Last week the Kontinental Hockey League presented the match schedule for the forthcoming 10th anniversary season. As always, the calendar has raised a lot of questions from journalists and fans. We put these queries to Vladimir Zhidkov, an independent consultant who has played a big role in the preparation of the KHL match schedules right from the League’s very first season.

The upcoming season coincides with the staging of the Winter Olympics, which, of course, is bound to have a significant impact on the formulation of the schedule. However, the team of experts tasked with drawing up the calendar made sure to accommodate the interests of the member clubs and of the fans, all of whom are looking forward to an event-packed and exciting season.

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“I would like to create a schedule for the next five years, but we have to take real life into account”

- Vladimir, when did work begin on the calendar?

We made the first blueprint back in mid-spring. However, at that time, of course, we could not know the precise number of clubs that were to participate in the tenth Championship, nor could we be certain of the number of games in the regular season, nor of the number of days we had to work with. Another important consideration was the fact that next season will coincide with the Winter Olympiad, and for quite a while it was unclear whether players from the NHL would be released to compete in the Games.

This could not be ignored, because if the Russian national team was going to be built around a backbone of NHL players, then it raised the possibility that the Russian Hockey Federation might soften its requirements from the KHL regarding the breaks in the season to aid Team Russia’s preparations. In the end, confirmation of the absence from the Olympics of NHL players became known on April 4, so that was when we learned we had sixteen fewer match days, as this period had to be set aside for the national team’s Olympic preparations. Furthermore, we needed all the information from our member clubs about the number of days on which their arenas would be available, and we did not receive all the replies until July, at the very last moment.

 Season (number of clubs)
 

 Matches per club 
 

 Matches in total  

Matches per day, average

 Most matches in a single day

2008-09 (24)

 56

 672

 4.63

 11

 2009-10 (24)

 56

 672

 5.46

 12

 2010-11 (23)

 54

 621

 4.89

 11

 2011-12 (23)

 54

 621

 4.81

 11

 2012-13 (26)

 52

 676

 5.50

 13

 2013-14 (28)

 54

 756

 6.25

 14

 2014-15 (28)

 60

 840

 5.32

 13

 2015-16 (28)

 60

 840

 5.87

 14

 2016-17 (29)

 60

 870

 5.44

 13

 2017-18 (27)

 56

 756

 5.21

 12

Games per season

- The schedule was not unveiled until July 12. Is that not a bit late?

Of course, I would like to have it done earlier, and even to have a schedule in place for the next five years, but we must take into account real life and the specific challenges reality places before us. Some of you might remember how we created a full schedule for 2010-11, and then had to go back to the drawing board when Lada dropped out - we suddenly had only 23 teams, instead of the 24 for which we had planned. It was August 3 before we could present a new, updated schedule.

- How do you go about starting work on a new calendar?

By drafting and obtaining approval for the general structure of the season, then determining the exact number of participant clubs in the Championship and the number of match days. Then we must request and receive information from the IIHF about their desired breaks in the timetable, and then, when we have a good idea of the total number of available days, we can put down the foundations, on which we can construct a full schedule.

- How did you calculate the number of match days for next season?

The number of participating teams, 27, was decided in May by the League’s Board of Directors. We knew the 2018 World Championships were to begin on May 4, and we needed to end the season a week beforehand in order to aid the national team preparations, giving us an end date for the playoffs of April 26 at the latest. It will be the third season in a row in which we have started the Championship in the summer, which is not ideal, but it was simply unavoidable. For these reasons, we settled on a regular season running from August 21 to March 1.

This gives us 193 calendar days, from which we subtract the mandatory breaks in the schedule: there are the IIHF tournaments, with the Russian national team competing in the Eurotour, and of course, we have the Winter Olympics, plus New Year, the All-Star Game, and the Day of Remembrance for Lokomotiv.  In short, after all the calculations, we are given 145 match days, into which we must squeeze 756 regular season games.

 Season

Total

 Eurotour

Olympics

Others

 2008-09

 33

 22

 11

 2009-10

 56

 17

 23

 16

 2010-11

 39

 27

 12

 2011-12

 39

 23

 16

 2012-13

 44

 27

 17

 2013-14

 61

 18

 27

 16

 2014-15

 17

 6

 11

 2015-16

 36

 21

 15

 2016-17

 21

 13

 8

 2017-18

 48

 11

 33

 8

Days per season without KHL games

- How does this season compare with other Olympic years?

In 2009-10, the Olympic break, including time allocated for training before the Games, amounted to 23 days, whereas in 2013-14 this had risen to 27 days, and next season it will be 33 days, yet we still managed to create a schedule in which the average number of games per day was lower than in the other Olympic seasons.

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We pay a heavy price for our vast territory

- What other factors do you need to consider when scheduling?

