KHL ice hockey franchise to move to Prague, league’s boss says

Alexander Medvedev’s announcement that Lev Poprad of Slovakia will move to O2 Arena takes Czech ice hockey association by surprise 

Prague’s O2 Arena is home to Slavia Prague; the arrival of a second team would cause logistical problems, the Czech team says foto: Pavel Vrtiška, HC Slavia PrahaČeská pozice

Prague’s O2 Arena is home to Slavia Prague; the arrival of a second team would cause logistical problems, the Czech team says

Alexander Medvedev, president of the Kontinental Hockey League and CEO of Gazprom Export, said on Monday that as of the 2012-2013 season, the Lev Poprad franchise — the first team from outside the former Soviet Union to enter the KHL — will play its home games in Prague’s under-used O2 Arena. Despite Medvedev’s suggestion to the contrary, the Czech Ice Hockey Association (ČSLH) has yet to endorse the move, which cannot proceed without the association’s blessing.

“I can announce that Lev is moving from Poprad, Slovakia, to Prague and will play in the O2 Arena, one of the largest arenas in Europe with a capacity of over 17,000,” the Russian server Sport Express cited Medvedev as announcing at a press conference on Monday in Chelyabinsk, before he played in a game for the Gazprom Export team against veterans from the club Traktor Chelyabinsk.      

‘All issues with the Czech hockey association have been settled and Lev has guaranteed finances for three years’“All issues with the Czech hockey association have been settled and Lev has guaranteed finances for three years,” Medvedev added.    

However, according to ČSLH head Tomáš Král nothing has been agreed: “I don’t have any official statement or request from the KHL or the club on my table. In a situation in which I don’t know what we’re talking about exactly, I cannot say I support something,” Král told Czech Television (ČT).

ČSLH’s spokesman Zdeněk Zikmund sounded less surprised. “This possibility has been discussed for three years, but I can confirm that over the past few months and weeks many contacts have been established, mostly relating to the change of ownership of the O2 Arena,” he said, adding that no formal negotiations between the ČSLH and KHL about the move had been held.

Association approval required

“The Association will begin to deal with the matter fully once an official request arrives. If it’s a question of membership [to the ČSLH], the executive committee would decide on the basis of a whole series of factors, sporting, financial and other,” Zikmund said.

In 2010 plans were drawn up for the club to play in the KHL with its home arena in the Czech town of Hradec Králové, but the move was blocked by the ČSLHAnd approval from the ČSLH is necessary for Lev to be able to play in the Czech Republic: “If we don’t like the proposal, we could block the move,” Tomáš Král told the news server idnes.cz.

On Tuesday morning, Czech Position sent questions to the KHL’s press department asking with whom exactly from the ČSHL Alexanadr Medvedev had the KHL management had resolved the issues concerning Lev’s move to the Czech Capital.

We also asked whether Karel Komárek, whose oil company Moravské Naftové Doly (MND) is a major sponzor of the KHL and whose financial group KKCG is now a co-owner of the O2 Arena, had provided Medvedev and the KHL management with guarantees of consent from the ČSLH. At the time of publication we had received no response.

As Medvedev pointed out on Monday, the club Lev — meaning “lion” in both Czech and Russian, and which is a Czech national symbol — was formally established in the Czech Republic though it has played no games in the country. In 2010 plans were drawn up for the club to play in the KHL with its home arena in the Czech town of Hradec Králové, but the move was blocked by the ČSLH.

Headache for Extraliga

The presence in Prague of a new hockey team playing in a far larger league — and so with more stars, including many regulars from the Czech national team such as Roman Červenka and the young goal tending talent Jakub Štepánek — would certainly not be welcomed by the clubs from the top Czech professional league, the Extraliga, especially by the two historical Prague clubs, HC Slavia and HC Sparta.

‘I understand that fans would come to a match with SKA Petersburg, but what about the matches with other teams? Where will they get the fans from?’It is also questionable whether a new Prague team, albeit in the KHL, would attract sufficiently large number of crowds. “I understand that fans would come to a match with SKA Petersburg, but what about the matches with other teams? Where will they get the fans from? We, along with Sparta, know difficult it is to get fans — and it’s sure that we’ll lose some of them,” HC Slavia’s marketing manager Jan Kratochvíl told the server sport.cz.

And not only do the fans and managers of the two Prague “S” teams have reason to be concerned about the livelihoods and futures of their clubs. In an interview published in Tuesday’s edition of Sovetsky Sport, Medvedev stated that the Czech Extraliga club Energie of the western Bohemian town of Karlovy Vary also features in the KHL’s expansion plans.

“At the same time, Energie from Karlovy Vary will become the youth team of Lev.” This statement has so far escaped the attention of the Czech press. On Tuesday, Czech Position sent an email to the Energie’s management, asking whether they could confirm this information. The club’s secretary and spokesman Jiří Holý later told this publication by phone that he could not comment, but that he had forwarded our questions to the club’s president Ladislav Trubač and would let us know.

The operators of the O2 Arena also gave a cautious response to Medvedev’s announcement, saying that they could not confirm that Lev Poprad or any other club except HC Slavia Prague will play their home games at the O2 Arena. Slavia has a contract to play its home games at the arena until 2024.

KHL to stay in Slovakia 

This January it emerged that Czech businessman Jan Musil, head and majority owner of the ČKD group, had purchased a majority stake in Lev Poprad and the firm that officially owns the franchise had moved its registered headquarters to Prague.

‘For the time being only one thing is certain: Lev will play in the KHL next season’ Despite training and administrational staff having been laid off after Lev Poprad’s first season in KHL ended with the club not making it into the playoffs, and even after Medvedev’s announcement, Lev Poprad’s spokesman Jan Rachota on Monday refused to comment about the reported move to the Czech capital, but cited Musil’s statement from mid-February.

“For the time being, only one thing is certain: Lev will play in the KHL next season,” Musil said then.

Despite the likely departure from the Slovak town with a population of 55,000, according to Medvedev the KHL will remain in Slovakia. “This spring Slovan Bratislava will play in the same arena where the World Championship was played,” Medvedev said referring to the Orange Arena in the Slovak capital renovated for the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Championships in 2011.

Lev Poprad was the first team from outside the former Soviet Union to enter the KHL. Medvedev said Monday that the hockey club in Milan is interested in joining but that for now three teams from the “far abroad” — as opposed to the “near abroad” meaning the former soviet states in Russian — would be too many.     

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