The second KHL World Games meeting in Vienna saw SKA rattle up seven goals against Slovan – while senior figures from the hockey world talked up the success of the weekend and looked forward to more high-profile international events in the near future.
SKA arrived in Vienna after a 2-1 win at Dinamo Riga. Unlike CSKA’s players, there was little time to explore the cultural attractions of the Austrian capital. “Unfortunately we only had about an hour-and-a-half free yesterday, so we couldn’t really see much of the city,” admitted forward Viktor Tikhonov. “But it’s a beautiful European city, I’d love to come back here.
“It’s always interesting to travel around the world and get a feel for how people relate to hockey in different places. If I could choose where to have a KHL team in Europe, I’d have to say that I love Venice – but I don’t know where you could build a rink there!
“In general, I’d like to see more foreign teams in the league. The more players we have from different countries, the higher the level of the competition. It makes it more interesting, whether that team is from Europe, China or even Japan.”
SKA’s vice-president, Roman Rotenberg, was looking forward to giving his team’s growing global fanbase a chance to see its heroes in the flesh. “I think this kind of effort to popularize the game in Europe is important for everyone,” he said. “At SKA we’ve been working on this for the past nine years and we’re getting results. For example, on social media SKA has more than one million followers, we’re selling merchandise right across Europe. We get sales in many countries, including from our fans here in Austria.”
The pre-game formalities involved IIHF President Rene Fasel and his KHL counterpart Dmitry Chernyshenko, as well as Vienna Capitals president Hans Schmidt and Austrian Hockey Federation chief Gernot Mittendorfer. And their discussions raised the possibility of a tantalizing showdown between the top clubs of the NHL and KHL.
The idea was floated on Friday by CSKA president Igor Yesmantovich, who hopes to set up a Trans-Atlantic challenge game to celebrate Anatoly Tarasov’s centenary this season. Chernyshenko told journalists that the KHL looked favorably on the proposal, and believed there was interest from TV networks in Europe and North America. “We have long been keen to do this, both us in the KHL and also the NHL,” he said. “The problem is getting it to fit into the calendar. I’m sure there would be huge interest around any such games, and they could go down in history.”
IIHF president Fasel, who is due to meet NHL commissioner Gary Bettman in Helsinki on Thursday, said he would raise the issue of a challenge game between the top clubs of the two competitions. “It would be a big deal for the fans, it would give them a chance to see the stars of both leagues, to see hockey of the very highest level. We’ve already tried to do this in the past, and we will keep on trying to make it happen.”
Fasel was also full of praise for the KHL World Games initiative, which continues next month in Zurich. “It’s great idea to promote the KHL brand in Western Europe,” he said. “The games we’re seeing now in Austria and later in Switzerland are an important step forward.”
There was a small disappointment when the rosters were announced: Pavel Datsyuk, SKA’s star forward, missed out after picking up a minor injury in Riga on Friday. Even in his absence, though, the visitor included the KHL’s leading scorer, Patrik Hersley. And it was the Swede who opened the scoring in the eighth minute. Hersley extended his current productive run to seven games as he potted his 11th goal of the season. And that’s from a defenseman.
Prior to the game, Tikhonov had admitted that SKA had struggled a little to make the most of its chances in recent outings. At the first intermission, the scoreline was just 1-0 in the visitor’s favor. For Slovan, still recovering from its 0-9 drubbing on Friday, keeping it tight was paramount and Vladimir Orszagh’s team worked hard to ensure that SKA could not take the game away in the opening exchanges.
However, the host was always vulnerable to a penalty. Hersley’s opener came on the power play and there were rather too many minors awarded against the Slovaks. SKA was not able to capitalize on the man advantage but the strain of the PK gradually wore down home resistance. Just after the midway mark, two goals in a minute from Jarno Koskiranta and Sergei Plotnikov pushed the Army Men into a 3-0 lead and the outcome of the game seemed more or less secure.
The final frame began with Dinar Khafizullin adding a fourth. Then Andrei Kuzmenko found the net and Plotnikov potted his second of the night. Oleg Li wrapped up it in the last minute with his first since joining SKA in the summer and over the two games, fans in Austria had seen 16 goals. Once again, Slovan was looking at a heavy loss – and for some the scorelines raised questions about whether the KHL product on show in Austria suffered from a lack of competitiveness. However, Austrian goalie Bernd Bruckler, once of Torpedo and Sibir in the KHL, felt that the most important thing was showcasing the quality of player within the league. “Sure, it would be better to see closer games, where the scoreline isn’t so lopsided, but we have to remember that CSKA and SKA are top clubs and are well capable of producing this kind of result. For fans in Austria, the most important thing is that they are seeing truly high-class hockey. Games like the ones we’ve seen in Vienna and Tallinn this weekend can only help to promote the KHL brand.”