|The Gagarin Cup (photo from Wikimedia Commons)|
A very brief history of the KHL: The KHL began play in 2008, as a successor to the Russian Superleague (The RSL replaced the International Ice Hockey League, which itself had replaced the Soviet Championship in the early 1990s). Its inaugural championship was won by Ak Bars Kazan, who repeated the trick in 2009-10 before handing over the honours to Salavat Yulaev Ufa in 2010-11. Dynamo Moscow have won the last two Gagarin Cups, defeating Avangard Omsk in 2011-12 and Traktor Chelyabinsk in 2012-13.
The current President of the KHL is Alexander Medvedev, who is one of the Directors of the Gazprom oil company (Gazprom owns KHL team SKA St. Petersburg). Medvedev is also Chairman of the league's Executive Board, and a member of the Board of Directors. The latter group is chaired by Gennady Timchenko, President of SKA.
The KHL in 2013-14: This season's KHL is comprised of 28 teams, 14 in the West Conference and 14 in the East. 21 of the teams are based in Russia (5 in Moscow and its environs), and there is one each from Latvia, Belarus, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. Each conference is divided into two divisions. The East conference has the Kharlamov and Chernyshёv divisions, while the Bobrov and Tarasov divisions comprise the West.
The KHL once again expanded by two teams this season, with Admiral Vladivostok joining the East Conference and Medveščak Zagreb the West. The two conferences previously had an unequal number of teams, but this has now been rectified, with Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod switching to the East Conference for the upcoming season. In addition, Moscow-area team Vityaz Chekhov have formally announced that they are returning to their old home in Podolsk, another suburb of the capital, for 2013-14. And thus the entire league lineup in 2013-14 will look like this (links are to posts written here about each team):
The KHL does have rules concerning the nationality of its players, although interestingly enough the rules aren't the same for all teams. Russian teams are allowed a maximum of 5 foreign players, and there are restrictions on the total ice team for foreign goalies (Update July 27th: The KHL has removed the restrictions on foreign netminders). Non-Russian KHL teams must have at least five players from their home country. These rules have been slightly relaxed for the expansion team in Vladivostok.
|Sergei Mozyakin of Metallurg Magnitogorsk - last season's KHL top scorer (photo via R-Sport)|
This year's regular season schedule includes 3 major breaks, primarily for the purposes of international play. This year, there will be 10-day pauses in November and December, and the league will shut down for almost the entire month of February to incorporate the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. There will be a short break in January for the league's All-Star Game. This event will be held outside of Russia for the first time this season, in Prague.
The KHL does employ overtime and the dreaded shootout in regular season games, and it does so pretty much the same way the NHL does. Games tied after regulation time are followed by 5 minutes of 4-on-4 OT, and if that solves nothing, the shootout comes into play. The only difference between the KHL and NHL in this regard is that KHL teams taking part in shootouts can reuse shooters after the first three shots have been taken.
One KHL team takes time off from the league schedule to play in the Spengler Cup tournament in late December, and in 2013-14 it will be Barys Astana. Three KHL teams - Dynamo Moscow (2008), Dinamo Minsk (2009), and SKA St. Petersburg (2010) - have won the competition, and Dinamo Riga lost in the final in 2011.
Playoffs!: The KHL's playoff format will be quite familiar to NHL fans. The top 8 teams each conference qualify for the postseason, with the division winners seeded first and second. The first 3 rounds of the playoffs are played in-conference. Once the conference champions are determined, they meet in the finals to play for the Gagarin Cup, pictured above. All series are now best-of-seven; this was not the case in the first couple of KHL seasons, when the early rounds were best-of-five.
In the event of tied games in the playoffs, the teams play sudden-death overtime in 20-minute periods until somebody scores, just like in the NHL. The record for longest playoff game in KHL history was most recently set in February of this year, when Severstal Cherepovets played almost 3 complete overtime periods against Lokomotiv Yaroslavl before winning on a Denis Kazionov goal.
In 2012-13, the KHL introduced a post-season tournament for non-playoff teams, with the prize being the Nadezhda Cup, or "Cup of Hope." Dinamo Riga were the inaugural winners, defeating Amur Khabarovsk in the finals. There is more than just pride on the line in this tournament; in addition to money, the champions receive an extra first-round pick in the upcoming draft. You can read more about the Cup of Hope here.
The entire KHL season is finished before the World Championships begin, a continuation of Russian hockey's long history of paying close attention to the international schedule. And then the off-season begins, and everybody waits until training camps open up again in early July, with exhibition tournaments starting in August.
Minor leagues and the like: The second-best league in Russia is the VHL, whose name translates as "Major Hockey League." It is essentially a farm league for the KHL, although it includes a fair number of independent teams and the affiliation between KHL and VHL teams is much looser than that between squads in the NHL and AHL. The current two-time defending champions of the VHL are Toros Neftekhamsk. Note that many of the non-Russian KHL teams have their respective farm team in their particular country's domestic league.
Below the VHL lies the Russian Hockey League, which you will see referred to as the RHL, Pervaya Liga ("First Hockey League"), or RUS-3. This is a regional competition, in which the top teams meet each spring for a final tournament. The current RHL reigning champions are Mordoviya Saransk. Recent seasons have seen some chaos in the league, with teams departing for both the VHL and the MHL (see below).
There is also a junior system in Russia, consisting primarily of the Minor Hockey League (MHL) and its subsidiary MHL-B. Clubs in the MHL are usually owned by, and affiliated with, either with a KHL team or a VHL squad, although again some of them are independent. The current MHL champions are Omskie Yastreby, who are affiliated with Avangard Omsk of the KHL. There is a promotion/relegation system in place between the MHL and MHL-B, with 2 teams from each league switching places each season.
Despite the fact that KHL teams have affiliated junior squads, there is an amateur draft for the league, held every spring. Furthermore, teams are allowed to select players from other teams' junior programs, with the proviso that teams can protect up to 5 players on their junior team. A recap of the 2013 draft can be read here.
|Action between Amur Khabarovsk (blue) and Barys Astana (white) in 2012-13. (photo by Igor Saranchin, via Amur Khabarovsk)|