SUN Hockey Pool

The russian counter attack

DENIS POISSANT, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 3:26 PM ET

CHELYABINSK, Russia -- Fans of the Traktor hockey club are in a shoving match as they line up at the old Unost arena in Chelyabinsk, a city about 1,500 km east of Moscow on the edge of Siberia.

In a few minutes, the loudspeakers will start blaring the national anthem, and even though the lyrics were reworked in 2000 to remove all the references to the Soviet Union, it will still give you goosebumps.

But on this cold early January night, few will get their hands on the prized $10 and $20 tickets. The black market can't keep up with demand in a city of 1.5 million that has to make do with 3,500 seats.

The solution: Build a new home for the club with state money.

Suddenly flush with cash thanks to its huge natural gas reserves, Russia in this decade has built no less than 15 new arenas for professional hockey teams. Then they went a step further and bankrolled a new league in 2008-09, the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL).

It's all part of the Russian counter-attack. The economy, politics, and sport all have a place in Vladimir Putin's huge social laboratory. He may be only prime minister now, but he's still very much in control.

After years of misery, the country that gave us the likes of Kovalev and Fedorov is hungry for national pride and is doing everything it can to get it back.

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Isaak Valitsky has tears in his eyes. Traktor's general manager points to his new baby, the new 7,500-seat arena that was due to open its doors Jan. 17. Workers, mostly foreigners toiling at minimum wage, are putting the finishing touches on the 33 boxes already paid for and the cheerleading stand, a must-have in post-Soviet Russian hockey.

It all costs a cool 2 billion rubles, or about US$60 million. Valitsky is ecstatic, but still grumbles a bit. He thinks the local government should have gone for at least 12,000 seats. But since the state oversees the operations of more than half the KHL's clubs, nothing more is said.

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The KHL's financial model is a world away from the NHL. The communist past isn't far under the surface of this new capitalism. Seventy years of history doesn't just disappear after toppling a few statues of Lenin.

It's all part of the Kremlin's plan to bring the country together with sport. The first thing judo-obsessed Putin did when he became president was set up a private gym in his presidential suite. As the money flowed, so sports prospered: Tennis, soccer and hockey.

Soccer clubs such as Zenit Saint Petersburg have won the European Championship, while the Russian national hockey team took home the 2008 men's world championship in Quebec City after a 15-year drought.

Viacheslav Fetisov, the living legend, was brought back to serve as Russia's minister for sport with a clear mission: bring home the gold, glory and honour to the motherland.

Despite the rundown buildings all over Chelyabinsk, the city has been a boomtown in recent years. Construction cranes and building sites are everywhere.

Thousand-square-foot apartments that rent for $2,600 a month sit next to slums, and Range Rovers with tinted windows pass tiny Ladas, packed with whole families in -20C weather.

Players making $100,000 and up get to the local arena after making their way through a parking lot lined with a chaotic mess of kiosks. Stray dogs run around in the bitter cold trying to sniff out the pig legs, squid, chicken and fish for sale on the open-air counters, right next to carpet sellers, who seem oblivious to the freezing temperatures.

It gets grim as soon as you leave the city limits, where people live in rundown shacks.

Not that any of that has stopped the regional government from investing in the hockey club. That, in a nutshell, is Russia.

Profit isn't a priority. At 10 bucks a ticket, you do the math. The teams are more of a showcase for sponsors, and the government pulls the financial strings for the entertainment of the people.

This is what has allowed players from Canada such as Pierre Dagenais and Martin Grenier, neither with solid prospects in the NHL, to make $500,000 a year and pay 13% tax in the KHL.

And if you're into adventure, it doesn't get any more exotic than Chelyabinsk.

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1890

The Russians invent bandy, a sort of field hockey played on an enormous outdoor rink, sometimes in front of 60,000 spectators.

1946

First professional hockey league is formed in Russia -- with no artificial ice. Rigorous training off the ice and start of the quintet, the same forward line always paired with the same two defencemen.

1954

The Soviets win their first world championship the first time they play. The beginning of three decades of domination.

1964

Gold at the Innsbruck Olympics.

1968

Gold at theGrenoble Olympics.

1972

Have these Soviets learned anything?

1975

The game they still talk about in Montreal, the Habs/Red Army matchup.

1980

The worst defeat in the Soviet history against the Americans in Lake Placid.

1989

The communist system collapses and Alexander Mogilny leaves the country to play for the Buffalo Sabres.

The 1990s

Bure, Fetisov, Fedorov, Makarov, Larionov -- the Russian greats take the NHL by storm and put on a great show.

1995-2000

Tough years in Russia. Organized crime is out of control, corruption is rampant. Young hockey players dream of playing in the NHL.

2000

Putin in power. Sport is once again a priority.

2004

Lockout in the NHL.

2008

The KHL is established.

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13%

THE SMELL OF MONEY

Players in the KHL pay a fixed rate of 13% tax on their salaries. Although he still belongs to the Montreal Canadiens, Alexander Perezhogin makes $2.5 million with the team in Ufa. To make the equivalent after taxes in Canada, Habs GM Bob Gainey would have to offer Perezhogin $4 million more.

4%

THE KHL EFFECT

Russians made up only 4% of the 2008 NHL draft, compared to 11% in 1993. The KHL plans to set up its own amateur draft in 2009.

A LEAGUE OF COSMIC PROPORTIONS

If you think transportation is a problem in the National Hockey League, hold onto your hats: the KHL covers such a large area that the team farthest to the west, Dinamo Minsk, in Belarus, is 7,000 km away from Amur Khabarovsk, the most easterly team, right on Japan's doorstep. That's the same distance between Moscow and Montreal.

BRAND SPANKINGNEW ARENAS

Oil money and Vladimir Putin's involvement in sport has led to a building spree of arenas in the last few years. No less than 15 teams play in arenas built since 2001, including one with 12,300 seats in St. Petersburg. Many have between 6,000 and 10,000 seats. Doesn't sound like a lot to you? That may be, but it's a better investment and the atmosphere is better than in some parts of the southern U.S.


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