The state of the KHL in 2021: Busting myths, international expansion, crossover NHL events, more

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Corban Knight didn't love where he was in himos hockey career. It was 2019, and Knight -- then 28 -- had just spent a season bouncing between the AHL's Lehigh Valley Phantoms and NHL's Philadelphia Flyers.

"Constantly being called up and down, it definitely takes a toll on you," Knight said. "And when I was in the NHL, it was in more of a role-player situation. So you're not playing a whole lot of minutes. It can be a tough role. I had some injuries, too, so I just wasn't feeling very healthy -- physically or mentally."

He came to the conclusion: "I kind of needed a fresh start."

And then Knight was presented an opportunity to sign in the Kontinental Hockey League for the 2019-20 season. It was the change of pace he craved. But was it too much of an extreme change?

"I grew up in a small town in southern Alberta, so there wasn't a whole lot of culture growing up," Knight said. "For me, going to a different country halfway across the world, where I didn't know the language, was definitely a leap of faith. But it was also such a great opportunity for me to get back to playing hockey the way you dream of when you're a kid."

Knight signed a one-year contract with Barys Nur-Sultan in Kazakhstan.

"It was certainly a little nerve-wracking," he said. "Making that blind leap."

Busting myths

The KHL just wrapped up its 13th season. Though it is widely considered the second-best hockey league in the world -- trailing the NHL -- the Russia-based league still carries a certain mystique, and stigmas, especially to North Americans.

"I mean, before I came to the league, I heard stories about how you get paid before practice in cash and you have to run home because they're going to try to take it back. But those things are long gone," former NHL forward Nigel Dawes told ESPN last year. "They've done a really good job, even in the nine years I've been here, of improving on things every year, whether it's the All-Star Game, payroll, salaries, travel, hotels, sponsorships or TV deals."

The KHL continues to build, even if it still isn't perfect. "I'd say 90% of the league, the people in the league, the product on the ice is great," said one North American-born KHL player. "Then there's the 10% where it's like, 'What the hell, why does it have to be this way?' But how many jobs are 100% perfect? Is the NHL 100% perfect?"

The league staged a full season in the pandemic -- from Sept. 2, 2020, until the Gagarin Cup was awarded in April -- without any pauses, navigating through six different countries, each with their own COVID-19 protocols and restrictions. The KHL is welcoming a youth movement, and used the pandemic to help usher it in.

"We told teams, if there was a situation with a lot of positive tests, then they must include younger players in the lineup," KHL commissioner Alexei Morozov, a former Pittsburgh Penguins winger, said through an interpreter. "And this year, we had a larger number of younger players, 126 compared to 90 the year previously."

However, the main draw has been -- and will continue to be -- Russian national team stars.

"We had Ilya Kovalchuk join us this year," said Knight, who continued his KHL journey with Avangard Omsk. "And that guy is an absolute living legend in Russia. Driving to Moscow, you see his face on the billboard for a bank, and everywhere we went people were going crazy for him."

The KHL is much less dependent on gate revenue than the NHL, which is why it's plausible when Morozov says that "COVID did not have a strong impact on the league financially." The only reported exception was the club Admiral Vladivostok, which opted out of the season due to financial struggles during the pandemic but plans to return next season.

"All our sponsors stayed with us and showed a level of understanding of the current situation," Morozov said. "The revenue is pretty much on the same level as before."

The KHL has often been viewed as the NHL's oil-rich cousin, with financing often derived from corporations, including many that are state-owned. The lines between sport, government and business are fuzzy, and can lead to situations like in 2014, when the ruble collapsed. That destabilized the league, and many players reported missed or late paychecks.

However, several agents interviewed for this story said they cannot cite recent examples of players not being paid.

"That's definitely been cleaned up," said one agent who represents several KHL players. "Now in the league, is there still some corruption, quid pro quo, et cetera? There's definitely still some of that. But from my experience, players have generally had positive experiences over the last few years, and paychecks have not been an issue."

However, in August, 2020, three coaches sued the Kunlun Red Star for more than $1 million in compensation after the season was cut short due to the pandemic, and the team temporarily relocated from China to Russia. (The coaches reached an out-of-court settlement.)

And of course, there are the horror stories that have become urban legends in North America: wild and dangerous travel, mystery substances in IVs, a team engaging in a strange ritual on ice before practice.

"For sure, I had heard a lot of those 'Spittin' Chiclets' podcasts, and the stories that are being told," said Canadian-born Craig Woodcroft, the head coach of HC Dinamo Minsk. "I don't want to take anything away from them -- because they are stories that for sure happened, but I think they are way more in the minority than they are the majority. I don't think it's a true reflection of what the league is or what the teams offer to players."

Woodcroft continued: "Are there unique situations in the KHL? 100 percent. Do you have to have an open mind when you come here? Maybe more patience as a person, a player, a coach? Of course, you have to. Because it's a different culture, they do things differently. We have to respect that, we are in their country. They do things a bit differently than us. Of course, sometimes you get frustrated, and you say, 'This is not the way I think it should be done.'

