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HC Lev Poprad: The birth of a new team

August 14, 2011

A place at the foot of the Tatras awaits the KHL.

The creation of a new club is a joyous occasion, always. Like a new baby. It is one to be celebrated. It’s been over a decade since the NHL has had such a moment, but the ever-growing KHL is having one this year. Slovakia’s HC Lev Poprad. And they’re already practicing and playing exhibition matches. They’ve got a snazzy new website up and the promotional materials flying already, too, and they’ve been rushing around signing players, mostly Czechs and Slovaks from their respective Extraligas, with a few Swedes, an American and Canadian.

Originally, the KHL had plans to set up shop in Hradec Kralove, in the Czech Republic. These plans were nixed by the Czech Hockey Federation, in what was perhaps a shrewd move, and the KHL had to look elsewhere to mount their European incursion. The Czechs feared it would destroy their own leagues, create competition they couldn’t withstand. So the KHL set their sights on Slovakia, and Poprad, who already has an Extraliga club. The town of 55,000 lies in central/eastern Slovakia and has a strong hockey history. Much like signing on to the Euro Zone, the Slovaks were perhaps all too eager to jump in on something “bigger than themselves” that the Czechs had passed up on. Already, Czech media like IDNES.cz have taken a deeply critical view of the club, claiming they “wouldn’t make it in the Czech extraliga and that they ‘lack stars.'” They do have a lot to prove, and with only two exhibitions to date, one against lesser foe Spišská Nova Ves, whom they cleanly beat, and Czech Extraliga team HC Oceláři Třinec, whom they slayed 4-3 in a tight match. So, they’re off to a decent start. But how they fare against the KHL looms.

They’ll be part of the Bobrov Division, which includes the likes of CSKA Moscow, Dinamo Riga, Spartak, the reconstituted Dynamo and SKA St Petersburg. Surely that lightens the travel schedule, and the star power will lure folks in. Slovakia marks the first non-former Soviet state to enter into the KHL, but as this Wikipedia page points out, there’s already a line queuing up. I know little about Torpedo Leipzig or Hockey Milano Rossoblu, but if their intentions are to make the KHL, that may be sensible, given that their existing hockey leagues are sufficiently weaker than the Czech or Slovak Extraligas. The allure is clear: the KHL brings in better competition, more money, more diversity. Surely there’s the exoticism of it all, too, which for teams in places like Leipzig or Milan, is huge. Having a “Russian team” come in to play? Big gate revenues. I am not so sure about Poprad, but it seems like a safe initial expansion location for the KHL.

What will be extremely interesting to see is how the advent of the KHL in Slovakia works out for the Slovak Extraliga. Will it fuel even more interest in the league, or detract from it? Will Slovak players head to the KHL to play for Lev or other clubs in greater numbers? Will it facilitate better development? How will the KHL salaries compare to the Extraliga in Slovakia? All are important questions. The Slovak Hockey Federation took a good gamble here, and it how it pans could affect Slovak hockey on a broader scale. I don’t know the terms of their agreement, its duration and so forth. The KHL has already started sapping the Slovak Extraliga of players, and the Slovak Hockey Federation may have made a conscience decision to keep with that momentum by allowing a team in, rather than resisting it.

The team appears to have made solid signings, including many players with some NHL experience and those who’ve already played in the KHL. Many have competed internationally for their respective nations. The perceived ease of living in Slovakia over the far reaches of Siberia and the comforts of a tighter division could be pronounced when it comes to finding and retaining talent for Lev Poprad. The management’s choice of Poprad, a team who already has an Extraliga team and arena, was wise. There will be competition, surely. But the KHL has embraced it, and while maybe shaking in their boots, HK Poprad will have to go along.

It brings in more hockey, good hockey. It’s not modern or fair to view the KHL’s expansion as hockey Cold War redux, with Eastern European satellites being captured and secured by a greedy Russian enemy. It probably should be viewed more as a natural growth, and one that KHL commissioner Alexander Medvedev is eager to undertake in the name of growing good hockey. But I have a lot of questions, a good bit of skepticism, not of the KHL or Lev Poprad, but of simply, well, where this is headed. 

At the team’s official announcement last month. 

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