With the departure of Slovan, there has been much discussion surrounding the effect of that action on the KHL. Let’s take a look at that effect.
Slovan Leaving the KHL
Slovan was the first classic European club to join the league. It happened in 2012 during the tenure of Alexander Medvedev as KHL president. At the time, both the Slovan ownership and the KHL reached an agreement regarding the financing of the club. According to that agreement, both sides were to be responsible for financing the club. Slovan’s vice president Juraj Široký Jr. has said many times, the Russians have always fulfilled their obligations with the financing of Slovan despite some minor problems. Has the KHL upheld their end of the bargain?
Meanwhile, the political relationship between Europe and Russia has worsened since 2014 and of course, it has affected the KHL and their daily life. Let’s take a closer look at how it affected Slovan.
Because of this degradation of the political relationship, the problems for Slovan began. First and most important of those effects is that the Slovan owner has not been able to fulfil his obligations in financing the club. This despite negotiations with various Czech and French club investors. The owner and his group tried in earnest to achieve equilibrium to keep the club as a part of the KHL. Unfortunately, the club was not able to reach an agreement. A primary reason for the unsuccessful negotiations is the club management. It is a business and investment standard, few will invest if they do not have some control in the process of the club’s financial management.
Additionally, we have another reason…
That is the lack of confidence in club management. It is common knowledge that Slovan fans have boycotted the club over Oldřich Štefl, the sport manager. The KHL has all the information about how Slovan has spent its money. The league claims the club debts arose due to ineffective management and it cannot be a surprise to anybody that players salaries are a significant part of the budget. The sport manager is responsible for the management of this and the fans and the league have no confidence in him.
Moreover, the Russian side wanted to finance Slovan for the upcoming season, but the club had to change its managing policy and perhaps even the management of the team. The need for Slovan was to secure the financing as agreed back in 2012. Apparently, they were unable to do it, so it has been decided that Slovan will not continue in the leading Eurasian league in perpetuity.
The European Expansion
What´s next? I will quote Alexander Medvedev. “Slovan will be replaced by another club soon,“ he said this just hours after the formal announcement from the KHL and Slovan offices.
Let’s go back to April 2019, when Russia hosted the International Arctic Forum. The Russian President Vladimir Putin said to the Swedish PM Stefan Löfven, “it would be nice if a club of yours [Swedish] participated in the KHL.“
Just a few days later, Putin appealed to the French business leaders to finance a French KHL club. It happened during the meeting of the Franco-Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Moscow. “Mr President, I have failed to convince you to finance a French football club, but maybe I will finance a French hockey club.” “Well, Total will deal with this,“ replied Patrick Pouyanné, CEO of Total. The French company is already a sponsor of the Russian hockey national team and made clear their desire, in that comment, to take that that sponsorship into the KHL.
So, What Does It Mean?
It is an evident change of approach by the league. Before 2014, the Russian side was willing to finance European clubs on their own to have those teams participate in the KHL. Some current and past examples are Lev Prague, Medvescak Zagreb & now Slovan.
Because of the Slovan fallout, Europeans will need to accept the higher responsibility in financing their clubs. The league demands a strong backing by any government of participatory countries to avoid an unexpected development. In this manner, it became the reason why the Russian President accepted his behind the scenes role.
Also, the recent ownership change for Jokerit is a clear signal of the new approach. The KHL Board member Jari Kurri became the sole owner of the club to sell a minority share (40%) to the Finnish based company Norilsk Nickel Harjavalta within a few weeks. Jokerit has been owned by Hjallis Harkimo (majority) and Gennady Timchenko and Rotenbergs (minority) since joining the KHL. The club is working on a new business plan, which should help the club to be more effective in working with their Finnish sponsors.
Will Paris Be Considered for Expansion?
The league does not release details regarding expansion. The league president has spoken of various options for Europe, but he hesitates to name them. At this time we are aware that the German and French partners are the most active in the current negotiations.
Luc Tardif, the President of the French Ice Hockey Federation, is frank with the intention of the French hockey community. The quote “We want to bring the KHL to Paris,“ is often present as a part of his vocabulary. It is likely they negotiate to bring the KHL World Games to the AccorHotels Arena next season. Of course, the French side would like to see Lokomotiv Yaroslavl and Stéphane Da Costa, who was born in Paris as a part of that event and of course, if Paris had a club in the KHL.
In the case of an expansion to Paris, it is not clear where the proposed club would play home matches. There is an option with the AccorHotels Arena or a new proposed arena for the 2024 Summer Olympics. In the latter, negotiations with the city of Paris and other institutions are currently underway.
For now there are no other French cities in contention for a team.
At present, the French hockey community has a more important issue to resolve. The French national team has been relegated to the 2020 IIHF Division I Group A. So, the federation needs to approve a plan and implement it to regain its former IIHF status. The KHL may be helpful as a long-term option in assisting their efforts with that project.
The 2019 KHL World Games in Davos & Paris?
So, what about other possible locations is a question on the lips of many European KHL fans.
It is difficult to answer that question right now. It is however clear that the league is interested in a bigger city, with a modern arena with a minimum of 10,000 seats. Included in that are cities in which new venues are planned like Vienna, Austria or Munich, Germany. The league might also expand with a brand-new club like Lev Prague. It would be a big mistake for people who consider the KHL expansion to Europe using only the former expansion model.
Seemingly, the KHL World Games are the best indicator for fans to find out the possible sites for future expansions. The league has been testing the markets, but that does not mean the KHL will ultimately expand into those markets. Time will tell that story.
As a reminder, the KHL World Games took place in Zűrich, Switzerland and Vienna, Austria in 2018-19. The league will announce the host city or cities for the event in early July. The Russian media speculate with the Green Derby – Salavat Yulaev Ufa vs Ak Bars Kazan – to be played in Davos, Switzerland. The Bashkir club will participate at the 2019 Spengler Cup, so Davos could host that classic derby a few days before the Spengler Cup. Giving the Davos great international coverage.
Paris is another great option for the KHL. The league plans two World Games events for 2019-20. The French side will meet with KHL representatives soon to discuss the details of that event. The other topic is obvious, getting a team into Paris.
Feature Image Credit: (Photo by Alexander Astafyev\TASS via Getty Images)