Rebuttal: Hockey Will Stagnate Without the KHL

If there is a silver lining in this cross-pond chess match, it is that the league and the union now have a common enemy.

So wrote my colleague Ian Dunham in his recent article “Putin’s Russia and Gangsterism in the KHL”. According to him, the NHL Player’s Association and the NHL share a common enemy in the Kontinental Hockey League.

If the NHL can convince the NHLPA that that is so, then the NHL is the true gangster.

LABOR

If the league can convince current and aspiring hockey players that there are only 800 worthwhile jobs out there and that they are all in North America, then they perpetuate Clarence Campbell’s obstinate stance in the 1960s, when he would ridicule any talk of expanding past six teams. Campbell’s motives were impure to say the least: he was protecting the filthy rich financial interests of about four families. Or so he thought.

Every professional hockey player should be rooting for the KHL to get its act together; for the Czech Extraliga, the Elitserien, to do the same. Labor doesn’t, as a rule, discourage the creation of more jobs, at least not in a market that can sustain them.

Perhaps the NHLPA hasn’t used the KHL as a bargaining chip. If not, it’s time to fire Fehr and find someone who will because without it, the NHLPA has no bargaining chips at all. At least none that they do not have to manufacture.

As I’ve written before, labor gets its negotiating muscle from having options. Options are products of a competitive market. Lacking options, a private sector union is virtually powerless.

Negotiations last fall went nowhere because Donald Fehr kept trying to convince everyone that the players had leverage when they didn’t. What was their leverage—Goodenow’s gains from the last CBA? Unfortunately that one had expired. Its terms were null and void.

I always found it shocking to hear players come out of a meeting demanding a free market for their salaries. The NHL had a free market for salaries. It was during the original six, as corrupt an era in professional sports as any in history. A collective bargaining agreement is a market. It sets the parameters. It gets the gears turning. Otherwise it’s every player for himself in a free-for-all. The closest real-world scenario players could hope for would be to entertain offers from more than one league; more than one CBA, as it were.

The National Hockey League is an arrogant and unafraid monopoly provider of the world’s best hockey. It keeps minor pro leagues in check by relegating them to the status of affiliates. The best players from America and Canada don’t have to go far, but we lose our minds when a young Jaromir Jagr expresses being homesick in Pittsburgh, or when Ilya Kovalchuk leaves the NHL for his home country. I guess I don’t understand why it is that North American players enjoy home ice advantage but European players must leave their lives behind and journey half way across the globe.

During last fall’s labor dispute (popularly called a lockout but really was a player’s strike by proxy) NHL players repeatedly said they wanted to do the right thing for themselves and for their future colleagues. This was always nonsense. If it were true, then they would have fanned out over the globe and raised the level of hockey in other leagues. Not for a couple leisurely weeks, but for more than a couple seasons.

PROFIT

One of Dunham’s theses is that the KHL is a hockey league largely in name only, an operation indifferent to the welfare of its players and supported by Russian oligarchs and gangsters driven purely by profit. An extended quote from Alexei Kovalev ends with “[The KHL] is not developing players or teams, they’re running a business.”

To whit, Federal Judge Andrew Caffrey, in his ruling on Derek Sanderson and the Bruins in Boston Professional Hockey Assn Inc vs Sanderson:

In considering whether or not the Bruins have sustained their burden of showing irreparable harm unless they are granted the desired injunctive relief, it is well to keep in mind that although the plaintiff is popularly called and practically beloved as and under the name of ‘Bruins,’ actually the plaintiff is a business corporation formed for profit which is earning a substantial return on its capital.

Call your beloved team the Maple Leafs, the Red Wings, Dynamo, whatever: teams are not teams, they are corporations doing business as teams.

In other words, to accuse the KHL of superficial interests such as making money is to attack an economic system that has been in development in the US for over 200 years and which the government has been trying—in Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, much of Central America, half of Africa, and even mother Russia—to promote.

