The Threat and the Opportunity

The idea is for NHL expansion into Europe through cooperation with the existing European leagues to combat the KHL dangerous expansion in Europe.  The KHL’s expansion plan across Europe is aggressive and moving ahead rapidly. The KHL is well on its way to establishing a presence across the continent.

The Russian-based league has annexed prominent teams previously associated with Finland’s SM-liiga (Jokerit Helsinki, starting in 2014-15), the Slovak Extraliga (Slovan Bratislava) and from the Austrian-dominated EBEL (Croatian team Medvescak Zagreb). The KHL has placed an expansion team, Lev Praha in Prague; a city represented in the Czech Extraliga by longtime rivals Sparta and Slavia.

The Jokerit situation was an eye-opener to anyone who was not already aware of the scope of the KHL’s expansion goals. A group of Russian and Finnish-Russian investors bought Hartwall Arena in Helsinki — the most state-of-the-art arena in Finland and the home rink of five-time SM-liiga champion and traditional powerhouse Jokerit.

The Jokerit team, which has been one of the deeper-pocket teams (by Finnish hockey standards) for the last two decades and is one of the more recognizable European hockey franchises will play one final season in the SM-liiga in 2013-14. The following season, the club will transfer its membership to the KHL.

The growth and expansion of the KHL has also had nearly as deleterious of an effect on the rosters of teams from other European elite leagues as the long-standing (and not totally unmerited) complaints about NHL teams over-fishing in their waters. The top-spending KHL teams, such as Dynamo, SKA, Salavat Yulaev can blow most other offers out of the water.

For example, nine members of Team Finland’s initial registration roster at the 2013 IIHF World Championships played in the KHL last season. The number of SM-liiga players on the opening roster decreased to 12. There were two players apiece from NHL teams and two from the SM-liiga.

Each year, an ever-growing number of Finnish players who return to Europe from stints in the NHL or AHL opt to sign KHL contracts rather than returning to Finland to play in the SM-liiga or sign with a club in other European leagues.

The addition of Jokerit to the KHL is another step toward gradually reducing the power and relevance of the SM-liiga within Europe. The same thing is going on with other leagues, as there has been a lot of talk about a KHL presence in Sweden and other countries that do not yet officially have a team affiliated with the KHL.

The KHL may not want to drive the SHL, SM-liiga or Swiss National League out of business entirely, but they want to become “the NHL of Europe” in terms of holding a clear financial and political power advantage over those circuits. That is why, according to Bill Meltzer, these leagues finding a partnership of sorts with the NHL to be desirable. The KHL is a much bigger long-term threat to their stability than it ever would be to the NHL.

For the NHL to grow its existing market share in Europe, however, the best bet may be step up its cooperation with the established leagues that have identities and traditions within the targeted countries. In Bill Meltzer’s view the chance of success would be MUCH higher if established European clubs had the opportunity to earn NHL participation than it would if the NHL created the “Stockholm Vikings” and “Helsinki Lions” as expansion clubs.