Today, March the 7th, the sixth Gagarin Cup playoffs get underway in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Prague and Donetsk. On the eve of the most important stage of the season, KHL President Alexander Medvedev answered questions from the League’s press service.
Did this year’s regular season match your expectations?
“Before the season started, I had hoped it would be captivating and unpredictable. That certainly came true, so I’m quite satisfied. We had plenty of the kind of surprises which raise interest in the Championship. And for confirmation, there’s no need to find particular games or individual players – just a glance at the final standings is enough. Both Medvescak and Admiral qualified for the playoffs in their debut season, demonstrating that having discipline, a simple system and the right motivation can bring better concrete results than having a strong roster of players on paper. Last year’s new boys, Lev and Donbass, performed superbly. I predicted last year that these clubs would join the leaders and I’m glad they didn’t let me down. Another pleasant surprise was Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod reaching a new level of excellence, as was the success of Barys, with its genuine devotion to attractive, attacking hockey. Then you had the recent finalists, Traktor and Avangard, failing to make the playoffs, which was a sensational outcome when you consider the history and the quality players at both clubs. I’m sure the problems in Chelyabinsk and Omsk are merely temporary and I hope their fans do not despair.
I don’t agree with those who claim that the quality of play in our Championship is poor. These opinions are usually expressed after seeing one game in which one of the teams is off form, and then comparing it with a game from the Olympics, and this, of course, is not right. The reality is that the standard of hockey in most games in the KHL fully matches that of Europe and North America, but of course, there is always room for improvement.”
The regular season was won by Dynamo Moscow, the current Gagarin Cup holder. Oleg Znarok’s guys went through the entire tournament with barely a bad spell, and at times seemed almost invincible. With that in mind, what are the chances of the League having a new champion?
"There’s no denying that Dynamo is very strong, and is one of the top favorites for the playoffs, but that doesn’t mean the team is invincible. I won’t indulge in any predictions, but out of the sixteen teams battling for the Gagarin Cup, at least seven are capable of winning it.”
Amid all the anticipation surrounding the playoffs, one could almost forget about the Nadezhda Cup. Many still express doubts about the merits of the competition.
“I’d urge the fans not to worry – you can’t have too much hockey. And furthermore, remember how exciting the Nadezhda Cup games were last year, especially in the latter stages of the tournament. We should bear in mind, also, that it gives many teams a chance to earn good prize money: The winner receives twelve million rubles (approx. $330,000), for example.”
One of the stories of the season was Spartak’s financial problems. What kind of future does the club face?
“We’ve faced previous situations where a club has suffered problems with funding, but the crisis at Spartak is unprecedented in that it came completely out of the blue, as they say. I’m grateful to the staff and the team for not going on strike, for getting on with their jobs and generally showing courage in adversity. Obviously, it is extremely hard to perform well when your wages haven’t been paid for months and your thoughts must inevitably stray from hockey. The fact that Spartak’s players, while enduring a record run of defeats, nonetheless showed earnest commitment and an honest desire to win commands a great deal of respect, while the League, in its turn, has made every effort to support the club financially and help it through the regular season. At the moment, sadly, uncertainty reigns. Now the club has pulled out of the Nadezhda Cup and its preseason will probably be devoted to seeking new sources of funding. I hope the search bears fruit because, obviously, Spartak must survive.”
Another club affected by circumstances beyond its control is Donbass. What do you think will happen?
“One can only feel sorry for the club and its fans. The team had a great season, but now its home games in the playoffs are under threat due to the problems of a political nature. Of course, Donbass and its fans do not deserve this, but we must understand that safety is one of the basic principles of the KHL, and one which we cannot compromise. Ukraine’s Interior Ministry, in a letter to the League, gave a clear hint it cannot guarantee security at playoff games. Therefore, to ensure that Donetsk is as safe a venue as before, the League sent to the city a commission of experts who conducted a thorough inspection. They concluded that Donbass can stage playoff games at its home, the Druzhba Arena. I think the game between Donbass and Dinamo Riga will be a wonderful spectacle and a festival of hockey for the fans in Ukraine. As for the future of the club, that depends on the situation in the country. We can only hope that things will soon return to normal and the club will be able to continue to function, sign contracts with players and improve its infrastructure.”
What are the chances of clubs from Sochi and Norway joining the League? Some are claiming it could even happen as early as next season.
“It is too early to give any concrete assurances that everything has been resolved. The KHL is open to all requests and would be happy to have such clubs, one from the Winter Olympic host city and one from a Scandinavian country making such rapid progress in the world of hockey. As usual, the devil is in the detail: the clubs themselves, their finances, infrastructure and sporting facilities must all meet the standards demanded by the League’s Regulations. As soon as our friends in Sochi and Norway have done all that is required, there will be nothing to bar their entry into the KHL.”
You are yet to comment on the Russian national team’s performance at the Olympics...
“I have nothing new to add; it was a terrible disappointment, as expectations of not merely a medal, but of outright victory, were very high. If we had not shared such optimism, incidentally, we would not have gone to the effort of adjusting the Championship schedule and Regulations to accommodate the needs of the national team. I don’t agree with those who claim that the failure was inevitable, or that Russia has long had a second-rate team. Our guys are still some of the finest in the world, and if a few things had gone our way and a few mistakes been avoided, we might well now be rejoicing in victory, rather than searching for the reasons behind the defeat.”