KHL using lockout to prove its real deal

September, 28, 2012
9/28/12
2:35
PM ET
The KHL was founded in 2008 with visions of rivaling the NHL as a destination for some of the game’s biggest stars.

While that dream has had some growing pains, the NHL lockout right now is affording the KHL center stage in the hockey world.

"It’s amazing," KHL vice-president Ilya Kochevrin told ESPN.com over the phone Friday. "It gives our league an unbelievable opportunity to market itself and on the international sports market -- which was basically the goal when the league was created."

Almost a month into its fifth season, the 26-team Russian league, according to Kovechrin, has seen a tangible impact from the NHL shutting down its doors.

[+] EnlargeAlex Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk
Courtesy of KHLAlex Ovechkin made headlines recently when he suggested he might just stay in the KHL if he doesn't like the CBA agreed to by the NHL and NHLPA.
"Absolutely, more attendance, more TV, more interest overall," said Kochevrin.

No surprise given the flood of NHL Russian stars such as Pavel Datsyuk, Ilya Kovalchuk, Evgeni Malkin and Alex Ovechkin.

There are plans to add KHL games to more TV screens around the world, including in North America.

In the meantime, the sell job for the KHL isn’t just on fans, but just as much on the NHL players, who are parking their skills in their league for the duration of the lockout. The KHL’s hope is that these NHLers realize life isn’t so bad in the Russian league and that, down the road, perhaps it’s an option where they can continue their careers.

"Yes, it’s a great promotion not only for the fans but also for the players," said Kochevrin. "Even if they go back to the NHL, they can tell people that there’s nothing to be afraid of in the KHL. It’s totally legitimate, it pays well, it’s well organized. That’s great word of mouth."

And it’s the NHL’s nightmare on some level, the modern-day World Hockey Association, if you will, stealing away star players. At this stage, it’s still premature to believe that’s going to happen on any meaningful level. But the NHL is certainly giving the KHL a big-time opportunity to test-drive itself for NHL players.

Not that any of them can stay on for the entire season should the NHL lockout find a conclusion and an NHL season be salvaged. Ovechkin made headlines recently when he suggested he might just stay in the KHL if he doesn’t like the CBA agreed to by the NHL and NHLPA.

Perhaps Ovechkin wasn’t aware that the KHL and NHL have an agreement in place that stipulates it will respect each league’s player contracts. So if the lockout ends and there’s an NHL season, Ovechkin and company have to head back to North America.

"It’s all going to be done on a professional basis, it’s all going to be transparent and legal," confirmed Kochevrin. "Alex, sometimes, he’s very impulsive. I don’t think he realizes ..."

Kochevrin, in mid-thought, points to the big picture.

"Actually, I think it’s going to be a success for the relationship between the KHL and the NHL," he said. "We have an agreement and it’s a great mechanism to solve any issue that we have between us."

To be clear, I asked again: Is the KHL intent on respecting the agreement with respect to player contracts that is has with the NHL?

"Of course, of course," said Kochevrin.

You see, the KHL can’t have it both ways. It can’t try to keep players like Ovechkin after an NHL lockout ends, then turn around and profess to be on equal terms as a professionally run league with the same standards.

It’s either the Wild West or it’s the real deal.

Right now, it appears the KHL wants to be seen as the real deal.

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