For two hours today, I didn’t miss the NHL.

Like some of you, I watched my first KHL game today.KHL

Praha Lev was playing Dynamo Moscow. ESPN2 was airing the game for some reason — because it can, I suppose. Alex Ovechkin, Zdeno Chara, Marian Hossa and a few other former/fringe NHLers whose names I recognized were playing. Two were named Juraj Mikus, so I only give myself half credit there, but so far the KHL has done a pretty good job of keeping Europe’s best league free of expat NHLers. Barry Melrose was the color commentator. You’d be wrong if you said this was unwatchable.

In fact, for a couple hours this afternoon, I didn’t miss hockey. If ESPN2’s sole purpose for televising this game was so that I would end up writing that sentence and scaring the crap out of Gary Bettman, Bill Daly, Jeremy Jacobs, et. al., it succeeded.

To that end, here are five things I discovered I liked about the KHL.

1. Cheerleaders and mascots.

They don’t necessarily need to be in every NHL stadium — that’s not the argument here. In this game at least, the mascot was cute and the cheerleaders were cuter, and I can’t help but wonder if a dozen more people would show up to a Phoenix Coyotes game if these distractions were present.

My larger point is this: It worked in this building. Maybe this is de rigeur among European professional sports. Cricket. Speedway. Parkour. It also works at high school football games, and isn’t it comforting to know that some things actually translate from high school to the real world?

2. Big ice.

There’s been talk about making the NHL playing surface bigger, if only to cut down on concussions. (The biggest holdup seems to be the logistical barriers of tearing down the necessary seats and benches in each rink.) Exactly how much bigger has been a point for debate, but the European rinks — 13.4 feet long with an expanded neutral zone — aren’t a bad blueprint.

You might expect that goals would be harder to come by on a big rink, and they were in this game. (Dynamo won 1-0.) But at least once I saw a KHLer fan on a point-blank shot that an NHLer buries 99 times out of 100. There was more room to get to the net, which meant more opportunities for shifty players to shift, fewer opportunities for Zdeno Chara to put his stick on the ice and cram a guy into the boards, and more room for teams to control their Texas- (or Siberia-)sized offensive zone. Scoring chances, or the type of exciting plays that lead to scoring chances, didn’t seem to suffer.

The players did not. Anyway, I’m pretty sure there were fewer concussions than goals.

3. No trapezoid.

On a bigger rink, it would be downright silly to limit the goalie to playing the puck within a small, trapezoid-sized parcel. The KHL gets this. Neither Alexander Yeryomenko or Tomas Popperle will be mistaken for Martin Brodeur for his puck-handling skills, but I’m sure they weren’t complaining about the extra room to roam.

If there was a silver lining to the 2004-05 lockout, it was that the league’s board of governors had time to re-evaluate the game and tweak the rules to make it better. It did get better: There were more goals, fewer clutch-and-grabs, and no ties. Here’s hoping the board meets again soon and decides to eliminate the trapezoid.

4. It wasn’t depressing.

This is a stereotype, but it’s a real one, born out of real events.

Alexei Cherepanov should be playing in the NHL and I can’t forget that. Instead he collapsed and died in a KHL game at age 19 in 2008. There was no ambulance at the rink at the time. The cause of death was disputed, and disputed oddly. You have to believe that in the U.S. we’d have gotten to the bottom of it — if an NHL physical couldn’t have determined a root cause in time to prevent Cherepanov’s death in the first place.

The Yaroslavl Lokomotiv tragedy in 2011 claimed 44 more lives and brought to light the league’s spotty air travel safety record. Turns out the pilots were flying illegally. Call me blinded by patriotism again, but that shit just doesn’t happen here.

Between the two tragedies, that’s 45 KHL fatalities that came to mind off the top of my head. And who won the championship last season?1 Bet you had to look it up.

An actual, enjoyable hockey game came as a pleasant surprise.

5. NHL players.

Alex Ovechkin, Marian Hossa and Zdeno Chara2 were the stars of this game, and I’d have written the exact same thing if I was watching an NHL game. Ovechkin was his usual aggressive, passionate self. Chara seemed underutilized but maybe, understandably, he doesn’t want to be playing 25 minutes a game right now. So did Hossa, to a lesser extent.

Otherwise it was interesting. The battles in the corners were crisp. The goaltending was solid, although there’s often less of an onus on the goalie on a larger rink. Really, it felt like you were watching a couple of lesser NHL teams. Like if you took these two teams (including Ovechkin, Hossa and Chara) and put them in the NHL, they would probably steal some games from the Maple Leafs and the Islanders and finish a not-so-distant fifth in a five-team division.

It’s not the same but it’s close enough. As long as the NHL rinks are empty, I’ll take it.

The telecast ended with a PSA from Melrose, a self-described optimist, about how he hopes the NHL will be back. I do too, but I’m willing to give this KHL thing a few more chances.

Also receiving votes:

The random orange stripes in the referee’s shirts … borderline-late hits that don’t draw a crowd of 10 players in search of retribution … Oļegs Znaroks’ sweet moustache … shorter commercial breaks.

1. Dynamo Moscow.
2. You know how Chara can never unleash a 100-plus mph slapshot in a game because teams know it’s coming and he gets mauled the second he gets the puck on the perimeter? This is less of an issue on the IIHF-sized rink. I didn’t see Chara rip off a record-setting shot, but I saw him come closer in a Praha Lev uniform than he usually does in a Boston Bruins uniform.

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J.P. Hoornstra
J.P. Hoornstra
J.P. Hoornstra is a writer based in Southern California.


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