The ice hockey club Lev Praha has shocked fans – and players – by announcing it will most likely withdraw from the Kontinental Hockey League next season. Owners of the Prague club, which reached the finals of the Russian-centred league this year, say they have not been able to secure a budget for next season.
When Lev Praha was founded in the Czech capital in 2012, many hockey fans were sceptical about the prospect of a Czech club in the KHL. But in its two seasons in the Russian-centred league, Lev has managed to build a solid fan base. It even set a single-game attendance record for the league, drawing some 16,500 visitors to one of last season’s final games.
In the finals of the Gagarin Cup, the Prague-based club eventually fell to Russia’s Magnitogorsk. However, second place in the wealthy league was a major success for Lev – and one that is now not likely to be repeated, at least in the coming season.
In a statement posted on its website on Wednesday, Lev’s owners announced they were struggling to secure its roughly 750-million-crown budget for next season, admitting Lev might drop out of the competition.
The club says they will not comment further until next week. But team captain Jiří Novotný believes there is little hope Lev will stay in the KHL.
“There have been some signs for quite some time. We have been told the final decision is to be made on Monday but I think it’s 99 percent likely that we won’t play. It was a big shock for the players and coaches. It’s a great pity because the last season was very good for us, and now, the players, coaches and other staffers are out of work. It’s a shame.”
Some Czech media report Lev Praha could have been affected by the decision of the league’s main sponsor, the Russian gas giant Gazprom, to cut its support for the competition. The club was also reportedly unable to strike a deal with the owners of Prague’s O2 arena where it was to play its home games next season.
The Lev roster includes Czech internationals such as Jakub Klepiš, and Martin Ševc, as well as Finns, Swedes, Canadians, and Slovaks. Captain Novotný says it will now be very difficult for them to move to other KHL teams.
“The KHL has a cap on foreign players, and our team consisted mainly of foreigners – Czechs, Swedes, and so on. The cap is five players in one team, and rosters have been long set because training camps start in a month’s time in Russia. So it will be a huge problem.”
Another two clubs have already withdrawn from the KHL: Spartak Moscow over financial issues, and Ukraine’s Donbass Donetsk due to the tensed situation in their country. However, three newcomers are set to join: Sochi and Togliatti of Russia, as well as Finland’s Jokerit Helsinki.