Putin Allies Buy Finnish Hockey Team to Play for Russian Title

Gennady Timchenko and two other billionaire acquaintances of President Vladimir Putin bought a stake in Jokerit ice hockey team, moving the club from Finland’s top league to Russia’s answer to the NHL.

Timchenko, Arkady Rotenberg and Boris Rotenberg will also buy Hartwall Areena in Helsinki, Jokerit’s home rink and Finland’s largest event venue, with a seating capacity of about 13,500, according to an e-mailed statement from the business partners’ Arena Events Oy venture. The price wasn’t disclosed.

Finland’s SM-liiga has lost some of its best players to the Kontinental Hockey League in recent years as big-spending Russian owners pay better salaries with generous transfer fees. Jokerit’s wage budget of 3 million euros ($3.9 million), Finland’s largest last season, would place it last in the KHL, tying Metallurg Novokuznetsk in a spending table led by Ak Bars Kazan with 24.7 million euros.

“Jokerit will regularly be playing against the best teams in Europe,” the partners said in the statement. “The new shareholders believe that interest in ice hockey in Finland will increase further.”

Timchenko, the billionaire co-founder of energy trader Gunvor Group, is also president of hockey club SKA in St. Petersburg, a 3.5-hour train ride from Helsinki. Boris Rotenberg and his son Roman hold Finnish citizenship, according to the statement, as does Timchenko, the country’s richest man.

Arkady Rotenberg, a former judo partner of Putin, is the chairman of reigning KHL champion Dynamo Moscow. Putin congratulated him personally after last season’s victory. Roman Rotenberg is vice president of marketing at SKA St. Petersburg.

Five Championships

Harry Harkimo, the Finnish real estate developer and sports investor, sold the stakes in Jokerit and the arena after taking charge of the struggling team 23 years ago and managed the club to five domestic championships in 1992 to 2002.

“Our budget will become much bigger upon entering the KHL,” Harkimo told reporters today in Helsinki. “I don’t want to participate, I want us to win.”

The club’s former players include Teemu Selanne, the leader in points scored in the Olympics, and five-time Stanley Cup champion Jari Kurri.

The previous general manager of Jokerit, Jarmo Kekalainen, left his post in February to become the first European general manager in the National Hockey League as the Columbus Blue Jackets hired him for the position.

Eurovision, Cats

Hartwall Areena, Harkimo’s brainchild and a venue named after a brewer owned by Heineken NV, was built to be ready for the ice hockey world championships in 1997. The venue has hosted concerts from artists including Snoop Dogg, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Prince as well as events such as the Eurovision song contest and Cats musical.

Publisher Sanoma Oyj sold its 18 percent stake in Helsinki Halli Oy, Harkimo’s holding company for the team and arena, it said in a statement two weeks ago. Jokerit’s local rival HIFK is currently studying plans to build a new multipurpose arena Helsinki Garden in the coming years.

A total of 40 Finnish players played in the KHL last season, its fourth most common nationality before Canada, according to quanthockey.com.

The KHL, which was set up in 2008 with the support of Putin and OAO Gazprom Deputy Chief Executive Officer Alexander Medvedev, includes teams from Russia, Ukraine, Latvia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Croatia. Danish TV package provider Viasat A/S this week announced it will start broadcasting KHL matches in Finland.

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