To intimate that the KHL uses dirty money to do it is disingenuous. Dirty money buys everything from a weekend with co-workers in New York on the company dime to US Presidencies.

The KHL is in its infancy. Teams are losing money. But many of them are supported by billionaire firms with money to burn and a desire to see a professional hockey league prosper in their home country. Some NHL teams routinely lose money yet we demand they stay in business.

I fail to see what is so beloved about Dunham’s NHL. It is an illegal monopoly. The Canadian ethos that hockey players should want to play the game more than earn a substantial income is moribund. It has drifted into myth, folklore. Ask Bobby Orr how that attitude worked out for him.

CUP

Hockey needs the KHL to succeed. It needs other leagues to succeed.  Nothing would speak more to the values we hold dearly as hockey fans than seeing, say, the names of players from the 2020-21 season Stanley Cup Champion HC Kladno etched into the Stanley Cup. After all, nothing says the Cup is a North American, English and French-Canadian speaking trophy.

In 1965 Montreal president J. David Molson said:

Twenty or so years from now I can see two six-team leagues in the National Hockey League; an expanded American Hockey League with more than the nine teams it now has; foreign leagues with Russian and Czech and Swedish teams; and a world playoff for the Stanley Cup, with world-wide television …

There’s nothing sacred about the National Hockey League that isn’t grafted onto it by someone peering through rose-colored lenses. To hope for the collapse of the KHL is to hope that the NHL maintains its stranglehold on the sport of hockey, so that its labor force emerges every seven years without options, so that every four years we have to wonder if Gary Bettman will release the players for the Olympics.

By hoping other leagues are rubbed out by the NHL, we’re hoping for that embarrassing moment every year in the National Football League when those players hold up that trashy trophy and call themselves ‘world champions.’

Ross Bonander
Ross Bonander is a freelance health writer and quotations editor. His work includes Hockey Talk, a collection of memorable hockey quotes and So So In Centerfield, an unusual collection of baseball quotes. He writes extensively for the Lymphoma Information Network.
Ross Bonander
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4 Comments

  1. Let the KHL have their mod run league. Let the US have their billionaire run league. Let the world have their version of football and let us have our version. We don’t need a ‘world’ anything. We have sports, they have sports. If our boys/girls want to play for Europe or Asia, or Russia, let them. and vice versa.

  2. I am all for world hockey growth. I ignore those who do not want to see the KHL or European/Asian hockey grow. Imagine what the NHL would have been without the emergence of the Soviets. I would have been disappointed to never have seen players like Lidstrom, Jagr, Selanne, Lundqvist and many past greats as well. So imagine in twenty years when hockey grows in lesser known areas and you might come across the next big star from Asia!

    Anyway this whole World Wide League never made sense to me. Its unlikely it will ever. I much rather see individual leagues grow in their countries/regions and more Inter-league play. With a Champions League sort of tournament every year.

    I would hate to lose my team to the AHL. The teams would lose much revenue if they were placed in the AHL or second division. Of course a guy from Montreal said this, the Canadiens never have to worry about being second fiddle in terms of revenue, profit and popularity.

  3. And while I agree that the players should encourage job creation and the emergence of leagues in other countries, I also think it is perfectly acceptable for those same players to want the NHL to remain on top.

    Also, as long as the NHL is in control of the Stanley Cup, forget about teams from other nations hosting it. If the business does become that competitive, the last thing the NHL will want to do is invite other leagues in.

  4. The NFL comment is nothing short of ridiculous. The Super Bowl champion has a right to call itself a “world champion”, because winning the Super Bowl makes the team exactly that.

    The NFL is the best American football league in the world, nobody doubts that. Why is that a point of criticism? Is that not the goal?

    In the American business world you speak of, the goal is not to share the wealth and it never has been.

    Having the best hockey league in the world, which is currently the NHL, should be the goal of every corner of the world covered in ice.

    It makes no sense to criticize North American players, owners, writers or fans for wanting to be on top.

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