In Russia and the other KHL countries, the situation around the COVID pandemic is getting worse. How worrying is this for the league?
The situation is still high on the agenda. However, I can tell you that the league is gradually managing to adapt to the difficult conditions in which we have to hold this season’s championship. Statistics show the number of players, coaches and club staff who are ill is decreasing every day as more and more people make a full recovery. Many teams are already playing with close to full strength rosters. Every club has gotten used to the new way of doing things, governed by the regulations that the league developed in the off season.
Is it possible that Latvia or Finland might completely close the borders again? What will the KHL do in that situation?
We hope that it won’t come to that. Ideally, we would seek an agreement that excludes the KHL from any border closure, similar to the arrangement we have with Kazakhstan. As you know, the Kazakh border is closed again but, in line with the protocols of the interdepartmental commission of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Barys is able to travel for road games and our clubs can go to play in Nur-Sultan. Of course, everyone must observe all the safety measures. If it comes to a worst-case scenario, we will have to work out a solution. We would look for possible arenas in Russia that could stage games for Dinamo Riga and Jokerit.
And what about Belarus? At the moment, Minsk is tightening its anti-COVID regulations.
Right now, we don’t have any concerns about KHL teams being unable to go to Belarus. We have a good relationship both with the club and the state authorities in that country. Everything is running smoothly, and our teams are not encountering problems when they cross the Belarusian border.
But there is also political uncertainty in Belarus. Are you worried that in future teams might be unable or unwilling to play in Minsk for safety reasons?
I’d like to remind everyone that politics has no place in hockey. The most important thing for us is the safety of our players and spectators. At present Dinamo Minsk can ensure everyone’s safety and the games are going ahead as normal. We have no reason to fear that anything will change for the worse.
Are you looking into the possibility of temporarily pausing the championship and playing fewer games this season?
No, we’re not considering that.
If anti-COVID restrictions are applied in different Russian regions, could we see a KHL-wide decision about playing games behind closed doors?
No. First of all, the responsibility to permit games to be played in front of fans — and the numbers of fans allowed — rests entirely with the local authorities. Thus, we simply cannot make a ‘one size fits all’ decision. Second, we are doing everything to ensure that fans can go to the games without risking their health and safety, which is always our top priority. If in one region, it is only possible for 10% of an arena capacity to be used, we still want those fans to see the game in the flesh. But if the local authorities decide that games must take place behind closed doors, as we saw in Moscow Region recently, then of course we must abide by that.
If any stages of the Euro Hockey Tour are cancelled, will the KHL use those days to reschedule postponed games? Have you discussed this with the Russian Hockey Federation?
The first break in the season is planned between Nov. 2-9. As you know, the Karjala Cup will go ahead in a revised format. Nonetheless, with the agreement of the Russian Hockey Federation, we have already rearranged three games for that time. On Nov. 3, Barys plays Dinamo Riga, on Nov. 7, Dinamo takes on Neftekhimik and on Nov. 8, Severstal will play Barys. It’s possible that other postponed games will take place during other international breaks.
The All-Star Game had to be cancelled. Are the plans for any other event to replace it?
We have a few ideas about that and right now we are working out whether any of them are viable and would be successful.
Before the season started many people were asking how soon the wives and families of our import players would be able to come to Russia. How much progress has been made on that question?
Yes, we’re working on it. The league has submitted a proposal to the Russian government. We are working with state authorities and have the full support of the Ministry of Sport. In my playing career, I went overseas and from my own experience I can perfectly understand how important it is for our players to be close to their loved ones. We’re doing all we can to ensure that our foreign players are reunited with their families as quickly as possible. All the necessary approvals have been obtained and now we are in the process of organizing the documents to enable family members to come to Russia.
What are the current numbers of COVID infections in the KHL?
Yesterday evening we had 75 people who are ill following a confirmed coronavirus diagnosis. That figure does not just include players, but everyone who is tested at the KHL’s partner labs — coaches, team staff and other club employees. A further 322 people have recovered from the virus.
How is the testing process going? Are there any problems?
We’ve had quite a lot of time since the start of pre-season preparations when we started testing players, officials and team staff. During that time, the process has become more streamlined. We have partnership arrangements with labs that can do the tests and provide prompt results. We have a clear view of the number of people with infections, and the number who have recovered, and we have this for the KHL, JHL and Women’s Hockey League. So we’re not experiencing any problems with testing.
Given that the All-Star Week is cancelled, can we assume that there will be no opportunity to continue the KHL World Games project?
Unfortunately, that’s right. We looked at how we could take our games to different countries. There was great interest in staging KHL games in those countries from the local hockey federations. But right now, the pandemic situation makes it impossible to do this. We will return to this when the current restrictions are lifted. Just as before, the KHL is keen to promote its brand, its championship and hockey in general, all over the world.
One of the hallmarks of this season so far is the rising prominence of younger players at several clubs. Is there anyone you’d like to single out?
This isn’t just down to the exceptional circumstances we’re facing right now. It’s also a result of our hard salary cap. We’re seeing how it affects the rosters and we’re seeing young players taking their chance to impress. But being given a chance is only the start — you need to make the most of it and our talented youngsters are doing exactly that. We’re not even two months into the new season and we can already see several new stars emerging. I don’t want to name individuals, though — let’s leave that for their coaches, the fans and the media.
This week we saw Nail Yakupov traded from Amur to Avangard. There were media reports that suggested this trade highlighted flaws in the salary cap.
On the contrary, this trade shows that the system is working. The player understood that he needed to accept a significant reduction in salary to enable the trade to go ahead. Everything went forward through the CIB and KHL’s Department of Inspection and Control. It’s no secret that Amur faces a difficult financial situation. In the summer, the club signed an expensive player and clearly could not afford him. Since the season started, Amur changed management and the new directors are trying to solve the club’s financial problems.
The club has reduced its financial burden and, it seems, the ability of the team has hardly suffered — look at how they played against Ak Bars in the first game after Yakupov’s departure. The player didn’t show what he was capable of at Amur and went to Avangard for a much lower salary. Amur could easily have put Yakupov on waivers, given his performance this season, but instead they found the best outcome for everyone. And Avangard, which isn’t among the leading clubs in terms of budget, acquired a great player within the cap.
As for the salary cap in general then, from what I can see, we are already seeing positive results even though it only came in force at the start of the season. We’ve seen a genuine redistribution of hockey resources and many teams have seen their skill levels increase. The exciting start to the season and the unpredictable results we’ve seen are proof of that.
Are any clubs late in paying player salaries?
At the moment, Amur owes its players money. The debts from last season have not yet been paid. But we need to assess the situation — both the club and the region are under new management and right now the new team is working to resolve the situation. We’re keeping a close eye on it. The acting governor of the region publicly promised to provide Amur with decent funding.
How do you rate the overall standard of this season’s championship?
I think a lot of people would agree that this is a unique season. I’ve already talked about the number of young players making an impact, but I’d like to share a couple of stats. If we compare the first seven weeks of this season with the equivalent period last year, we’ve seen 5.32 goals per game, up from 4.72 — and that’s despite all the cancelations and postponements. And the games are closer and more exciting — we’re seeing more games settled in shoot-outs (27, up from 24). The KHL is continuing to discover new stars and I’m sure we’ll see many more sensations this season. Despite all the difficulties, we’re still playing hockey.