Alexander Semin played in Russia during the lockout even after the Capitals wanted him to play in the AHL. (Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)
Shortly after THN.com published comments from Kontinental Hockey League president Alexander Medvedev Saturday, somebody named “Kjetil A” emailed us with the following thought: “I submit that THN’s reaction here is somewhat naively hopeful.”
Well, “Kjetil A,” let me be the first to acknowledge you were absolutely right. In no way did we think the KHL’s proclamation - that it would be willing to go to binding arbitration in the case of Alexander Radulov and would not contest the NHL contracts signed by first-round picks Nikita Filatov and Viktor Tikhonov, along with three others – would create a panacea that would lead to harmony between the KHL and the NHL, but we did hopefully acknowledge that it might be a step in the right direction.
Wrong. The reality of the situation is that the NHL and KHL – along with the rest of Europe for that matter – are further away from having a system for an orderly and civilized transfer of players than ever before. And that’s not good, because it’s clear such a system is needed more than ever before.
Shortly after Medvedev said the KHL was extending an “open hand” to the NHL, deputy commissioner Bill Daly fired back with both barrels, essentially alleging the International Ice Hockey Federation doesn’t have the spine to stand up to Medvedev and that the KHL only made the concessions it did because it has no legal basis for its actions anyway.
The whole situation is a mess and it promises to get worse before it gets better. And, as is usually the case, the whole problem arises from selfish interests on both sides of the ocean. Until people who run hockey teams in the NHL and national federations in Europe start looking out for something beyond their own interests, there is little hope anything but chaos will continue when it comes to these battles over players.
The Canadian Hockey League owners make a ton of money on the backs of teenagers who make less per hour than the kid who flips burgers at McDonald’s, but they have found a way to live with the NHL raiding its ranks. Not so with Europe, a body the NHL is quickly finding more like dealing with seven individual federations than one.
On the surface, the KHL is taking a stand and its position is understandable. From its perspective, the NHL has been picking-off Russia’s best talent for years and as much as the NHL views Radulov as being under contract to the Nashville Predators, the Russians are as adamant that players such as Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Nikolai Zherdev were under contract when the NHL lured them away. The difference is that the NHL has court rulings – albeit U.S. court rulings – to back up their cases.
But the fact of the matter remains if there is a good Russian player out there, NHL teams will do whatever it takes to get him, regardless of whether there is a transfer agreement, regardless of his contract status and regardless of the ramifications to the rest of the league. NHL teams have always operated with their self-interests as the primary motivator and they’ll continue to do so.
When the NHL locked out its players four years ago, the Washington Capitals wanted to send Alexander Semin to the minors, which they had every right to do since Semin was two years into his three-year, entry-level contract. Semin refused to go and instead signed a contract with Lada Togliatti in Russia, was immediately suspended by the Capitals and played in Russia for the next two seasons.
When Semin returned to the NHL in 2006-07, he should have been forced to comply with the final year of his entry-level contract because he never fulfilled it and was suspended by the team for the two seasons he was in Russia. But somehow, that final season was ignored and the Capitals, knowing Semin wouldn’t have returned for entry-level money, managed to sign him to a new two-year deal despite the fact he had not fulfilled the terms of his first contract.
When you see things like that happening, can you blame Radulov – who was contractually in exactly the same boat as Semin – for bolting back home at the first opportunity? If the NHL isn’t going to respect its own contracts, how can it expect anyone else to do the same?
And this is the kind of attitude both the leaders of the NHL and IIHF find themselves up against these days. NHL owners talk a good game, but are happy to circumvent their own rules and try to do business on their own terms if it means they can get a star player. The KHL, meanwhile, seems to want to play by its own set of rules and has little regard for the IIHF. Other European federations see what’s happening and are starting to stand up for their own interests, as well.
And it has all created a large mess. The NHL has said it is consulting with the Predators and the NHL Players’ Association about the possibility of arbitration in the Radulov case and three others, but the league will continue to dig in its heels on this because the sanctity of its contracts is at stake.
Which is why, amid the chaos, sanity will somehow have to prevail and an agreement will need to be struck that is forceful, binding and not open to any kind of interpretation. Because when it comes down to it, nobody involved in this dispute can be counted upon to be compromising.
How they do it in the current climate of discontent is anyone’s guess.
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