Thu, May 01, 2014 - Page 18 News List

Hockey lifts Russian influence amid sanctions


As the US and EU widen sanctions on elite Russians and companies they control for failing to defuse a political crisis in Ukraine, the Kontinental Hockey League may be one way for the country to expand its influence abroad.

Last night’s decisive seventh game in the Gagarin Cup was to have Russian team Metallurg Magnitogorsk against Lev Praha of the Czech Republic, who joined the KHL two years ago.

Clubs from the capitals of Slovakia and Croatia are among four teams from outside Russia to have joined the league in the past six years.

In the aftermath of its annexation of Crimea and the failure, according to the US and EU, to help dissipate a crisis in eastern Ukraine that has seen pro-Russian supporters take control of towns, the KHL may be a way for Russia and its political and financial elite to increase their wealth and influence through “soft power,” analysts said.

“This is one of the most successful Russian attempts of spreading their soft power beyond their borders,” Michael Romancov, a political scientist at Charles University in Prague, said by telephone. “So far, economic and sport relations between the EU and Russia are exempt from any sanctions, but the future will depend on how the situation in Ukraine unfolds.”

Lev Praha forced a decider with a 5-4 win in overtime on April 28. Last night’s showdown in Magnitogorsk — about 1,800km east of Moscow — was to take place about 8,600km from where Metallurg coach Mike Keenan guided the New York Rangers to victory in the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup Final in 1994.

Should Metallurg win, it will be the first champion to be coached by a foreigner. Victory for Lev, which has no Russian players on its roster, would make the Prague team the first from outside Russia to lift the Gagarin Cup, named after Russian astronaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space.

Teams owned by oligarchs in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle and sponsored by state companies including OAO Gazprom and OAO Rosneft, may be hurt by US and EU sanctions.

The latest expansion team, Helsinki’s Jokerit, was bought last year by Russian billionaires Gennady Timchenko and brothers Boris and Arkady Rotenberg, who are subject to US sanctions. The latter of the brothers is president of Dynamo Moscow, a two-time Gagarin Cup winner, while Moscow’s other team, CSKA, is owned by Rosneft, whose chief executive offer, Igor Sechin, is also under US sanctions.

Lev’s co-owner is Evgeny Myshovskiy, who’s also on the board of directors for Gazprom Schweiz AG, a subsidiary of LLC Gazprom Export. While neither Rosneft or Gazprom are subject to sanctions, US officials have threatened to impose penalties on Russian industries, including banking and energy, if Putin increases tension in its neighbor.

The league is not immune to the crisis in Ukraine. Dinamo Riga may leave the KHL due to the conflict, former Latvian president and Dinamo Riga board member Guntis Ulmanis said on March 19.

“If the aggression continues and doesn’t stop, then of course cultural links, and sport and team, and other links will be stopped,” Ulmanis said on the television show Sastregumastunda.

The league began in 2008 and three years later suffered the loss of 43 people from the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team, including former NHL players, in a plane crash. Lev Praha coach Kari Jalonen sees the potential for the KHL to become a pan-European league.

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