In the second of a two-part interview, Octagon Hockey’s Allan Walsh, one of North America’s leading hockey agents, discusses the current state of ice hockey in Europe and the potential threat that the KHL poses to the NHL's assumed dominance of the sport.
What do you make of the Kontinental Hockey League?
The KHL understands, in my opinion, the tremendous opportunity that exists on the world hockey stage to build a truly international league. While there was some financial instability when the KHL first debuted, the teams are certainly more financially stable now, there’s a players’ association, there’s a CBA; there’s much more structure to the league than when it first started.
"The KHL understands, in my opinion, the tremendous opportunity that exists on the world hockey stage to build a truly international league"
You see the KHL expanding into Slovakia with Slovan Bratislava entering the KHL this year, you see them now in Prague with Lev Prague, you see them going into Italy in the future, into Milan which should be an expansion team in the KHL next year. You see the KHL now making a deal with ESPN3 to broadcast and live stream games here in North America.
One of the things Don Fehr has argued for a while is why aren’t there more international tournaments, like a World Cup of hockey, which have been tremendously successful and where games have been played around Europe. The NHL has been very conservative and old-fashioned and very much against bringing more of the international flavour of the world to the NHL.
How should the NHL be embracing expansion beyond the United States?
The players would love to see a European NHL division – why can’t we have an NHL team in London, Paris, in Germany and in Switzerland? The travel for the east coast teams – Montreal, Toronto, New Jersey, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Carolina – when they go west is roughly five or six hours. If the east coast teams all went east they’d be over in Europe.
It’s certainly logistically possible to do this and imagine the additional revenues and worldwide interest in the NHL to do something like this. The NHL has been absolutely resistant to change, to considering the untapped markets that Europe represents for hockey.
How might the KHL expand from here?
The KHL on the other hand has been progressive and the KHL is coming over to North America to play exhibition games in Brooklyn. The KHL is now putting their games out on ESPN3. The KHL is looking to expand first in other parts of Europe. What happens if and when the KHL looks to put a team or two in North America? That’s ultimately where they’re going and maybe ultimately more than just one or two teams. You can put a KHL team in New York. You might be able to put a KHL team in a place like southern Ontario, which would be phenomenally successful.
"I think the KHL represents right now the biggest threat to the NHL since the WHA"
I think the KHL represents right now the biggest threat to the NHL since the WHA and maybe not today but in the future. And how short-sighted of these NHL owners to shut the NHL game down at the time when the KHL is beginning to thrive and allow for many of the NHL’s top stars, from Ovechkin to Malkin and so forth who are Russian-born, to be back in Russia promoting the KHL instead of the NHL. How short-sighted are these owners in allowing this to happen?
What are the kinds of conversations you have with your clients about playing in other leagues, like the KHL, during the NHL lockout?
For the players the KHL represents an opportunity to play hockey at a very high level, at a very competitive level. Hockey players are extremely skilled athletes and if they don’t use their skills and don’t play for six, seven or eight months those skills lie dormant. It’s important for players to play. For the first week or two of the lockout players were interesting in seeing how the situation developed over time but given that we’re already into October with no change in the NHL’s position - we already have 130 of 720 NHL players signed and playing in Europe as we speak and every single day the number continues to grow. In the last lockout there were over 300 players playing in Europe who had locked out NHL contracts.
"We already have 130 of 720 NHL players signed and playing in Europe as we speak and every single day the number continues to grow"
The KHL certainly represents an opportunity for players to make money, play at a high level, continue their own training and development, allow them to be ready for the NHL season if it starts at all.
I think other leagues in Europe – Sweden, Finland, Switzerland, Czech league, German league – those teams will pretty much cover the players’ insurance, pay them a small amount of money but the players playing in those leagues are not playing for money, they’re playing to stay in shape and to be ready for whenever hockey does come back.
To view the first part of Allan Walsh’s in-depth interview with SportsPro, click here.