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NHL, Russians make progress, but still no transfer agreement

ZURICH, Switzerland - The NHL reached an agreement with a new Russian hockey league Thursday that temporarily ends the threat of players being lured away by big-money offers.

The pact to respect player contracts across all borders followed offers made last month by teams in Russia's Continental Hockey League - which begins play in September - to entice Evgeni Malkin out of the final year of his deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

It was reached at a meeting of the NHL, the NHL Players' Association and international hockey leagues in Zurich, the home of the International Ice Hockey Federation.

"Everyone in the room agreed that for the foreseeable future everyone will respect everybody's contracts," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said.

Players' union director Paul Kelly said all parties recognized the need for "clear respect between leagues."

The deal was brokered with Russian league founder Alexander Medvedev, who had given his teams a green light to approach players like Malkin.

Medvedev was nominated to the working group that will meet in New York in September in hopes of creating an international transfer agreement to replace the one that lapsed last month after six European leagues backed out.

Russia had withdrawn three years ago.

The group will also look at plans to globalize the game, including holding a World Cup in 2012.

"There is no sense to make a war," IIHF president Rene Fasel said. "Everyone agrees we could make a war very easily, but with no winner. The loser will be the game.

"Even if we don't have a transfer agreement today we have a very good understanding of each other."

The European nations - Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Sweden, Slovakia and Switzerland - also want an increase in the US$200,000 compensation fee they get when an out-of-contract player leaves for an NHL franchise.

The Continental league, known as the KHL in Russia, will have 24 teams - including one each in neighbouring Belarus and Kazakhstan - that can have five overseas players on a 25-man roster.

Daly said the NHL and KHL established a mutual understanding since meeting at the IIHF world championships in Canada in May.

"We don't view them as a threat," he said. "We still believe the best hockey players in the world will continue to want to play in the NHL.

"But having said that, they want to establish a new order and a new league that may one day be broader than Russia," Daly added. "It is an ambitious business plan and it looks like they have capable leadership."

With demand for players likely to drive up salaries, the NHLPA sees the Russian newcomer as a positive development.

"It gives some of our guys another place to play," Kelly said. "It gives them some leverage they might not otherwise have, which is to present to their NHL teams that they have a competing offer from a KHL team and maybe improve their bargaining position.

"And if a young Russian player wants to come and play in the NHL he should have the freedom to do so."

Kelly said he was having his first meeting with Medvedev, deputy chairman of the world's biggest natural gas supplier Gazprom.

"Alex is obviously a passionate hockey guy. He has some very firm nationalist ideas and that is also a good thing," Kelly said.

Medvedev left the Zurich meetings early but is expected at the Sept. 4 meeting in New York.

"We have an aggressive agenda," Kelly said. "It is time for us to tackle these difficult issues. Today was a real good first step."

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