You can say a lot of things about the KHL. Foreign. Unprofessional. Funded by oil money. The negative things that people usually think of when you mention the Russian-controlled league are something that the owners are trying hard to push out of Americans’ minds. They don’t want to be the also-ran to the NHL anymore. They’d rather not be where the old stars play out their days for millions more than could be made in America (if their contracts are honored). They want to be the Russian kids’ first choice for professional hockey, and they’d love to be seen as the legitimate equal of the NHL.
Credit league president Alexander Medvedev for that. He’s trying to make the league appealing not just to players, but to fans — and is doing a good job of it. The KHL All Star game last year was available to watch on YouTube for American audiences with lots of familiar names at the forefront. Heck, their jerseys even smoked the NHL All Star Game’s jerseys. The logical next step after introducing unfamiliar players and reminding people that older players still exist is obviously showing the game to Americans live and in person. The KHL has a perfect venue in that: the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY. New Jersey Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov opened the arena up to Medvedev to hold two regular season KHL games there, made up of two well known KHL teams. Possibilities include CSKA Dynamo, Avangard Omsk, Salavat Yulaev, or SKA St. Petersburg.
This does two things: firstly, and most obviously, it gives the KHL a shot at legitimacy in North America. If the NHL can hold regular season games in Europe, well, now the reverse is true. The second thing that it does is it gives the Barclays Center a chance to showcase itself as a hockey arena. The Islanders will be playing a pre-season game there in what some people assume is a test-run of their new location, but two KHL regular season games? More media attention, more international press, and more notoriety for the arena.
This little bet of headline competition for the NHL is a good thing for both leagues. It reminds people that the KHL is working on turning itself into an up and coming sports league of high legitimacy while still letting the fans who attend the game know that the NHL is relevant enough to inspire competition from another very large market. The issue is how the arena and the KHL will be marketing the game to ensure that it’s a sell-out. Do you market the players? Do you try to market the teams? Or, and this might be what wins out in the end, do you market it as a curiosity?