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The beasts from the East: Getting to know the KHL

A look at the KHL, the destination of more than a few high profile NHL players during the current lockout, examining their history, organization, and some of the most notable players to take part in the KHL this season.

Since its' formation in 2008, the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) has sought to become the Eastern European answer to the NHL, with hopes to one day perhaps represent the entire European continent. Seeking to bring the best talent from Russia and many of the former Soviet bloc countries under their banner, the KHL has worked to set themselves up as a marquee destination on the same level as the Swedish Elitserien or Finnish Elite League.

For most North American fans, though, the KHL is perceived as a mix of threat and dumping ground. Often dismissed as a league run by mobsters or embracing reckless brutality, it's most often regarded with derision, though many fans came together to honor those lost in the tragic Lokomotiv air crash.

With hockey stars ranging from Alexander Ovechkin to Jakub Voracek making the trip East, however, it's worth taking a serious look at the KHL, their history, and the teams who will be serving as hockey proxies for quite a few NHL fans.

How it all began

The history of the KHL goes all the way back to 1942 and the Soviet League, founded just after WWII to serve as the top tier of hockey for the Soviet Union, and several of the KHL's current clubs, including CKSA, SKA, Dynamo Moscow, and HC Spartak Moscow, can trace their history back to the Soviet league.

After the collapse of the USSR, the Soviet League briefly resurfaced as the Russian Hockey League, which only allowed Russian born players to compete, then reinvented itself again as the Russian Super League in 1999, which included opening membership to non-Russian players.

Featuring clubs from around the former Soviet bloc, the RSL served as an incubator for quite a few of today's NHL stars, including Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin.

Finally, in 2008, the RSL would be disbanded and reshaped under the KHL banner, which included all 20 of the original RSL teams, HC Atlant Moscow (champions of the Tier II Russian Major League), and clubs from Belarus, Khazakstan, and Latvia.

The 24 clubs were arranged into four divisions of six teams, with each division named for Russian Hockey Legends: Vsevolod Bobrov, Anatoly Tarasov, Valery Kharlamov and Arkady Chernyshev. The Bobrov and Tarasov divisions make up the Western conference, Kharlamov and Chernyshev the East.

The teams play 56 regular season games (four games against divisional opponents, two against the remaining clubs), then the top eight clubs from each conference take part in a playoff tournament modeled after the NHL's own postseason, with the winner eventually taking home the Gagarin Cup.

Much of the early friction between the KHL and NHL came from the lack of a transfer agreement between the two leagues, which KHL team owners exploited by offering contracts to many top Russian or Eastern European players in the NHL, hoping to encourage them to "come home." The only notable player to leave despite being under contract to an NHL club would be Nashville's Alexander Radulov, who spent much of the last four years with Salavat Ufa before returning this past season to finish his NHL contract.

The NHL and KHL still do not have a formal transfer agreement, but the two leagues have negotiated a memorandum of understanding (which was recently extended) to respect each other's contracts and free agents.

The Modern KHL

Today, the KHL is made up of 26 teams from Russia, Belarus, Czech Republic, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Slovakia, and the Ukraine, still split into four divisions:

Western Conference:

Bobrov Division

  • Dinamo Riga (Latvia)
  • Donbass Donatesk (Ukraine)
  • Dynamo Moscow
  • Lev Praha (Czech)
  • SKA St. Petersburg
  • Slovan Bratislava (Slovakia)
  • Vityaz

Tarasov Division

  • Atlant Moscow
  • CSKA Moscow
  • Dinamo Minsk (Belarus)
  • Lokomotiv Yaroslavl
  • Severstal Cherepovets
  • Spartak Moscow
  • Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod

Eastern Conference

Kharlamov Division

  • Ak Bars Kazan
  • Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg
  • Metallurg Magnitogorsk
  • Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk
  • Traktor Chelyabinsk
  • Yugra Khanty-Mansiysk

Chernyshev Division

  • Amur Khabarovsk
  • Avangard Omsk
  • Barys Astana (Kazahkstan)
  • Metallurg Novokuznetsk
  • Salavat Yulaev Ufa
  • Sibir Novosibirk

In terms of audience and reception, the KHL is the unquestioned top of the food chain in Russia, and making strong headway into most of the former Soviet bloc countries. KHL president Alexander Medvedev has raised the idea of expanding the KHL into a truly continental organization that would expand to include clubs in Central and Western Europe, but these plans remain a number of years ahead in the future, with no sign that nations like Switzerland, Sweden, or Finland plan to reorganize their current systems.

The talent level is generally below that of the NHL, but it's worth pointing out that in recent exhibition contests, KHL clubs gave a reasonable accounting of themselves. Their goal of being a legitimate challenge to the NHL for the best talent in the world is one that should be respected, and the more exposure current KHL players have to NHL talent during this lockout, the more likely they are to improve.

Who To Watch:

In addition to Radulov, or former NHL alumni playing in the league like Miroslav Satan, a number of players have made the decision to head to the KHL until and unless the labor situation is resolved. The best resource to track the current signings is over at Elite Prospects, but here's a list of some notable guys and their temporary homes.

  • Artem Anisimov - Lokomotiv Yaroslavl
  • Nikolai Antropov - Barys Astana
  • Sergei Bobrovsky - SKA St. Petersberg
  • Ilya Bryzgalov - CSKA Moscow
  • Pavel Datsyuk - CSKA Moscow
  • Ilya Kovalchuk - SKA St. Petersberg
  • Evgeni Malkin - Metallurg Magnitogorsk
  • Alexander Ovechkin - Dynamo Moscow
  • Anton Volchenkov - CSKA Moscow
  • Jakub Voracek - HC Lev Praha

The KHL season is already underway, but more players may be added to clubs as they make the decision to play somewhere, rather than waiting for the CBA to be settled. Fans interested in checking out a few games can check out the league's YouTube page, which includes live game streaming, or visit the KHL's English language site.