Yesterday, due to the on-going coronavirus crisis, the KHL decided to suspend the playoffs in line with the recommendations of the Ministry of Sport and various regional authorities across Russia.
Alexei Alexeyevich, why was the league not suspended as soon as the first official restrictions were announced?
Before answering that question, I’d like to say a few words of thanks to everyone for their understanding towards the difficult situation in which the league finds itself. The world is facing a new threat and we are still trying to find the best way to respond to it. One thing is very clear: the only way to deal with this is to work together and find the best solution, guided by the need to ensure the safety of our fans, players and club staff.
When the Mayor of Moscow first announced restrictions [on the number of people who could gather at one event], we still had one or two game left to play in the series between Dynamo and Spartak. We weighed up all the pros and cons, consulted with all concerned and decided to complete the first round of the playoffs. At that stage, the restrictions were not as strict as they are today. The league considered several possibilities. Could we comply with the restrictinos and allow exactly 5,000 people into the arena, including players, coaches, staff and fans? How many tickets could we put on sale? How could we prioritize between fans? These were very complex issues, and there was little time before the game, so we decided to go ahead behind closed doors. Yes, it was a tough decision, but I think it was the right one.
The players were nervous about taking to the ice in these circumstances. I can say that as someone with a long career in hockey, who knows very well how important the atmosphere in the arena can be. But I don’t think anyone would disagree that the teams put on a great game. Hundreds of thousands of fans got to watch on TV or online, myself included.
The league has frequently said that the health of the fans and players are its top priority. Yet the championship was not suspended despite the increasing bleak situation due to the spread of the coronavirus. Why not?
This pandemic has forced many federations and leagues all over the world to halt their tournaments. The KHL faced a very difficult choice – to continue to play, or follow the example of many others and stop. If you look at the news over the past few days, you’ll see how quickly the situation is changing, how fast new information emerges. First we had restrictions in Moscow, then Finland and Kazakhstan closed their borders, next came a special regime in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan. These bans did not all happen at once. We have total confidence in the state authorities and the special services that assess how critical the situation is at any given moment. They are the only ones with all the facts. So, if there is no direct ban, I think we ought to keep playing.
At first, the league dismissed reports that Jokerit had dropped out of the playoffs. Then, within a few hours, the club made that announcement on its own official site. Why was there such a disconnect?
At the time when we published the refutation, the club had yet to withdraw from the playoffs. Discussions were ongoing and we still had hopes that Jokerit could keep playing. But later, the club’s insurers said that if Jokerit went to St. Petersburg on March 16, against the advice of the Finnish government and the Finnish Health Ministry, the team’s insurance policies would be void. After that, the club had no choice but to withdraw from the playoffs and sent the KHL official, written confirmation of the situation. So I don’t really see a disconnect here.
Is there anything in the KHL rules about this kind of situation?
No, this is force majeure. So we worked around the clock to come up with different possible ways to progress, because we needed to be sure that the clubs all agreed with the scenario we chose to follow.
What alternatives did the KHL discuss when it became clear that not all clubs would compete in the rest of the playoffs?
We had the idea of suspending the championship for a week, which we announced a few hours before meeting with the Ministry of Sports. In line with that, we devised a new schedule involving the six remaining teams competing in two groups. This could enable us to complete the season in 33 days with a group phase followed by semi-final and final series. We still have that idea in mind but now, of course, we have much less time to play the games.
The KHL attracted widespread criticism among journalists and supporters for lacking the autonomy to make decisions for itself. Is that a fair criticism?
The KHL is not separate from the rest of the world. We’re facing a unique challenge. These questions need to be resolved together, with input from many different organizations, because they touch on many different areas of our lives. We need a single decision that everyone can get behind.
In yesterday’s statement, the league said the decision was made ‘in consultation with the state authorities.’ Why was this coordination needed, and with whom was the league in discussions?
I think the answer to that is obvious. This problem goes beyond sport and it needs to be tackled on all levels. The public authorities are imposing restrictions on large-scale events, so it would be short-sighted to draw up our plans without consulting with them. On March 17 we attended a meeting along with the Russian Football Union and basketball’s VTB United League. Everyone explained their view of the situation and outlined their wishes and together we reached the decision that was announced yesterday.
Yesterday’s statement also confirmed that the league is planning to continue without two clubs, Jokerit and Barys. How does that affect the legitimacy of this season’s competition?
Let’s start by saying that if the situation changes and the clubs want to return to the competition, we won’t stand in anyone’s way. But at the moment I don’t see any reason to annul the entire championship because of two teams dropping out. The players on the other six teams went through a full regular season and completed the first round of the playoffs. They are absolutely not responsible for this situation. Why should we prevent them from continuing to compete for the Gagarin Cup? If the championship resumes, the results will be legitimate.
There are reports that some of the imports have left Russia, or are planning to leave, and won’t return to play if the season resumes. Can you comment on that?
I think that’s one for the management at their clubs. I can only remind you that the players’ contracts run until April 30. Both the league and the clubs will act in line with our regulations.
What are the league’s plans for the immediate future?
That entirely depends on how the situation develops around the spread of the pandemic and the decisions taken by the government. Like I say, we have an idea of how to continue the tournament with six teams. But now we have to fit that into 20 days, up to April 30. We can’t rule out the possibility that Jokerit and Barys might return, and then we would need a new plan. It’s possible that we might play beyond April 30. I’m sure that we can respond effectively to any change in our circumstances. If it is decided that the risk to life and health is past, we will do everything we can to complete the season. And complete it with fans in the arenas.
If the season is played to a finish, there are concerns that it will not be done before April 30, when many players and coaches reach the end of their contracts. How will the league solve this problem?
We can’t simply freeze these contracts due to force majeure. That contravenes labor laws. So each contract would need to be extended until the scheduled end date for the season. If the need arises, the league can, in consultation with the clubs, make changes to the regulations. But that has to be done with the approval of the KHL Board of Directors.
Is the league taking into account the position of the IIHF, which has yet to announce the official cancelation or postponement of the 2020 World Championship?
Of course, and this is something else we will factor in when we are developing possible formats for our tournament. We’re waiting on an official announcement from the IIHF.
Is it possible that the season will not be finished?
Yes, because we have to put everyone’s health first. If things get worse, we won’t be able to finish the championship. But I don’t want to think about that right now. The KHL will do everything possible to complete the season as soon as the risks to our players and supporters are gone.