Last week I went to a San Jose Earthquakes game as part of a work event. As any European, I'm also a big soccer fan, although hockey completely took over once I moved to the States about a decade ago. The level of soccer competition just isn't great in the MLS. I felt the same way about the level of hockey competition when I was living in England.
But back to my experience. I may offend some loyal fans that go to these soccer games and faithfully support the team and the the league with what I'll write next, but I will anyway. What an odd show these Earthquakes are, and the MLS in general. The arena, Buck Shaw Stadium, was the most uncomfortable I've ever been at. There is no leg room whatsoever. There are no high stands. While it's nice to sit close to the action, and hear players curse, I'm used to appreciating the game from high up on the stands where one can see the game develop better. Parking was a joke too. Earthquakes play on Santa Clara University's campus, and as with any college campus, there aren't any good parking spots nearby without paying at least $15. There was no big screen to watch the replays on. And the worst part-- the commercialization of the game with constant giveaways, half time contests, and the worst of them all - "first kick" (like first pitch in baseball). I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw it. For a European, this was a cultural shock to experience something of this nature at a soccer game.
If you're still with me, you may be asking yourself, where am I going with this. Sitting there in amazement at what MLS is trying to do to the Beautiful Game, I started thinking about the contrast of watching live hockey in Russia versus watching live NHL games. This is a question I get a lot from fellow hockey fans at HP Pavilion when they find out I'm Russian, or here in FTF comments section. If you're a North American fan who is used to going to NHL games, you'll likely have the same cultural shock I had at an MLS soccer game if you go to a KHL hockey game. Ever since I started going to NHL games, I get bored and sometimes frustrated at hockey games in Russia. However, my experience is based on going to hockey games in Moscow, and your experience may vary if you attend a game in Sweden or Germany. I can't speak for those and will only compare NHL and KHL. But with that, here are some of the things I love about NHL that I miss while attending games in Russia.
1. Uniforms. This is perhaps the biggest pet peeve I have about KHL and European hockey in general. Compare this outfit that looks like it belongs in the circus for a KHL powerhouse AK Bars (on the left) versus old traditional Montreal Canadiens jerseys. European teams in general do not get as much money from TV contracts and sponsor deals as NHL clubs. Instead, they're trying to generate money from putting sponsor logos on the jerseys. In my mind, I hate how these jerseys look after they put 10 different random logos on them. I never wanted to own a KHL jersey for that main reason.
2. Attendance. While many KHL arenas sell out games, especially in Siberia where there are no pro soccer teams, the general rule in Russia is that many arenas will be half empty. Sure, it happens in NHL too in places like Phoenix or Atlanta, but the arenas tend to be big, and games are well attended. Nabokov said this when asked about his first KHL impression - "I absolutely did not like the empty stadiums. I know it's a preseason, but I'm not used to play under these circumstances, and in fact, it's uncomfortable." I feel the same way as a fan and it's part of the reason why I still prefer plastic seats at the HP Pavilion to a comfortable couch at home. The energy of the full arena cheering is addicting.
3. Family Friendly Atmosphere. With easy arena access, good seats, and good entertainment during the breaks, I am never afraid to bring my family to NHL games. My one year old daughter attended her first NHL game last week against Carolina, and my oldest son went to his first NHL game few years ago when he was just three months old. So often we see full families in attendance in the Sharks Tank. It's not something I saw too much at games back in Russia. There's not enough entertainment, and it's not always safe. One thing American sports have going for them-- they make games interesting for the whole family, and it's true for NHL, NBA, NFL, and even NCAA games. They're trying to do this for soccer as well. But soccer is not a game that stops a lot, as does hockey or football, and there is only one 15-minute intermission, so soccer doesn't need it all contests and show. There are even restaurants in hockey arenas in the NHL-- a big difference from a usual hot dog and drinks stand in the KHL. I also love the pre-game show at HP Pavilion-- the video, the music and the players coming out of the Sharks jaws. That is an experience in itself.
4. Easy Accessibility of Tickets. Back in Russia, up until recently, the only way to buy tickets was at the arena in person. If it was a popular game with a chance of a sell-out, I had to go there in person and spend an hour or two in line. As much as I hate Ticketmaster and their hideous fees, it's still more convenient to be able to buy my tickets whenever I want. I was even able to do that for Western Conference Finals last May. Internet commerce is on the rise in Russia, but it's still at least a decade behind North America.
5. Easy Arena Access and Exits. Most of the KHL arenas were built decades ago when there was no need for big parking lots. The security there also often blocks exits to prevent fights between fans from breaking out or excessive crowds from overloading the public transport. I remember a few games in Moscow when I couldn't leave the arena for over 30 minutes after the game. In contrast, most of the NHL arenas are new, and were built with car driving customers in mind. I love that I can get to San Jose downtown within 15 minutes of the game, park, walk over to the Tank and get there before the puck drops. I also love that I'm on a freeway within minutes after the game is over. I know there are other NHL arenas that aren't situated this well, but generally speaking, NHL is much better in this department.
6. TV Coverage. Sure we need cable or satellite subscription to watch the Sharks here in San Jose. But most games are broadcast live, whether Sharks are playing in Florida or in Edmonton. KHL is getting better with the number of games they broadcast, but even today, for most clubs a portion of the games are never broadcast. There is no KHL Center Ice either. When I can see all regular season and playoffs games, it's easier to be a loyal fan.
7. Scheduling. I do like that the NHL makes a good attempt of not conflicting with other local sports teams. When football season is on, there are very few NHL games on Sundays. When there's a big local event, like circus shows in Chicago, or a tennis tournament in San Jose, NHL sends those teams on the road. KHL often doesn't have that ability due to its over saturation in sports markets (see point #8). So sometimes big hockey games happen at the same time with big soccer games, again tightening security in the city and overcrowding public transport.
8. NHL Geography. With exception of New York where there are three teams nearby, NHL teams are well spread out around the US and Canada. I don't know if I'll live in San Jose my whole life, but if I ever move to another big city, chances are there will be a hockey franchise there and I can still go see live games. In KHL, six out of 23 teams are located in Moscow and its suburbs. It's great that on any given night one can catch a live game. But it's not so great for attendance because there are so many clubs in one market. Having just one NHL team in SF Bay Area helps the Sharks to generate more revenue and attendance than if there were 5 other teams in various parts of the Bay. There is a reason why even Toronto, the biggest hockey market in the world, is hesitant to add another NHL franchise.
I still go to the games in Russia, whenever I travel home for a holiday. But every time I do, it makes me better appreciate the NHL game experience.