Monday, November 03, 2008

KHL Poachers

North American Elitist Attitude Not Helping

It's happened to us. We've lost a Russian. One that was actually in our plans.

Back in May, I touched upon the topic of losing Europeans and Russians from the NHL on a couple of occasions (here and here).

Since then, some of the predictions have, well predictably, come to fruition. The biggest scalp for the KHL remains Jaromir Jagr, who even in his late 30s would be an offensive juggernaut in this season's NHL. And an almost as impressive catch was young Alexander Radulov, already an NHL star a mere season and half into a career. In truth, the NHL has been bleeding quite a lot of talent since May.

North American response
Back in July, I touched upon the issue again. This time it was because I was incensed by the attitude I saw permeating the big-wigs in charge of holding this NHL of ours together. They took a very elitist and dismissive tone that I didn't think could be helpful in any way:
"We don't view them as a threat," (Bill Daly) said. "We still believe the best hockey players in the world will continue to want to play in the NHL."

The NHL can stay on their high horse if they want to, but I'm not about to agree with them. For one thing, the fact that only 26 Russians play in the NHL today (compared to 77 in 2001) shoots down any retort in my mind. There is no way anyone could convince me that a member of Russia's National taxi squad (back-ups) would not play better and more exciting hockey than most of the guys on Vancouver, Florida, LA or Phoenix. I don't think an NHL coach would be able to keep a straight face while saying he'd rather play Vernon Fiddler than Radulov or Aleksey Morozov.

Valentenko and the Canadiens
Late last week, it was Pavel Valentenko (heir apparent to Francis Bouillon) who would fly the coop. At this stage of his career, it is true he is a mere AHL farmhand, but looking at things that way is naive and deceptive. My assessment of the situation is that Valentenko was one season at most from being a capable defender on the Canadiens (a team currently setting their standards a little higher than most). What that probably means is that he could play for some NHL teams right now. That in itself (if you accept my talent evaluation of Pavel) means that the Canadiens lost more than a Bulldog, they lost potential trade currency as well.

The situation is actually compounded for the Canadiens because 2 of their other top 4 prospects on defence are actually also plying their trade in Mother Russia at the moment. The famous name for casual Habs fans is that of Alexei Emelin – he who is already a fixture on the World Champion Russian National team. The other player is Konstantin Korneev – an impressive offensive defenceman.

At a time when Canadiens fans are coming to realise that Ryan O'Byrne, while big, may not be Mike Komisarek II, and Yannick Weber still needs time a mere 5 months removed from the Memorial Cup. It certainly would be nice to call upon the services of Emelin or Korneev right now. Never mind that in the future it would never hurt to have a bit more choice to put together a seven-man crew that does not include Brisebois, Dandenault or in all likelihood Bouillon or Hamrlik (obviously this is years away).

Following the Valentenko manoeuvre, I saw some of the very same North America elitism around. I point you here to my esteemed fellow blogger Arpon Basu (who normally I agree with, but not today). He had this to say as he waved Valentenko good riddance:
"But what I find difficult to believe is that Valentenko was unable to convince his family that in the long-term, staying the course with his NHL career was the right move here."

Valentenko's decision was the right one financially, I think. Without much doubt. After all, he is playing against a loaded deck when the Canadiens dress two players worse than himself and those ahead of him in the queue for a spot on a near-nightly basis. And to say that he will be banished to the KHL forever as he suggests is fine for now. But it will be an attitude the NHL will find hard to stand by once the exodus intensifies.

Arpon's basis for this statement, to be fair was a thesis that the KHL was more unstable and could collapse over the coming years and the salary structure with it. But, even this I find too simple.

The KHL plans
You see the KHL has their sights set on bigger things. And to be frank, they have better leadership with which to achieve their goals than does the NHL. Fetisov, a pioneer of international and Russian NHL hockey knows more than marketing textbooks:
“I warned Gary Bettman five years ago,” he tells me, referring to the N.H.L. commissioner. “You’ve got your business model, but if you take the best players out of Europe and Russia for cheap — you’ll kill the game, and your own market.” North America, Fetisov argues, is “a small hockey market.” He continues: “For years I’ve tried to tell the Americans to think big. Look beyond Russia and Europe. What about Asia? China? Even in India they play field hockey. Why can’t the N.H.L. see it? They’re afraid. They want to preserve their market. Now it’s too late. We’re gonna take our market share. And you’ll see, it’ll be good for the game.”

For one thing, Russia is trying to change its image. And sports is one of the ways it has targeted to do this. This comprehensive piece from the New York Times gives some good background on ways in which the central government, and indeed the President Putin himself has played a role in this (it is essential reading for anyone who shares my view or intends to slug it out in an argument over it):
"In 2002, Fetisov returned to Russia at Putin’s behest, to head up Rossport, a new federal agency dedicated to reviving the country’s sports infrastructure."

That's why this quote, which holds true for the moment (5 months into a new league), is frustrating to see from someone who should know better:
"As long as the KHL is around, it will be a haven for washed up NHL guys looking to extend their careers by being overpaid over there, or as a second chance for guys who have been banished like Ray Emery."

It is at once terribly dismissive and also lacking a bit of imagination. Yes, Ray Emery, Radivojevic and Stumpel are over there. But consider for a moment all the Russian talent never exposed to North American hockey fans (Emelin and Korneev come to mind).

The future
Lose Valentenko and I lose perspective?

It's a fair point. This stuff, though, is not really about Valentenko. Yes, his leaving costs the Habs a chance at not playing Patrice, but the current open door to Russian millions is far more of a concern considering the core of our team (Kovalev, Markov, Kostitsyn).

And, though the KHL is considerably shaky, even on the best days through its existence. Personally, I don't think it really matter whether the KHL survives or not. I think, what the NHL could experience is the generation of super clubs such as CSKA Moscow, Avangard Omsk, AK Bars Kazan. Frankly, if the NHL is relying on the KHL folding, it should realise that certain mega clubs within it are aiming to become as strong as the mighty Red Wings.

Looking beyond the sheltered North American view of the sporting world and its 5 sports, I look to football (the real version). There, the English Premiership currently enjoys top status in the world (revenue and player salary-wise). But saying that obscures the fact that there are really only 4 mega clubs in England with a couple more that could even hope to bridge the gap one day. The other European countries have their mega clubs too, Milan (X2), Roma, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich. The success of these clubs is barely tied at all anymore to the success of Serie A, La Liga or the Bundesliga.

Hockey too, if the KHL clubs are left to poach, will go this way too. The difference with football is that the NHL operates in a system that props up its weaker members to sustain the integrity of the current league alignment.

The attitude taken by the NHL leadership here only promises to let this situation get out of control. It is appeasement in the face of real power. Reinforcing their laissez-faire attitude when the commissioner needs to do a good few days work here is not helpful either, I feel.

So, instead of dismissing these consecutive events as silly curiosities. I think we (and hopefully someone with power to do something) will face reality: what will we do to help our franchises hold onto the top talent in the world?

More importantly for us, w
here will the Canadiens be when CSKA (operating with a much looser cap structure) come looking for Andrei Markov?

In related news, I stumbled upon this little piece as I was doing due diligence for the current one. It appears Young Perezhogin is no longer banished in some fans' minds. I guess 17 goals in 23 games will do that...

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