Putin wants Russian hockey to challenge NHL
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he would like to see ice hockey in his homeland offer more rivalry to the North American NHL, which has long been established at the sport’s elite league.
Russia boasts its own NHL equivalent in the form of the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), which was founded in 2008 and predominantly features teams from Russia but also Belarus, Kazakhstan, and China.
Despite the growth of the KHL since its inception, Russia has continued to see the departure of its biggest-name players to the NHL.
Speaking to KHL president Alexei Morozov on Thursday, Putin expressed his hopes that the Russia-based league could continue to improve and give its North American counterpart a run for its money.
“I would really like to see competition between North American hockey, European hockey, [and] let it be Russian hockey,” said Putin.
“It seems to me it really has become more interesting than it was before the KHL was created.”
Putin has spoken of his role as a key initiator in the founding of the KHL in 2008, and reiterated that he had a personal interest in seeing it flourish.
“I want to wish you success. You know that I came up with the KHL, so I’m interested in you succeeding,” said the Russian leader.
Last season, a quartet of Russian stars lined up in the NHL Stanley Cup Finals as the Colorado Avalanche – featuring Valeri Nichushkin – defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning, whose roster includes Nikita Kucherov, Mikhail Sergachev, and Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Elsewhere, the likes of longtime Washington Capitals star Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburg Penguins, and New York Rangers duo Igor Shesterkin and Artemi Panarin are also big NHL names.
Given Russia’s status as an important source of hockey talent, the sport has seen particular discussion about how it might be affected by the tense relations between Russia and the West.
Ahead of this week’s NHL draft, it was suggested that Russian youngsters might be less appealing to North American teams, although in the end three Russians were selected in the first round.
Elsewhere, it was claimed that some NHL teams harbored fears that Russian players might not return from post-season breaks back in their homeland.
However, that notion was dismissed by Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan, who said he was confident that the likes of Ovechkin and others would return.
In the KHL, part of the fallout from the Ukraine conflict has been that Helsinki-based team Jokerit and Latvian club Dinamo Riga have both pulled out of the league for the 2022/23 season.
The hockey authorities in Latvia, Finland and Sweden have all said they will ban any of their players from the national team if they choose to play in the KHL.
At a diplomatic level, Finnish President Sauli Niinisto told the Italian media that he would no longer considering playing hockey with Putin, after the pair were seen taking to the ice together back in 2012.
The Kremlin responded by saying that would be no great loss for Putin, who has no shortage of partners to make up teams whenever he plays.