The Russians Are Coming: New League to Bring Perestroika to Hockey

Spencer CallaghanAnalyst IMay 23, 2008

In the graveyard of professional sports leagues lies the decaying remains of many an ambitious millionaire's (or in contemporary terms billionaire's) dreams of challenging the big boys.

XFL, ABA and WHA are all lasting reminders -- in catchy acronym form -- of the folly of going up against the establishment in pro sports.

So it was with a mix of intrigue and muffled laughter that I greeted the announcement of the Continental Hockey League, the brainchild of Russian energy tycoon Alexander Medvedev.

The muffled laughter stems from the idea that a league that is basically the old Russian Super League, with hockey and economic superpowers Kazakhstan, Belarus and Latvia added into the mix, can challenge the dominance of the multi-billion dollar National Hockey League.

A slight giggle was also saved for the marquee announcement that NHL stars Chris Simon and John Grahame have been signed to contracts in the new league, who along with Alexei Yashin make the league a sort of refuge for misfit hockey players.

The idea that a hockey league based in a country in a constant state of economic and political limbo, such as Russia, could challenge the NHL is, at first glance, utterly absurd.

If Russian players thought they had issues with Mafioso types before, I can hardly imagine how bad it would be if the gangsters didn't have to fly across the ocean to break a few thumbs.

When current Ottawa Senator Randy Robitaille returned from playing in Russia to join the Sens earlier this season, I remember hearing him on the radio talking about how the high salaries the Russian league pays don't necessarily make up for the conditions a player and his family have to endure in some of the more remote Russian cities.

Life in Moscow or Saint Petersburg might be nice but I can't imagine the hotels in Khabarovsk are up to NHL standards.

But before laughing off the idea, it occurred to me that this development might be the first step towards the ultimate master plan of international hockey -- a truly global, multi-tiered league.

With recent victory by Manchester United over Chelsea in the UEFA Champions League Final (Go Red Devils!), it dawned on me that hockey could have something very similar to the UEFA Champions League, a multi-league, multi-tiered global championship.

In making their announcement earlier this week, the new Continental Hockey League expressed a desire to eventually spread across Europe, with Sweden and Finland considered early potential expansion sites.

If the new league is able to survive long enough to see their plan through to fruition, the day might come when the Continental Hockey League is to Europe as the National Hockey League is the North America (hopefully more "North" than "America").

It has long been rumoured that the NHL would like to expand to Europe but a successful Continental Hockey League could actually make the NHL's job simpler.

Instead of risking its money and brand on a risky European expansion, the NHL could partner with the Continental Hockey League to form its own UEFA-style Champions League.

The top teams in each league could vie for a global championship (not the Stanley Cup, it's bad enough that we let Americans win it) that would take the sport of hockey to a whole new level of international recognition.

Of course the logistics would be tricky. The NHL season would likely have to be shortened to make time for the global club tournament. A more stable player transfer system would need to be implemented (and signed!). Standardized rules would need to be adopted, and travel costs considered, but the net result would be a boon to hockey globally.

I have always thought hockey could benefit from being structured and organized more like soccer. Besides basketball, hockey is the next logical sport to be taken to a global level as it is played all around the world.

If the new Continental Hockey League can stay afloat long enough to make an impact in Europe, the NHL may have found a perfect partner to bring the game to the next level. Russia may once again be bringing perestroika to the world, only this time it will be hockey that is fundamentally reformed.