Thursday, 19 November 2009

Overseas Expansion

It's hard to believe that I'm here today talking about expansion with all the uncertainty in the world's economies today, but it seems that the second-best professional league in the world has its sight set on adding one, if not two, teams next season. The KHL announced today that AIK Hockey Club of Stockholm, Sweden has signed a letter of intent to join the KHL for the 2010-11 season. The Swedish club is currently playing in HockeyAllsvenskan, the level just below the Swedish Elite League. They play against such opponents as IF Malmo Redhawks and Leksands IF, and are currently sitting in fourth-place in the standings, just four points behind Växjö Lakers HC for first overall. With their letter of intent, AIK jumps from Sweden's AHL to the spotlight as the KHL begins to form a European "super-league".

As stated in their release today, this "concept of a Swedish club joining the KHL is consistent with the vision of the Pan-European League project that was introduced by the KHL at the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) Congress in September". As the cities of the KHL dot the map across Russia and its former states, the Stockholm-based AIK will now be the KHL's western-most club. That means that a roadtrip to Amur Khabarovsk, the KHL's eastern-most club, will require travel of about 6700 kms... give or take a hundred kilometers.

Now, in comparison, the New York Rangers only travel about 4460 kms to get to Anaheim's Honda Center. Clearly, this additional travel will most likely take a toll on the bodies of the athletes that play for these teams. However, it seems that the KHL is more than willing to open its doors to any and all European teams if the interested teams meet the KHL's required criteria.

The 24-team KHL will now have a 25th team, and it sounds like the Swedes are excited about joining the KHL: "We are thrilled by the invitation of the KHL," stated Peter Mellqvist, Chairman of the Board of the AIK Hockey Club. "It creates new possibilities for AIK Hockey to participate in the KHL. It brings the club to a completely different platform and creates enormous potential for the future. AIK Hockey and its fans and members will have the opportunity to take part in the world’s best hockey played on big ice."

Now, with 25 teams, there appears that there might be a problem with scheduling and standings. However, it wasn't long ago that the KHL was already discussing expanding elsewhere. Lithuania hosted a KHL exhibition match between SKA St. Petersburg and Ak Bars Kazan in Vilnius on October 12th, and it was an overwhelming success. This prompted talk of a true expansion team in Vilnius, Lithuania for possibly the 2010-11 season.

The Vetra athletic club, a leading Lithuanian sports club, and several Lithuanian businesses expressed interest in joining the KHL by letter shortly after the KHL exhibition game. Further to this interest, the Lithuanian letter "revealed plans for the construction of a new ice arena that would be the home of the expansion team as well as serve as the hub of a development project that would include a multi-use sports complex, hotel and retail area in downtown Vilnius".

The KHL, not one to look a gift expansion fee in the mouth, responded with a letter that "outlined a list of specific criteria that would be necessary from operational, logistical and financial standpoints to create a team and develop the required infrastructure to support it".

Look, I'm all about expansion if expansion is done right. The fanbases in these new cities need to be told the truth: there will be some extreme growing pains within the first ten years of joining the KHL. Success will not happen overnight, and teams that stay the course in the expansion process usually see good results. The San Jose Sharks needed about a decade to develop and stock their farm teams, and they are now reaping the benefits. They are an elite team.

There is one benefit that AIK might see more than the other teams. If you were offered a chance to play in Stockholm, Sweden or Magnitogorsk, Russia, which option would you take? Stockholm is a fairly attractive city for players as it is a major European market as compared to such places as Magnitogorsk or Astana (Kazakhstan). Because of Stockholm's attractiveness for Canadian- and American-born players, they may have an easier time attracting big-name, free agent talent. However, the money that some of the Russian teams can throw around could speak volumes as to who signs where.

All in all, congratulations on the KHL for adding one team, and possibly another if the Lithuanian bid works out. There will be more to report on next season with the first Swedish team in the KHL, and this could be the first of many European teams looking to make the jump to the "big league" in Eurasia.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

1 comment:

Captain Canuck said...

I hope this league takes off. It will be great for the sport.

and you're killing me! Who won the contest??????