The Kontinental Hockey League unjustifiably gets a bad rap in North America where the NHL admittedly reigns supreme. However, it pays to consider it in the same vein as the other top leagues across the world, like the Swedish Hockey League, the Finnish Elite League and the Czech Extraliga. It’s not necessarily looking to compete with the NHL. It doesn’t need to, to find success all the way across the world.
Here are the top five other myths you may have heard about the KHL:
Myth No. 5: The KHL Is Russian
The KHL is only based in Russia. It actually has teams in six different countries, including Russia: Kazakhstan, Belarus, Latvia, Finland and, since 2016-17, China. Beijing’s HC Kunlun Red Star even has Wayne Gretzky as its global ambassador. Hell, technically the KHL has a second “Gretsky,” with Vyacheslav playing for Dinamo Minsk. No relation, although the 23-year-old cheekily wears No. 99.
Confusion understandably arises from the fact that KHL evolved from the Russian Superleague in 2008. However, the KHL has obviously outgrown that label, considering potential expansion opportunities in such markets as France, the United Kingdom, Italy and Japan.
Myth No. 4: KHL Players Are Grossly Overpaid
This is only half-accurate, with the KHL originating as an oil-rich rival to the NHL, one that could tempt players from abroad with higher salaries. During an in-person meeting in Moscow, KHL vice-president Sergey Dobrokhvalov relayed how, as a result, the average KHL salary was at one point three times that of a typical player in other leagues.
By purely NHL standards, that’s not the case, with one-time KHL star Ilya Kovalchuk reportedly earning $5.5 million in 2016. The top NHL salary that same season: Los Angeles Kings forward Anze Kopitar, who made $14 million.
Current KHL salaries recently leaked and they’re even less egregious now. As the KHL transitions to a hard salary cap for next season in order to help teams become more self-sufficient, they’ve tightened the purse strings, with all-time-leading scorer Sergei Mozyakin of Magnitogorsk Metallurg topping the list with a salary of ₽180 million (~$2.8 million).
Myth No. 3: KHL Hockey Is Played on International Ice
As it stands now, KHL teams actually play on three separate rink sizes: the large international one you’d traditionally associate with the Olympics, the Finnish standard, which is one notch smaller and NHL ice, which is the smallest of the bunch. Needless to say, it gets confusing, with Jokerit, the KHL’s sole Finnish club, actually opting to play on international-sized ice.
So, naturally, the KHL is standardizing their rink sizes… to become more consistent with the NHL? It’s maybe not what you would expect, but it’s happening regardless, especially as the International Ice Hockey Federation looks to hold all tournaments on North American ice.
Myth No. 2: The KHL and NHL Are at Odds with One Another
Admittedly, years ago the KHL effectively did declare war on NHL contracts. It was hyperbolically considered a new cold war, as some Russian players considered staying in the KHL following the NHL lockout of 2012 under the looming threat of rolled-back salaries.
Cooler heads thankfully prevailed, though. In fact, the relationship between the two leagues is civil now, to the point that there is an agreement in place that states neither the KHL nor the NHL can steal players. Contracts must be respected.
Granted, this ironically translates into a lack of a transfer agreement between both sides. Nevertheless, KHL president Dmitry Chernyshenko is adamant, saying that they at the KHL have “a very good relationship with our NHL colleagues.” Chernyshenko even welcomes mutually beneficial promotional opportunities like a game showcasing the top talents in both leagues, at least in principle. The logistics, like scheduling, just need to work out first.
Myth No. 1: The KHL Is a Glorified NHL Farm System
In the same meeting, Chernyshenko addressed the elephant in the room: “There is a stereotype that good, young players go to the NHL, build a career, then come back,” he said.
Yes, he admits, “everyone wants Russian stars to play domestically.” However, from his perspective, even if stars leave for the NHL, it’s far from the worst thing in the world. After all, as he argues, all it will do is help promote the development of hockey in Russia at a grassroots level. Furthermore, it’s far from a one-way street, with 45 Russian players leaving the NHL for the KHL since 2016-17 compared to 39 going the other direction.
Besides, if the KHL were legitimately a feeder system for the NHL, it would imply all its top stars dream of hoisting the Stanley Cup. That’s not always true. For example, Mozyakin has never played in the NHL. Drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2002, he obviously had the opportunity to do so, widely considered the best Russian hockey player never to take the plunge. He simply chose to stay.
Danis Zaripov was reportedly once in talks to join the St. Louis Blues and New York Rangers. Despite his schedule curiously clearing up for two years, Zaripov decided to stay in his home country, where his suspension for taking pseudoephedrine, which isn’t banned by the NHL, was eventually cut down to mere months.
Even when Pavel Datsyuk retired from the NHL to play in his home country, the move to the KHL was for family reasons. He wanted to spend time with his daughter. Had he stayed with one year left on his contract, which the Detroit Red Wings made clear they wanted, he would have made significantly more money.
So, it’s clear the KHL offers more than meets the eye, for players and potential fans, who don’t necessarily need to choose between it and the NHL, alike. That’s maybe the biggest myth of all. It turns out, good hockey is good hockey, wherever it’s played.
Make sure to check out the other articles from my Russian experience:
KHL Stands Apart from NHL Under President Chernyshenko
The Story of My Russian KHL Odyssey