As the NHL’s European stars head home, fans of NHL clubs have mixed feelings about whether the KHL will be a suitable substitute for their sporting fix. While some are looking forward to discovering new teams and players, others are more inclined to transfer their loyalties to the local American Football or Basketball teams.
Mike Allcock, a Penguins season-ticket holder, reckons that the KHL is “where it’s at”. “I’ve had a few other hockey fans ask me about getting video feeds of KHL games so there is measurable interest,” he said, while warning that many fans aren’t all that enthusiastic. “Most Americans will be following specific players; the Canadians are probably more likely to pick a side in the KHL,” he added. “Hockey is a lot more woven into everyday life in Canada, and even in strong hockey towns like Detroit and Pittsburgh the temptation will be to fill the gap with a bit of Malkin playing in Russia but also with a bit more of the Steelers in the NFL.”
Meanwhile, for Penguins fans the burning question is if and when Sid Crosby will join Malkin in the KHL – and whether he’s better off staying home and recuperating from an injury-wrecked campaign last time. “The consensus seems that there is no concern over the quality of the facilities, the game is, if anything, less physical so playing style isn’t a concern – something broadly applauded by Pittsburgh fans,” Allcock added. “The only perceived downside is transport, following the Lokomotiv crash last year: if the lock-out lasts all season there could be NHL players even at some of the smaller clubs and the transport infrastructure is a concern which isn’t perceived in leagues like Sweden or the Czech Republic. Even so, the KHL would probably remain the NHL fans’ destination of choice for their players.”
However, in Los Angeles, home of the Stanley Cup-winning Kings, the lock-out seems to be turning fans away from the sport as a whole. Mike Duncan, a Kings follower with a soft spot for CSKA following a spell working in Moscow, admitted he’d be following the labor dispute between the players and owners in North America more closely than any overseas league – although that could change if Slovenian star Anze Kopitar arrives back in Europe any time soon. However, Duncan also expects a successful showcase for the KHL in January when SKA and Dynamo go head-to-head in New York. “New York, and the Northeast in general, has hockey more deeply embedded into its DNA than us on the West Coast,” he said. “So, lock-out or not, there should be solid interest in a Russian game there – New Yorkers always love a good show! And there are lots of Russians who will show up for sure – Russians are good, patriotic people who are proud of their country’s heritage and culture.”
But not everyone is so optimistic. Bill Randle, an exiled Englishman now in Canada, was dismissive of the prospects for the KHL to win the hearts and minds of his fellow fans. “No-one in North America cares one jot about the KHL, or any league except the NHL,” he said. Rather than following hockey elsewhere in the world, he’s planning to switch his attentions to the huge range of alternative televised sport on offer.