes), Denis Grebeshkov(notes), Sergei Zubov and Evgeni Nabokov(notes) also sees the potential in having KHL clubs tour the NHL across the pond, reviving the old Summit Series tours of the 1970s and '80s. "Yes, it should be a two-way street, it shouldn't just be in Russia. We should bring some KHL clubs to North America," Medvedev said.
Those would seem to overwhelmingly benefit the KHL, no?
While SKA avenged Metallurg Magnitogorsk's defeat to New York Rangers two years ago, it left many questions unanswered about the relative strengths of the two leagues.
The big-spending army side are reckoned among the strongest teams in Russia, while the Hurricanes have blown themselves out after lifting the Stanley Cup back in 2006.
Moreover, SKA enjoyed both home advantage and greater match fitness with their season already one month old. The NHL campaign starts later this week and Carolina are still in pre-season mode. But the Americans' main excuse was the game's physicality, complaining that the officials allowed too many knee-high swipes to go unpunished.
This isn't a call for the NHL to leave Europe, because it needs to plant a flag there and fortify its castle in order to thrive in the future. And this isn't a call to ignore Russia, because the idea of Premiere Games there is tantalizing. Hell, it's not even a call to ignore KHL teams, because a true "world championship" because Stanley Cup champs and European teams would be a blast.
But in this preseason format, with nothing on the line for the NHL and everything there for the KHL? Just can't see it being worth it.
And yes, that does make the NHL sound like an incumbent political candidate who refuses to debate the insurgent opponent out of fear of a damaged ego. But that's how the incumbent remains the incumbent.