A great deal of factors, and these are in addition to those already mentioned. We must tackle the logistical problems. To do this, we divide all the clubs into smaller groups, according to location – for next season, we put them into six quartets and one trio (the three Far East teams). Then we try to organize road trips for each club which match these groupings, i.e. three or matches each road trip. Inevitably, some road trips will be longer or shorter, but we try to soften the blow by placing the longer road trips either side of a break in the season.

- How much of a factor is the availability of the arenas?

It has a huge influence, but this is just another part of reality. Very few of the ice palaces are owned by the hockey clubs, so most of our teams are tenants, and the arenas need to earn money by hosting many different events. This means there can often be dozens of days when we cannot allocate a team a home match because the arena is in use for other purposes. Here are some examples, concerning next season: Admiral’s arena is already booked for non-hockey events on no fewer than 34 days; with SKA Saint Petersburg, it is 36; Slovan Bratislava, 37; Dinamo-Minsk, 39, Dinamo Riga, 44; finally, the outright winner is Jokerit, whose arena in Helsinki is unavailable for a grand total of 72 days.

- Did you manage to iron out all the shortcomings of last year's calendar for this forthcoming season?

Any schedule has flaws, and it is impossible to be 100% fair to 100% of the participants 100% of the time. Even if it is just two people playing chess, you will have to decide which one gets the white pieces and thereby gains a slight advantage.  Obviously, the main unavoidable problem in creating a schedule is our vast territory, for which we pay a heavy price. Compare our size to that of the NHL. The North American continent is hardly small, and the distance between the two farthest NHL outposts, Vancouver and Miami, is 4,500 kilometers, yet even this is dwarfed by the 8,440 kilometers between Bratislava and Shanghai. This is not just a matter of money, but it places an extra physical burden on the players traversing so many time zones.

We should mention here that the NHL schedule sometimes puts a heavy load on teams, giving them road games on back-to-back days, and these can be in venues separated by maybe 1,500 kilometers - Colorado and Chicago, for instance, or Arizona and Dallas. We do not burden our teams in this way, not even with games in Moscow Region and Moscow.

 Month

Minimum
 number of matches

Maximum
  number of matches

 Average number of matches 
 per team

 August

 3 (Avtomobilist)

 5 (5 teams)

 4.2

September

 8 (Jokerit) 

 13 (Vityaz. Dynamo Moscow Lokomotiv)  

 11.2

October

 11 (9 teams)

 13 games (7 teams)

 11.9

November

  8 (5 teams)

 11 games (4 teams)

 9.4

December

  8 (5 teams)

 11 games (Neftekhimik. CSKA)

 9.1

January

  6 (Torpedo)

 10 games (Jokerit. Kunlun)

 8.3

February

  0 (Lokomotiv)

  2 (Admiral. Amur)    

 1.9 (post-Olympics period)

 March

  0 (Admiral. Amur.Kunlun) 

  1 (24 teams)

 1.9 (post-Olympics period)

Maximum, minimum and average games per day, month-to-month (regular season)

- But why doesn’t the KHL introduce road games in different cities on back-to-back days?

The logistical problems are too severe, and we must bear in mind force majeure, such as harsh weather conditions, and so on. Also, we have learned from experience. In the first few weeks of our very first season, we scheduled Metallurg Magnitogorsk to play Traktor straight after competing in Switzerland, but we had to postpone the game because of circumstances completely beyond our control - the team could not get a night flight out of Switzerland.

- However, for some teams, you have scheduled some home games on back-to-back days.  

Yes. Five such instances in all. We were forced to do this, mostly because of the problem mentioned already - a limited number of days in which some arenas are available. Of course, while it is not ideal, if we look at the NHL we see that for Ottawa, Pittsburgh, Columbus, Chicago and the New York Islanders, they are given back-to-back games between 16 and 19 times(!) in the regular season.

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To go straight into the playoffs, cold, would be madness

- One of the things in the new schedule which has invited comment is the short “tail” at the end of the regular season, following the break for the Olympics. For teams which have already failed to qualify for the playoffs, this means a long break and then a return to action just to play a couple of games which are just friendlies in all but name.  

Yes, just as it was four and eight years ago in the previous Olympic seasons. We sympathize, but firstly, those two matches in the “tail” could be crucial for determining the final playoff berths, and for deciding the final standings and therefore the seedings for the playoffs. Secondly, the players of those sixteen successful teams will go into the playoffs match-fit, on the back of two competitive games. To go straight into the playoffs, cold, following a month-long break, would be madness. We accept the tail might be unfortunate for teams who, mathematically, already cannot not make it into eighth place or higher, but that is all the more motivation to battle hard over the first five months of the season - to make sure they do not get into such a position.

