With the KHL still a young and developing league, each of its four previous seasons has been duly described as “historic” even before the starting face-off. And the sequence of milestones is not to be broken this year, as the fifth KHL Championship is destined to add some new chapters to the modern history of European ice hockey.

This season, there are three more newcomers to the KHL, as the League expands ever more westward and now encompasses no fewer than seven countries. Ukraine is represented by Donbass, aiming to prove that there is much more than soccer in the city of Donetsk, one of Ukraine’s four host cities for UEFA Euro 2012.

The Czech Republic has also joined up, with Lev (‘Lion’) of Prague hoping to roar louder and longer than its namesake from Slovakia. The 2011-12 season has sadly proved to be the first and last for the men from the tiny town of Poprad. Ambitions were high, but the harsh reality of trying to survive at the top level proved too much in the end, and so Lev Poprad was forced to leave. Now Lev Praha (no relation to the Poprad organization, apart from the club owner’s love for the King of the Beasts) is looking to make a bigger impact.

However, the Slovakian banner is still flying high in the KHL sky, with the flag-bearer role having switched to Slovan Bratislava, a club with an illustrious history and a decent collection of silverware in the trophy cabinet. So both parts of the former Czechoslovakia are now represented, evoking memories of the long-lasting rivalry between the two European powerhouses from the so-called ‘amateur’ era. In the last century, during nearly three decades of Soviet domination of the World Championships, only Czechoslovakia consistently challenged and occasionally even halted the Red Machine’s run of success.

To celebrate the accession of Lev and Slovan, the KHL has organized a special trip for media representatives, giving top Russian journalists an opportunity to watch the rookies’ first games live. They will initially fly to Prague to witness Lev’s KHL debut against Dinamo Riga tomorrow, and then move on to Bratislava to see Slovan entertaining the same opponent from Latvia on September 8th.

These two historic occasions are separated by a very sad day. Never again will there be any KHL action on September 7th, as this date will be marked forever by a black ribbon on the ice hockey calendar. Last year’s Yaroslavl air crash will always be remembered, just as the Lokomotiv players and staff who perished will always be mourned.

The Czech Republic and Slovakia had their share of the pain, as four players from the two countries were among those killed in the crash. A year after the horrific accident, Czechs will commemorate Jan Marek, Jozef Vasicek and Karel Rachunek, while Slovaks will mourn their legendary national team captain Pavol Demitra.

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