Five-minute major

This year marks the 35th anniversary of the release of probably the greatest hockey movie of all-time, Slap Shot. For the uninitiated, the film stars Paul Newman as the captain/coach of the Charlestown Chiefs, a financially troubled hockey team in the low minor leagues. The team acquires the Hanson brothers, a trio of fighters who bring the team success on and off the ice.

Right now, a team in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League is imitating art, and the rest of the league is not happy.

Vityaz Chekhov (roughly translated as the Chekhov Knights) have played in the KHL since the league’s formation in 2008. They have finished second-last in the league’s standings every season. However, since 2008 they have been the runaway leaders in penalty minutes and this season is no different. As of Dec. 29, they have racked up 1,089 penalty minutes in 36 games. By comparison, SKA St. Petersburg is second with 683. The penalty minutes leader in the KHL has played for Vityaz every single season.

In the KHL, teams are restricted to signing only a handful of imports. Vityaz decided to use the provision to sign fighters. In 2007-08, their last season in the Russian Super League, they signed former NHLers Darcy Verot and Nathan Perrott. Verot would rack up 511 penalty minutes in 56 games that season, and has spent 1,235 minutes in the sin bin over the past four seasons with Vityaz. Perrott played 24 games in two seasons with the club, scoring one point and 235 penalty minutes.

In 2008-09, the team had five players with over 100 penalty minutes, including team captain and star player Chris Simon, who had previously played 782 games in the NHL. Simon also led the league in penalty minutes that season, while managing to finish second in team scoring. The next year, the team picked up minor-league pugilists Brandon Sugden and Josh Gratton. Combined, they played 21 games that season while accounting for 234 penalty minutes. However, Verot had 374 penalty minutes in ’09-10 alone, mainly because of an incident on Jan. 9, 2010 against Avangard Omsk.

The two teams already had a bitter rivalry and when Verot shot the puck at Avangard’s Lasse Kukkonen, a large brawl broke loose 3:39 into the game. The match was called and both teams combined for 707 penalty minutes. Afterwards, the league warned Vityaz that its membership in the KHL was in peril. The next December, Vityaz had another brawl with Avangard six seconds into their game, but the game was completed.

This season, Simon, Sugden, Gratton, and Verot have left the team, but Vityaz general manager, former Winnipeg Jet Alexei Zhamnov, signed replacements. Kip Brennan, Jeremy Yablonski, Jon Mirasty, and Nick Tarnasky were all fighters in the minors and quickly began to terrorize the league. All four are the KHL penalty minute leaders and both Yablonski and Brennan are averaging over 14 penalty minutes per game this season.

Yablonski, after his actions in a late November game against Traktor Chelyabinsk, was suspended for the remainder of the season. The KHL then created a rule restricting North American players from being signed until they’ve played at least a full season’s worth of games in the NHL.

While the use of fighters by Vityaz is systematic, there may be a financial element. The team was bailed out by the league in 2009, they play in the smallest arena in the league (capacity 3,300), and Chekhov, a town of just over 60,000 people located south of Moscow, is the smallest Russian market in the league. Not only are fighters cheaper to sign than skilled playmakers, they can also bring fans to the games. Vityaz has averaged 2,895 fans per home game this season.
Vityaz also has Mikhail Anisin who is in the top ten for goals, and Artemi Panarin who scored two goals for Russia in the 2011 World Junior Championship gold-medal game against Canada. Unfortunately, the exploits of Yablonski et al have overshadowed their efforts.

The KHL is considered to be the world’s second-best hockey league — behind only the NHL — and they must find a way to deal with Vityaz to uphold that distinction. The emphasis on fitness and playmaking was what made Russian hockey great and Vityaz should return to those ideals instead of signing players with no discernable hockey skill other than dropping the gloves.
The game has changed since Slap Shot. It’s time for Vityaz Chekhov to change with it.