The Russian Federation and its society were in a deep crisis in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. That had a negative influence on Russian hockey.
We need to look at the situation in Russia at the time. The best hockey players moved to the NHL or other European hockey leagues. Clubs had financial problems, and the on-ice quality of the league was low. Pardon the harsh words, but the development programme ceased to exist. Naturally, Russians wanted to fix the problem somehow.
European Hockey in the 1990s
Since the early 1990s, we can see a willingness to expand the Russian hockey league, especially in the post Soviet territories. A lack of funding was the ultimate factor for the shortcomings of any expansion attempts. The International Hockey League (1992–96) was created to unify the 19 Russian teams and clubs from the Ukraine, Latvia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. When the International Hockey League collapsed, the Russian Superleague (RSL) was created. There was one main difference between both leagues, only Russian teams played in the RSL.
The IIHF launched the European Hockey League in 1996. The league included clubs from both Europe and Russia. However, this did not last long with the league ceasing to exist after the 1999-00 season.
European Hockey in the 2000s
The economic situation of the Russian Federation was stable and in better shape in the early 2000s. Former Soviet hockey legends and Russian businesses tried again to establish an international league. They set up a headquarter in Moscow to try and revive Soviet hockey & to create an excellent development programme. Another aim of the league was to help other nations to develop the game of hockey in their respective countries.
Legendary hockey defenceman Viacheslav Fetisov was recently interviewed by Russian journalists. He talked about the KHL’s predecessor, the Euro-Asian Hockey League (EAHL).
The Euro-Asian Hockey League
He talked about the idea of the EAHL to the Russian President in 2003. His vision was to create a league with teams from Russia, former Soviet countries, Europe, and Asia. Fetisov said that the President presented the idea to Belarusian, Ukrainian, and Kazakhs heads of state. All three supported it.
Later, Fetisov hired Dmitry Chernyshenko as a marketing expert to analyse the hockey market and adopt the NHL’s business model. Igor Kuperman joined the founding group as well. Fetisov did not want to create a league, where a few wealthy clubs run the show. He wanted as much parity as possible. A healthy business model was another standard for the league.
Vyacheslav Fetisov talked to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman in 2004. He informed Bettman about a plan to create the EAHL and showed him a model of a co-operation in the Asian market (China, Japan & South Korea).
IIHF European Champions Cup
The city of Saint Petersburg hosted the IIHF European Champions Cup (ECC) in January 2005. The ECC was another attempt to launch a European competition. The top six clubs from six leading European leagues met in the city for the next four winters. The tournament was held for the first time when the EAHL negotiations were ongoing. We can see that the ECC was part of the EAHL’s launching process because their vision was to expand beyond the Russian borders.
The EAHL project was presented in 2005. The league initially would have nine Russian teams, one team from Ukraine (Sokol Kiev), Belarus (Keramin Minsk) & Kazakhstan (Torpedo Ust-Kamenogorsk). A Latvian team would join in the second season. The EAHL planned to expand to Asia & Europe if the expansion had both economic and sports benefits for the league.
Fetisov revealed that he asked Igor Larionov to become the President of the Russian Hockey Federation in 2006 and work on establishing the EAHL. Larionov did not accept the offer however. Vladislav Tretyak was elected the President of the Russian Hockey Federation instead.
The EAHL did not happen, but the idea remained in the Russian hockey community and finally, the KHL was established in 2008. Fetisov’s vision came to reality. He was asked to be the KHL President. However, he proposed that Alexander Medvedev (Gazprom Export Director General) would become President, but he would consult all league issues with Fetisov. Medvedev, as an influential business personality, guaranteed the financial stability of the KHL. Fetisov was elected to become chairman of the KHL Board of Directors.
Dmitry Chernyshenko replaced Medvedev as KHL President in 2014. He came back to the league he helped create. Fetisov said that his vision of the EAHL has not yet fully materialised in the KHL. Especially the league’s parity, business model and modern marketing. The KHL Development Strategy for 2017-23 has the ambition to achieve these goals. It looks to be achieved by reducing the teams instead of the expansion that was planned back in 2005. The league has been trying to eliminate weak Russian teams and replace them with stronger clubs from Europe or Asia. The KHL characterised itself in the strategy as the leading international hockey league in Eurasia with its headquarters in Moscow.
The EAHL’s core idea still exists at the heart of the KHL yet it remains to be seen whether the KHL will fully materialise into Fetisov’s vision. The vision of a strong hockey league in Eurasia.
Feature Image Credit: Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images