Club

 Dates of consecutive match days

 Opponents

 Lokomotiv 

 29-30 November 

Barys. Ugra

 Vityaz 

 30 November-1 December 

 Admiral. Kunlun

HC Sochi 

 5-6 September 

 Neftekhimik. Dinamo Minsk

 Slovan

 27-28 November 

 Kunlun. Admiral

 Jokerit

 28-29 November 

 Sibir. Amur

Back-to-back matches in the 2017-18 regular season (all are home games)

- Who will have the longest and most arduous road trips this season?

Amur and Jokerit will begin the campaign with journeys during which they will play eight road games. Later, Ak Bars and Salavat Yulaev also face eight-game trips on the road, but we should note that these journeys are divided in two by a three-to-seven-day break in the middle. In the case of Ak Bars and Salavat Yulaev, it will be the New Year break, so the players can return home in the middle of the long series of road games. To return to those clubs whose arenas are often booked for non-hockey events, Slovan’s longest road trip comprises 6 games – 5 in January, with the sixth taking place after the Olympics – while Dinamo Riga’s longest trip away stretches to 5 games, and is scheduled for mid-September.

- Regarding another phenomenon that some see as a problem – having many games on a single day. This will only happen once or twice in the forthcoming season.

- Yes, but again, we could only eliminate this altogether if clubs agreed to more back-to-back matches, and that will never happen. However, even given the current conditions, the new calendar is one of the most balanced and consistent in the League’s history. The number of days on which there are no games at all, if we exclude the breaks for the IIHF and Olympic events, has been cut down to eight, and those, as you know already, are the four days for the Week of Hockey Stars, the three days for New Year, and the Day of Remembrance for Lokomotiv. For comparison: four years ago, also an Olympic season, the average number of games per day was 6.25. In the tenth season, it will be 5.21. Yes, there are a lot of matches on February 27 and March 1 (12 games), but this is down to the fact that all our teams need match practice in the run-up to the playoffs, and the number of free days is strictly limited.

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- How did you determine the optimal number of games for the championship?

We have an unwritten rule that each team must play on the ice of every other team at least once per season, so that the fans get the chance to watch all the teams in real life. We have broken this rule on occasion – for example, back in the 2014-15 season, Dinamo Riga, Slovan Bratislava, Jokerit Helsinki and SKA Saint Petersburg did not fly out to Vladivostok and Khabarovsk, even though Amur and Admiral made the corresponding westward journey. In the subsequent years, however, we returned to the original, common-sense plan, and in this forthcoming tenth season of the Championship, despite all the obstacles put in our way, we have managed to adhere to this important principle.

We accept that a basic, round-robin tournament leaves us with too few games overall, so we brought in this innovation by which some pairs of teams play each other four times during the regular season.

 Number of matches
 

Club

 Dates of road trips

8

 Jokerit 

 in August: 23 – 25 – 27 – 29 –in September: 6 – 9 – 11 – 13

 8

Ak Bars

 in December: 20 – 25 – 27 – 29 – New Year – 4 – 6 – 8 – 10

 8

  Amur 

 in August: 22 – 24 – 26 – 28 –in September: 1 – 3 – 5 – 8

 8

  Salavat Yulaev 

 in December: 23 – 25 – 27 – 29 – New Year – 4 – 6 – 8 – 10

 7

  Lada 

 in October: 29 – 31 – in November: 2 – Eurotour – 14 – 16 – 18 – 20

7

  SKA

 in December: 23 – 25 – 27 – 29 – New Year – 3 – 5 – 7

 7

  Kunlun

 in August: 22 – 24 – 26 – 28 –in September: 1 – 3 – 5

 7

  Admiral

 in August: 22 – 24 – 26 – 28 –in September: 1 – 3 – 5

Maximum regular season road games 2017-18

- How is it decided which teams face each other four times instead of the usual two?

We have the various “derby” games, such as those between the Moscow rivals =Dynamo, CSKA and Spartak - and, as the League has progressed, we have seen other rivalries emerge, like that between SKA and the Moscow clubs, Petersburg and Helsinki, the “Green Derby” between Salavat Yulaev and Ak Bars, plus the Far East Derby with Amur and Admiral. These games are potentially the most exciting for the spectators. Clearly, we must consider the logistics and the distances between the cities, but for an example, look at how the rivalry intensified between CSKA and Lokomotiv in the playoffs last season. In the 2017-18 regular season, the fans will see this rivalry continued, and these teams will play each other four times. In all, we submitted several varying options for the new season’s schedule, and the final choice was made by the Board of Directors of the League.

- Are there advantages to the system used in soccer, when all the teams play each round of matches over a weekend, and often on the same day?

 In my opinion, no. I believe that the KHL principle – that a day without hockey is not to be desired – is the better alternative. We think it is illogical to saturate two or three days with hockey and then have barren periods.

To sum up, creating a schedule is a daunting task, but also a fascinating one. And there will never be a perfect season calendar in any country, on any continent, in any sport.

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