MOSCOW — The Russia-based Kontinental Hockey League saw itself as the oil-rich rival to the NHL, offering a tempting, if less prestigious, alternative to playing in North America.
As the league planned to expand as far as Britain, the money on offer even attracted Russian stars like Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Radulov, who walked out on lucrative NHL deals to return home.
Then came the crash of the ruble this week.
The financial crisis has threatened the plans of players like former Vancouver Canucks goaltender Curtis Sanford, who came to Russia to save for his retirement.
“It’s just really happened all of a sudden,” the 35-year-old Sanford told The Associated Press. “These are some things that you don’t expect when you sign a contract. Right now, you just have to ride the rolls of how it’s going and hopefully it stabilizes and gets better.”
The ruble had been sliding against the dollar for most of the year against the backdrop of low oil prices and economic sanctions against Russia, but went into freefall Monday and Tuesday. Following a slight recovery, it has still lost almost half of its value against the dollar this year.
With KHL rules stipulating ruble-only contracts, that is bad news for the many U.S., Canadian and European imports on the rosters of the league’s 22 Russian teams. Russia’s economic woes are starting to spread into neighbouring nations like Belarus and Kazakhstan, potentially shrinking the incomes for players on KHL teams there.
Some players have already started to rebel. Revealing that he had not been paid for three months at Russian club Yugra Khanty-Mansiisk, except small amounts to buy food, forward Ilari Melart told the Ilta Sanomat newspaper in his native Finland that he was not “in Siberia for charity.”
Another Finn, goaltender Mikko Koskinen, was accused by Russian media earlier this month of having refused to play for Sibir Novosibirsk because his ruble salary had dropped. Koskinen, who denies the claims, was traded to SKA St. Petersburg two days later.
For the first time since the league was founded in 2008, KHL management has been forced to deny the league could collapse.
“The league’s financial situation is stable and we’re looking calmly at the current economic situation. The season will be finished as planned,” league president Dmitry Chernyshenko told local media after meeting with club heads Thursday. He also dismissed rumours the league could enforce across-the-board pay cuts for players.
Chernyshenko, who led the organizing committee of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, did suggest that some clubs could be removed from the league if they lacked the money to function properly.
“There are completely clear criteria for taking part in the league, including financial guarantees,” he said. “We’ll demand . that the financial guarantees are provided and not just that some pieces of paper are handed in.”
Smaller KHL teams like Yugra, which depend on the generosity of benefactors in Russian regional government and state-run companies, have long struggled financially. Delays in paying players have been common in recent years, but have reportedly increased this season as government budgets come under strain and Russian state oil and gas companies struggle with low prices for their products.
Without large-scale subsidies, many clubs could become financially unstable. Compared to players’ wages, income from ticket sales and TV rights is typically far from enough to keep a club viable. Despite posting league-record crowds last season and reaching the KHL’s Gagarin Cup finals, Czech team Lev Prague withdrew from the league for financial reasons in July.