2009-10 Asia League Preview: New teams, new rules

Wednesday, 09.09.2009 / 9:49 AM
Bill Meltzer  - NHL.com Correspondent
Now entering its sixth season of operation, the Asia League of Ice Hockey (ALIH) is a professional hockey league based in East Asia, with four teams from Japan, two from South Korea and one from mainland China. The league and its franchises have undergone frequent changes over the course of its existence, and the upcoming 2009-10 season will see some major changes take effect.

The NHL's San Jose Sharks will no longer be affiliated with the Chinese entry in the league after a dispute with the government-run Chinese Ice Hockey Association. The team will be known as the China Dragon and split its home games between the cities of Harbin and Shanghai.

The China Dragon will be coached by Andrei Kovalev, a former national Belarusian national team player who also played in the American Hockey League and ECHL. In addition to running the China Dragon bench, Kovalev will also coach the Chinese national team (which largely mirrors the club team squad) at least until April 2010. He will be assisted by Chinese coaches.

The 43-year-old Kovalev ended his playing career in 2007 after playing in eight IIHF World Championships and two Olympics for Team Belarus. Much of his playing career was spent in Germany, where he suited up for 13 seasons, most notably for the Krefeld Penguins. After retiring, he worked with Belarusian team Yunost Minsk before becoming an assistant coach with HK Vitebsk.

In an effort to make the perennial cellar-dwelling Chinese team a little more competitive, the ALIH will permit the Dragon to use a total of seven import players for the 2009-10 season. However, the team reportedly does not intend to maximize the number of foreign players that it brings in, planning instead to give experience to as many Chinese national team players as possible.

In addition, rather than bringing in former NHL talents such as goaltender Wade Flaherty, the team will sign players from the leagues in Belarus and Kazakhstan. The team has already announced the signing of 42-year-old Igor Andryushchenko, a former teammate of Kovalev's.

The Chinese Ice Hockey Association takeover of the ALIH team marks a continuation of what has so far been an extremely bumpy ride for pro hockey in China. At one time, there were three Chinese-based teams in the league (Harbin, Qiqihar and a foreign-operated entry). An early Russian venture in the league was aborted after one season. In 2005-06 season, the Scandinavian-owned Nordic Vikings joined the league and based its operations in Beijing.

The Nordic Vikings team consisted of young Scandinavian players as well as six players from Qiqihar and Harbin. For the 2006-07 season, the Qiqihar franchise moved to Changchun, and the Harbin franchise moved to Beijing. The Nordic Vikings franchise left the league due to mounting financial losses and proposed sponsorship deals falling through. In 2007-08, the remaining China-based teams were merged to become the Beijing-based China Sharks.
Elsewhere in the ALIH, the circuit will introduce a new Japanese team, the Tohoku Freeblades, following the economic decision by the owners of the Seibu Prince Rabbits to fold the team despite its longtime success on the ice. At least on paper, the new club figures to be reasonably competitive for a first-season squad. Among its signings are former AHL defensemen Brad Farynuk and Steve Munn former ECHL forwards Jon Smyth and Bruce Mulherin.

Despite the Asia League's stormy history, the caliber of play has been bolstered by the participation of a handful of former NHL players. Those who have played – or are still playing – in the league, include the likes of Yutaka Fukufuji, Greg Parks, Esa Tikkanen, Chris Lindberg, Tavis Hansen, Shjon Podein, Jason Podollan, Derek Plante, Steve McKenna, Jarrod Skalde, Joel Prpic, Tyson Nash, Chris Allen, Jamie McLennan, Shane Endicott, Wade Flaherty, Brad Tiley, Ricard Persson, Kelly Fairchild and Brad Fast.

Last season, fellow import players Brock Radunske (a former AHL and ECHL forward) and Jon Awe spearheaded a breakout season for Korean team Anyang Halla. All three players will be back on the ice for Anyang this season. During the 2008-09 campaign, the club staged a wire-to-wire run atop the standings but ended in disappointment after losing in a seven-game series to the Nippon Paper Cranes in the playoff semifinals.

Radunske won four individual trophies last season, including regular season MVP, Forward of the Year, most goals (29) and most points (57 in 36 games). He also scored five goals in the series against the Cranes. The 26-year-old former Edmonton Oilers draft pick signed a three-year contract extension with the club in February.

Awe, a defenseman, is expected to be paired with team captain Woo-Jae Kim, who once played for Finnish minor-league team Jokipojat Joensuu. Fast will be paired with Japanese import Takayuki Ono. Awe, a 6-foot-4, 240-pound rugged defenseman from the United States, scored 12 goals last season, which tied him with former NHL blueliner Ricard Persson (then with the Oji Eagles) for most goals among defensemen in the league.

Last but not least, the league is adopting several rule changes for the 2009-10 season. Until last season, five teams made the playoffs. Starting this season, only four teams will make it. In the semifinals, the top- and fourth-seeded teams, and second- and third-seeded teams will play a best-of-5 series (rather than best-of-7). The finals, for the first time, will also be decided in a best-of-5 series.

For the second straight year, the league will use a shootout when games are still tied after five minutes of overtime. Three players from each team will shoot. If nothing is decided, the next goal would be the winning goal. If nothing is decided after the seventh shooter, the same player can take the shot until the winning goal is scored. For the 2009-10 season, the ice will no longer be resurfaced before a shootout and teams will no longer change sides after the third shooter.

The league has also adopted NHL-style rules for faceoffs. All faceoffs must take place on one of nine designated dots and the first faceoff of a power play will take place deep in the defensive zone of the offending team. The league has also barred pre-faceoff line changes by the team that commits an icing.

Under a new regular-season point format, a regulation win is worth three points, an overtime or shootout win is worth two points, an overtime or shootout loss garners one point and a regulation loss fails to earn a point.  There will be a total of 36 regular-season games per each club during the 2009-10 (same as last season). The regular season runs from Sept. 19 to Feb. 7. The playoffs begin March 11, and will end no later than March 28. The league will take an Olympic break from Feb. 8-28.

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