Wednesday, May 1, 2013

2013-14 Kontinental Hockey League Expansion

On Saturday the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) announced it was expanding with the addition of a brand new club in Vladivostok, Russia followed by Monday's revelation that the 28th member of the league would be KHL Medveščak from Zagreb, Croatia.

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While other cities and clubs have been seeking to join the KHL, such as so far unsuccessful efforts from Milan, Italy and Gdansk, Poland, the announcement of KHL Medveščak (with "KHL" standing for Klub hokeja na ledu) moving to the KHL for 2013-14 will make them the first Croatian team to join the KHL.

2009-10 KHL Medvescak supporters photo KHLMedvescaron10D0aksupporters.jpg
KHL Medveščak supporters

Founded in 1961, KHL Medveščak is by far the most popular and most successful club in Croatia. For their first 30 seasons the team competed in the Yugoslav Hockey League, playing their games outdoors until 1971 when they moved to an indoor rink. The team was a middle of the pack club for it's first two decades, which included a financial crisis in the mid 1980's.

In 1986, KHL Medveščak was sponsored by the Gortan Building company, which was owned by Zdenko Gradecki, who injected some much needed cash which allowed for better player recruitment, transforming the club. The Bears won Four consecutive Yugoslav Ice Hockey Cups from 1988 to 1991 and three consecutive league titles in 1989, 1990 and 1991, which led to a spot in the 1991 IIHF Champions Cup where they defeated teams from Italy, Austria and Hungary to advance to the second round.

When Yugoslavia dissolved in 1991, Medveščak lost all it's sponsors and their associated funding, which necessitated competing as an amateur club in the Croatian Ice Hockey League. They dominated the league through the 1990's and early 2000's before seeking a higher level of competition in 2007 when they joined the Slovenian Hockey League before changing leagues once again, this time to the Austrian Erste Bank Eishockey Liga in 2009-10. They competed in the Austrian league for four seasons until the announcement on Monday that they would be moving to the KHL as it's first Croatian club and will be the second-most western team in the league after the Czech club HC Lev in Prague.

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The 2009-10 KHL Medveščak squad during their first year in the Austrian Erste Bank Eishockey Liga

On the opposite end of the scale comes word that a new expansion franchise will also join the KHL for next season. This as yet unnamed team will be located in far eastern Russia in the port city of Vladivostok, which is a whopping 4,975 miles from Prague where HC Lev is located. Vladivostok is just 89 miles from the border with North Korea and actually closer to Vancouver (4,608 miles) than it is to Prague within the KHL!

The team is building a new 7,000 seat arena in time for the start of the 2013-14 season. Vladivostok is six time zones and 4,000 miles from the heart of the KHL in Moscow, 8 hours and 18 minutes flying time, but there is one other KHL team nearby, HC Amur 400 miles north in Khabarovsk, which is itself only 30 miles from the Chinese border.

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A map of Russia showing the Trans-Siberian Railway line from Moscow to Khabarovsk  and finally Vladivostok to the south - 4,000 miles by air

With that exception though, Vladivostok remains a far outpost across the vast expanse of Russia and presents challenges in time and travel, even when teams can play two opponents on one trip, as the next closest team to Vladivostok and Khabarovsk is HC Metallurg Novokuznetsk in central Russia, 2,137 miles west. If you thought the Dallas Stars and Minnesota Wild didn't like being in a division with no teams within their same time zone, or the Detroit Red Wings didn't like traveling to California, try crossing six time zones across Russia from Moscow to play two games.

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KHL President Alexander Medvedev announcing the new KHL club in Vladivostok

In order to ease the travel burden on the league members, the KHL, which will now have clubs in seven different countries, will reportedly be realigned into three divisions split between Eastern Europe, Western Russia and Siberia/Far East playing a schedule of 58 games, six more than last season. Even with new divisions and a matching schedule to ease the travel costs, the other seven teams slated to be in the "Pacific" division, such as Traktor Chelyabinsk 928 miles from Moscow must not be looking forward to spending their winters traipsing back and forth across Siberia all winter long.

 Vladivostok's new team will be run by it's president, former NHL star Alexander Mogilny, who originally from Khabarovsk and currently acting as an advisor to HC Amur.

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Alexander Mogilny while with the Buffalo Sabres

Today's featured jersey is a 2012-13 KHL Medveščak Dustin Jeffrey jersey from the Pittsburgh Penguins player who skated for KHL Medveščak during the early part of the season while the NHL players were locked out by their owners. Jeffrey played 20 games in Zagreb, scoring 11 goals and 23 points before returning to the NHL, where he played 24 games for the Penguins, scoring 6 points.

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