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THN at the Olympics: KHL poised to offer Kovalchuk huge contract

Russia's Ilya Kovalchuk will find himself a very rich man no matter if he signs in the NHL or KHL this summer. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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Russia's Ilya Kovalchuk will find himself a very rich man no matter if he signs in the NHL or KHL this summer. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

VANCOUVER – The Kontinental League is poised to make a huge offer to future unrestricted free agent Ilya Kovalchuk this summer, while quietly working with the NHL to come to an agreement that would prevent it from poaching players who are under contract.

KHL president Alexander Medvedev said in an interview with THN.com and ESPN.com Saturday morning that SKA St. Petersburg, which is sponsored by the Gazprom company of which Medvedev is deputy chairman, will make an offer better than any NHL team can under the current CBA when Kovalchuk’s contract expires. If that happens, it will mark the first time the KHL has managed to lure a superstar player from the NHL in his prime.

Kovalchuk is due to become an unrestricted free agent July 1 and depending on where the salary cap is set, the maximum he could be offered would be about $11 million per season. Medvedev said that with the better tax structure in Russia for Russian citizens, St. Petersburg will be in a position to make Kovalchuk richer.

“The difference between 45 percent taxes and 13 percent taxes is substantial,” Medvedev said. “We could top that (NHL) money he would receive by a substantial sum. He will decide. We are going to negotiate with him and his agents what kind of agreement could be reached.”

Now that would be considered tampering if Medvedev were involved in the NHL because Kovalchuk is still under contract to the New Jersey Devils. The relationship between the NHL and KHL has deteriorated because there is no transfer agreement between the NHL and the European hockey federations and each has accused the other of poaching players who are still under contract.

And it does work both ways. Players such as Alexander Radulov and Jiri Hudler have jumped to the KHL, but the KHL is just as adamant that stars such as Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin were contractually tied to the KHL before they jumped to the NHL. This past season, Bryce Lampman left the KHL while still under contract to sign with the St. Louis Blues organization.

But that could all change in the not-too-distant future. Medvedev and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman have met on four occasions during the Olympics and both sides say there have been substantive talks. Medvedev has in the past said there have been positive discussions, but the league has had a far different and more negative view. This time, however, even people with the league described the meetings as “good dialogue.”

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If there were an agreement reached, it would likely be between just the NHL and KHL and would be exclusive of the International Ice Hockey Federation.

The issue of NHL players taking part in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi came up several times, but the NHL remains non-committal and likely won’t decide until a new collective bargaining agreement is reached after the 2011-12 season. But it’s clear Medvedev wants the best players in the world in his country in four years.

Medvedev said that both sides have agreed their differences on contractual issues will be put aside when it comes to Olympic participation.

“I’m assured that is not just a nice statement by Gary Bettman, it’s a policy we will pursue,” Medvedev said. “We will do everything from our side in our control to get the NHL to take the position that it will go. You can’t change the philosophy overnight, but at least we’ve had constructive discussions. We believe it is good to put aside the conflicting situations we’ve had in the past.”

That said, Medvedev adamantly stated that Ovechkin, Malkin and Kovalchuk will all be playing in Sochi, despite the fact Ovechkin and Malkin will be under contract to NHL. And if any or all of them decided to leave the NHL to play in the KHL that season, Medvedev was non-committal.

“If such a nightmare scenario will prevail, I don’t know how it will be settled, but I rest assured that these guys will play in (the Olympics),” Medvedev said. “They have said that nobody can forbid them to play for their own country in the Olympics.”

Ken Campbell is in Vancouver covering the Olympic hockey tournaments for THN.com. Read his other reports HERE.

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