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The KHL looks to the East

Domestic hockey, which has played an important role in the world for decades, is now boycotted by America and Europe. Are we ready to look for unexpected solutions in new regions in the era of isolation of Russian sports? What is “Arab hockey”? The editorial board of the “Molecule” talked about this with the Olympic champion, KHL vice-president Vitaly Prokhorov.

The Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) was formed in 2008 and is open to clubs from Europe and Asia. The winner of the KHL regular season receives the Continental Cup, and in the playoffs the winner of the main trophy of the league, the Gagarin Cup, is determined. In the 2023/24 season, 20 Russian clubs and one each from Belarus, Kazakhstan and China were represented in the KHL.
All league clubs are divided into two conferences – Western and Eastern, each of which, in turn, is divided into two divisions: Tarasov and Bobrova (West), Kharlamova and Chernysheva (East).

According to experts, over the 16 years of its activity, the KHL has come very close to the world’s leading hockey league, the NHL, and even surpasses it in a number of points. The continent’s leading hockey league is distinguished by a clear and logical structure, as well as a development strategy providing for expansion into international markets.

Given the pace of development of sports infrastructure in the Arab world, the “hockey theme” in the new regions does not look like a utopian idea at all. This is convincingly proved by the exhibition matches held in the region with the participation of the best teams in the world. The KHL has a similar experience, the geography of which has reached the Arabian Peninsula: as part of the KHL World Games series, the league held one of the regular season matches in the largest city of the United Arab Emirates – Dubai. The away match between Ak Bars Kazan and Avangard Omsk took place on December 3, 2021 on the ice of the local 12 thousandth Coca-Cola Arena complex.

Vitaly Prokhorov is a Soviet and Russian ice hockey player, striker, Olympic champion of the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville. He played in the NHL for the St. Louis Blues (1992 – 1995). Russian national team player (1992, 1998). Honored Master of Sports of the USSR (1992).

Vitaly Vladimirovich, what are the prospects for the development of hockey in Arab countries?

– Hockey in the Arab region is developing rapidly, although it was difficult to imagine it 10-15 years ago. The Association for the Development of Hockey in Islamic Countries, which unites 14 members, carries out its activities. There is a decent league in the Arab Emirates by the standards of the region, where many Russian and Belarusian specialists work, and our players perform. A couple of years ago, Ak Bars and Avangard played in Dubai as part of the KHL, and this match aroused high interest among the local public.

Will we see an Arab team in the KHL in the foreseeable future?

– We are negotiating the possible participation of an Arab club in the KHL, but so far this dialogue is difficult to call substantive. A club can enter our league by complying with its requirements. This requires a school, a youth team, and infrastructure. All this is discussed if there is interest from our partners.
The Arab side is constantly taking the initiative, but hockey in this region is facing quite serious technical problems: these are ice rinks, and the presence of a school with a youth club, which is necessary by the standards of the KHL. Nevertheless, negotiations are underway. Our league sells the rights to broadcast to this region, even if only as part of cable packages. And they’re watching us! Perhaps, in the era of isolation of Russian sports, we really should expand the geography of hockey at the expense of the East. For example, we are working on the issue of the return of the Kun Lun from Balashikha to its native Chinese ice, starting next season. Why not play in the Emirates?

The Islamic Hockey Development Association (ADIHIC) was established in Kazan on January 17, 2023. In addition to the Hockey Federation of the Republic of Tatarstan, it includes 13 countries: the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Algeria, Oman, Bahrain, Iran, Mongolia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Turkey.

■ How is children’s hockey integrated into the KHL system, with which you, as vice president of the hockey vertical, interact directly?

– Today there are about a thousand children’s hockey schools in Russia. It is important to understand that the League interacts on the basis of agreements with those of them that are part of the KHL and VHL club system. The league receives money from sponsorship companies that invest in the education of young players. At the same time, it is important to understand that we do not interfere in the training process, formation of squads and selection in any way – control is purely financial. And we encourage those clubs where our own students play. Everything else is only at the level of tips and recommendations.
The development of children’s hockey is handled by the Russian Hockey Federation and the Ministry of Sports. The task of the KHL is to integrate talented children into the professional hockey system at further stages of their career development. In recent years, the League has been making payments to children’s coaches for player contracts, and we hope that this will improve the situation with the development of hockey in the country as a whole.

In 2023, eight teams in two groups competed in Kuwait for the Arab Hockey Cup. In the final, Lebanon won against the hosts of the tournament. Also last year, Kazan hosted the first international ice hockey tournament among Islamic countries and the Republic of Tatarstan. Teams from 30 countries played 30 matches. The teams of Tatarstan and the UAE became the winners of the divisions.