Once A Laughing Stock, Russia's KHL Draws Stars From NHL Lockout

HELSINKI, FINLAND - MAY 20: Alexander Ovechkin of Russia celebrate with team mate Alexander Syomin (R) after winning the gold medal after the IIHF World Championship gold medal match between Russia and Slovakia at Hartwall Arena on May 20, 2012 in Helsinki, Finland. (Photo by Martin Rose/Bongarts/Getty Images)

The KHL is suddenly a hot destination for NHL players thanks to Gary Bettman's lockout.

Since its launch with much official Russian-style hyperbole in 2008, the KHL has been the butt of plenty of jokes and the victim of many PR hits. They made for good fodder, particularly from an NHL-biased North American public -- though many of the hits to the KHL's reputation weren't funny at all, but terribly tragic.

Injured players taken off on canvas "stretchers," the 2008 death of 19-year-old New York Rangers prospect Alexei Cherepanov followed by reports of medical negligence, and last year's Yaroslavl Lokomotiv air crash that killed 44 are all black eyes on a league that is just four years old.

Reports of gun-toting owners and missed paychecks dot the background of a league whose reputation for shaky air travel existed well before the Yaroslavl disaster.

But now, thanks to the NHL lockout, the KHL is suddenly a destination for NHL players. The NHL's highest paid player by average annual salary, Alex Ovechkin, is spending the lockout there and threatening to stay. One of the NHL's best players since the lockout, Pavel Datsyuk, is following him to Moscow with a rival club.

The KHL did not exist during the last NHL lockout, when the league wiped out the entire 2004-05 season, but now it's poised to capitalize on the NHL's stubborn approach to collective bargaining. Its players, alienated by the NHL's lockout which unnecessarily began even before training camps were scheduled to open, are poised to help KHL become the legitimate NHL rival its founders have long dreamed to be.

It's not just Russian players headed home who will use the NHL void to add to the KHL's legitimacy. Thanks to recent expansion -- another plank in the KHL's quest for respect -- the league now features teams in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Ukraine. That's how Czech Jiri Hudler (Prague) and Slovakian Lubomir Visnovsky (Bratislava) are now KHL-bound.

And of course, while North American paychecks go unfulfilled during the NHL lockout, the KHL offers money. Lots of (reportedly tax-free) money. Backed by several oil oligarchs and the singular Russian premier Vladimir Putin (whose exhibition shootout goal frankly looks like an outtake from "The Dictator"), the KHL is drawing a bushel of Russian players home among the many NHLers flocking to Europe during the lockout.

At the other end of the spectrum are the last-chance ex-NHLers, fighters mostly, who bizarrely find a home in this league, usually with Vityaz Chekhov. That's where fringe (at best) NHLers Trevor Gillies and Jeremy Yablonski have currently found a home, and it's where Chris Simon first landed and compiled 484 PIMs in 113 games over three seasons.

So even though fighting is officially frowned upon in the KHL -- so is missing payroll -- it's there. As with the legendary charter flights, it's not a league to run to for assured safety. But it's a league that pays good money and plays meaningful games.

Right now, that's more than the NHL can say.

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