"On the other hand, when you step back and look at the big picture, it's a wonderful learning opportunity to understand different cultures."

Differences in the on-ice product

The KHL had been using three different rink sizes -- international, North American and Finnish -- though it is in the process of streamlining to just two options, which will eliminate headaches for teams constantly trying to adjust.

As for the product on the ice? Knight wasn't sure what to expect when he signed his deal in 2019.

"I think the stereotype of Russian players, it's all skill, flash, glitz and glamor," Knight said. "I couldn't believe how structured, and in a lot of ways how defensive the game was when I first went over there."

There are some quirks. Games can take longer because officials tend to be very meticulous about face-off violations -- often making the centers redo several times -- and are quick to the whistle on too-many-men penalties. Conversely, officials don't call a ton of hooking, which can drive some coaches and players wild.

For Woodcroft, the most unique aspect of the KHL is its global perspective. In 2021, players represented 18 countries, including 48 Canadians and 17 Americans, despite Russian KHL teams limited to dressing only five imports per game.

"What I was most taken aback by my first year in the league was the different variants of styles of play, their structure, and how it's quite different from what my background in North America basically trained us to think and play like," Woodcroft said. "A lot of the teams and coaches are well-versed in international hockey. They watch the NHL and that style of play. They look at countries that are successful like Sweden, what is their approach to playing? Is it a puck possession team, are they patient? The Finnish are very linear in how they play and think about the game.

"You see the blending of a lot of these philosophies in the KHL. It's very challenging for the coaches, very challenging for the players, but when you go through that process, you build these refined players that are well-polished, more prepared, more well-rounded."

There has traditionally been a disparity in the league between the rich and poor. The KHL implemented its first-ever hard salary cap and floor ahead of the 2020-21 season to help foster competitive balance. Though the details -- a cap of 900 million rubles (roughly $12 million USD) and a floor of to 270 million rubles (roughly $3.5 million USD) -- pale in comparison to NHL financials, the cap is less than some of the richer KHL clubs want to spend and the floor is more than the low-budget clubs have spent. Morozov said the goal is in three years for the cap floor to be 50% percent of the cap ceiling.

The KHL also supports a women's professional league, which offers players living wages and operates a junior league. And the KHL also introduced puck and player tracking nearly two years ahead of the NHL, and uses chips embedded in pucks and players' jerseys to provide real-time data to just about anyone who wants it.

"They broadcast it quite a bit throughout the games, even in the arenas on the big screens," Woodcroft said. "Players are quite often looking up to see who is leading the fastest skater race, who had the hardest shot today. That's the new era, right? Information right away, that's how the players grew up and that's what they want to see."

Looking ahead

When the KHL was formed in 2008, its mission was to "further the development of hockey throughout Russia and other nations across Europe and Asia." The league already has a footprint in Belarus, Finland, Kazakhstan, Latvia as well as China -- though the status of the Kunlun Red Star is currently complicated after they temporarily relocated to the Moscow area during the pandemic.

"The club submitted the paperwork stating they wanted to continue playing in the Moscow region," Morozov said. "But at the same time, we are looking at the possibility that some home games will be hosted in China. Again, there are some issues with the rinks because some of them are just being built for the [2022] Olympics and others that are in line with our technical regulations are occupied for the preparation of Chinese athletes. So it was decided that the Chinese team will start in the Moscow region."

Nonetheless, there's always intrigue about further expansion. Morozov said the league has been "working in this direction," and has already been in contact with several prospective clubs. Nothing will be finalized for next season, and all prospective clubs must have necessary infrastructure and financial guarantees for at least three years. In the meantime, the KHL is planning on holding two exhibition games in different countries next season.

Then, Morozov has a bigger-picture goal: a crossover event with the NHL. Morozov already has some existing relationships in the league as a former Penguins player, and he said he has been present at world hockey forums with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly. The NHL and KHL currently have a memorandum of understanding to honor each others' contracts.

"When all of the restrictions are lifted, I'm sure that we will be able to fly to America because we have some topics to discuss," Morozov said. "Recently, at the board of directors meetings, some clubs said they would like to play games against NHL teams. The NHL holds its exhibition matches in Europe, and of course we will talk about this to work out this issue because we are working on one thing: to popularize our sport of hockey all over the world. It would be interesting and could be a great event, but we will have to sit down at the negotiating table with our colleagues in America."

It's something Knight would welcome. He recently finished his second KHL season, and won a championship with Avangard in April. After two years in the league, he has a completely new appreciation.

"You definitely have to try to get off on the right foot with a lot of these guys, because the Russian guys are all very close, it's a very tight-knit culture," Knight said. "With a Canadian or American coming in, they have some stereotypes. You have to earn their respect and trust. But once you do that, it's great. There's mutual respect, and it's fun. It's been so cool to get to know guys and see how our careers -- and growing up -- are different in a lot of ways. But there are also a lot of similarities."