Feud Brews Between NHL, Russian KHL

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It is fairly safe to assume that Russian oilman Alexander Medvedev, the founder of the new Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), is not on the NHL’s most-favored people list. The KHL is actually the old Russian Super Hockey League that has been rebranded and features 24 teams from not only Russia but other countries that once were part of the Soviet Union.

Medvedev’s league, which is being backed many wealthy Russians, has signed one prominent NHL star, Jaromir Jagr, who is playing for Avangard Omsk along with former NHL goaltender John Grahame. The KHL has also already inked NHL players such as goaltender Ray Emery, forwards Jozef Stumpel and Josef Vasicek, three-time Stanley Cup-winning Devil Sergei Brylin, and former Islanders netminder Wade Dubielewicz.

The NHL has no problems with any of these signings, but there is a major dispute growing over Alexander Radulov, who played with the Nashville Predators in 2007-08. Radulov signed a three-year contract with Salavat Yulaev Ufa on July 11, one day after the NHL and all international hockey leagues under the aegis of the International Ice Hockey Federation agreed that every league would honor existing contracts. Radulov had one year remaining on his Nashville deal. Nashville, the NHL, and the IIHF all released statements that Radulov’s signing with Salavat Yulaev Ufa was a violation of the agreement and that Radulov was obligated to play one more season in Nashville. The KHL countered that Radulov actually inked the deal on July 5, five days before the new agreement was signed.

Radulov’s contract has become a flash point in the tensions between the NHL and the KHL. The NHL has had a poor relationship in recent years with the Russian Ice Hockey Federation. At issue are transfer fees that allow NHL teams to buy players who are contractually obligated to a non-North American team so they come skate in the NHL. The transfer fee is $200,000 a player.

There is a scheduled meeting on September 4 in New York where representatives from the NHL, the KHL, and other ice hockey federations that is supposed to tackle issues such as the transfer agreements and the logistics of holding a hockey World Cup in 2012, but NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly isn’t so sure the league should be at the meeting.

“We are not certain we are going to go forward with the meeting at this point. Our position with the IIHF has been very clear. If the KHL doesn’t disqualify Alexander Radulov from playing in their league so he can abide to his contractual obligations to Nashville, we have no interest in meeting with them and or engaging in discussions over any broader cooperative relationship with them,” Daly told The New York Sun. “You know, we would still like to, and we still have offered to meet with the IIHF and the other federations, but it is not certain at this point in time where that will happen or not.

“It is a very complicated picture right now. We don’t have a players transfer agreement; our clubs were told and were obligated not to secure individual releases of players from teams. So only those who are free of contractual obligations were free to come here this summer. There ended up being a lot of those players, but we are still hopeful that we’ll end up doing a new players transfer agreement, if not with the Russians, with the rest of the federations, as we had for the last three years,” Daly said. “That is why we still want to meet with them in September to see if it can be done. It is an unsettled situation there is no doubt. There is a lot left to play out here.”

The Georgia-Russian conflict may also play a role in the cooling hockey relationships.

“That’s a good question,” said Daly on whether the tensions between Russian and Georgia could spill over and impact the hockey community. “I don’t think at this point it is something that will impact our business in the short term. Obviously we will see how things play out. It could become significant. You know it plays into the broader issue with the Russian league and the Russian Federation, and that is kind of unsettled right now. There are a lot of question marks.”

Regardless of what happens on September 4, the Rangers will be playing a preseason game in Bern, Switzerland, on October 1 against Mettallurg Magnitogorsk, a KHL team, in the first Victoria Cup competition. New York will also be playing SC Bern in a preseason contest on September 30.

“They are playing a team that won a IIHF tournament,” said Daly of the Rangers-Mettallurg Magnitogorsk contest. “It is something we are contractually obligated to do. Obviously you examine things when the relations go a little bit sour, but I think it is something the Rangers are committed to doing. It is important to them just to be able to play those games.”

The Rangers will open the regular season in Prague against Tampa Bay while Ottawa will take on Pittsburgh in Stockholm, Sweden. There is no doubt that Jagr would have been the major drawing card in the Prague games had he remained with the Rangers, but the league will instead showcase the 2008 top draft pick, Tampa Bay’s Steve Stamkos, in the two game Prague series, while the Penguins’ Sidney Crosby will take center stage in the two games in Stockholm. The NHL games in Europe are all about selling the NHL brand in what is becoming a more crowded North American presence in Europe.

The IIHF wants a peaceful hockey world where the NHL and the KHL can co-exist and the game can grow globally. But to reach that end, the Radulov dispute has to be resolved, and so far, neither the NHL nor the KHL seems to have much interest in getting Radulov’s contract status or the transfer agreement settled, and that is a major problem.


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