By Stu Hackel
Let's take a break from lockout news -- or non-news -- and skate around to where hockey is actually being played.
Attendance is apparently booming in the KHL with the arrival of so many locked out NHL players. And as the impasse continues, another wave of players signing contracts with European clubs seems possible.
One of the most intriguing KHL signings was by Alex Ovechkin's Dynamo Moscow on Monday: Ovie's center on the Washington Capitals, Nicklas Backstrom. In fact, it was Ovechkin who recruited Backstrom by phoning him regularly to urge him to sign with Dynamo.
Here's a photo of Ovie and Backie at the Dynamo offices from Allhockey.ru with Backstrom dressed in a Dynamo shirt.
Their old chemistry paid off immediately on Monday against Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, won 3-0 by Dynamo, with Backstrom setting up Ovechkin for a power play goal.
That contest matched the top two teams in the KHL's Western Conference. Dynamo led the Bobrov Division by two points over Ilya Kovalchuk's SKA St. Petersburg club coming into this game while the rebuilt Loko sat atop the Tarasov Division, three points ahead of CSKA (the Red Army club, with Pavel Datsyuk, Alexander Radulov and Ilya Bryzgalov).
Backstrom caused something of a stir when he chose to wear 99 as his jersey number, which hockey fans always associate with Wayne Gretzky. Unlike the NHL, the KHL has not retired that number and, as Backstrom told Sovietsky Sport, he selected it "Because I had a 9 in my 19 and 19 was taken and then I didn’t like the other numbers so 99 was the only one."
Asked by Sovietsky Sport, "So you will be like the Swedish Gretzky?" the 25-year-old replied "No. I will be like the Swedish Nicklas Backstrom." (Thanks to Japer's Rink for the Sovietsky Sports translation.)
ESPN3 live streamed a KHL game today (Monday) but, unfortunately, it was not the Ovechkin/Backstrom Dynamo vs. Loko match. Too bad. Ovie also picked up an assist in addition to his power play goal, which was set up by Filip Novak as well as Backstrom. Dynamo Moscow will be on ESPN3 next week when they take on Dinamo Riga.
On Monday, however, we were treated to a very entertaining Dinamo Riga vs. Metallurg Magnitogorsk tilt, won by Metallurg 5-2 and played in front of what looked like an enthusiastic full house of 10,300 at Arena Riga. Metallurg, coached by Paul Maurice, features Evgeni Malkin and Sergei Gonchar, among others, and Malkin dominated with a goal and four assists, all on the power play.
With Paul Romanuk and Aaron Murphy calling the spirited game, it was a much smoother and more informative webecast than ESPN's first foray into the KHL. Romanuk and Murphy remarked that Maurice looked much more relaxed behind the Metallurg bench than he did in his last NHL job, coaching the sad sack Maple Leafs and they had no problems identifying players or analyzing the action.
Riga, not one of the stronger KHL clubs, led twice early in the game but Maurice's club was ultimately too strong and pulled away with three goals in the third period. With the home team holding their own against the odds, the crowd in Riga chanted, clapped and cheered throughout, complementing the brisk action on the ice.
That sort of atmosphere seems to have permeated the KHL early this season. When you can put Datsyuk on the ice, as he was here in CKSA's 3-0 win over Lev Prague on Friday...
...it makes your league better. (By the way, you may note CSKA is no longer wearing those lime green ads on their uniforms for the KHL sponsor "Megaphone," that all the other KHL teams wear. It seems they are boycotting and no one has officially explained why; but that's a story for another day.)
What players like Datsyuk, Malkin and Kovalchuk have done has not gone unnoticed by legendary coach Viktor Tikhonov, who won 14 Soviet titles with CSKA Moscow, three Olympic gold medals and eight IIHF World Championships. He told the Russian publication R-Sport that the NHL lockout has improved the KHL's quality of play and increased interest in the league.
"The lockout in the NHL, without a doubt, will benefit the KHL,” Tikhonov said. “This is already evident from the attendance at games, which have become more intense than before the NHL players arrived.
“The guys who came from the NHL have strengthened the teams they play for today. Certainly, the audience interest in the KHL games has increased due to the arrival of NHL players."
The 1998 IIHF Hall of Fame inductee said it was too soon to judge if the crowds would dwindle when the lockout ends and the NHLers on lockout contracts return to North America, although he did concede “maybe there will be a decline.” He did say, for what it's worth, that he thought the lockout would end soon.
Tikhovnov was reacting to a story that caused a stir over the weekend when Traktor Chelyabinsk forward Evgeni Kuznetzov was quoted in R-Sport as saying that buildings in the KHL would no longer be full after the NHL lockout is over, adding that the quality of play had risen in part because the migrant NHLers have attracted attention and taken pressure off the players who are signed to full KHL contracts.
"We are now free," he said, "It is easier in this situation," and he laughed sarcastically, "I'm with Gary Bettman," indicating his support for the lockout.
Oh, those funny Russians.
Here's the original, on original 78 rpm vinyl.
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