The NHL has opened negotiations with a new Russian-based professional hockey league to establish a temporary agreement to prevent either league from signing players under contract.
But until such a deal is reached, Continental Hockey League founder Alexander Medvedev has no problem with his teams using lucrative offers in an attempt to poach NHL stars, such as Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin.
"I believe the clubs have a free hand to do whatever they want," Medvedev told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Tuesday. "Legally, they have the full right to do so, because we have suffered in the past. We can't say, 'Look boys, it's morally not good without having an agreement. Don't do it."'
Medvedev, a member of the International Ice Hockey Federation council, described the NHL proposal he received on Tuesday as a start and will consider accepting it. However, it fell well short of the deal he said he's ultimately seeking from the NHL: a long-term transfer agreement, which would establish terms of compensation for teams that lose players to another league.
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly described the submitted proposal as a draft of a short-term understanding in which both leagues would agree to honour the contracts of their respective players. Daly added the NHL did agree with Medvedev to consider discussing a more detailed player transfer agreement, while noting such negotiations would depend upon the involvement of the NHL Players' Association.
Daly, however, contradicted Medvedev's view in regards to CHL teams currently being free to sign NHL players under contract. Daly said, "Mr. Medvedev, on behalf of the KHL, has already agreed to respect the valid and binding contractual obligations of players to NHL clubs."
The CHL, which goes by "KHL" in Russia, created a stir last week when it was revealed that several Russian teams intended to offer Malkin a multi-year contract worth at least US$12.5 million per season. Malkin has one year left on his contract with the Penguins.
Malkin's agent, J.P. Barry, confirmed his client received a lucrative "back-channel" offer to play in Russia, but stressed it was a deal Malkin had no intention of accepting.
IIHF president Rene Fasel has ruled leagues are required to honour player contracts even in the absence of a transfer agreement. He also threatened disciplinary action - including disqualification from Olympic play - against players switching leagues while under contract. The IIHF, however, has no disciplinary authority over teams and their leagues.
The NHL no longer pays a $200,000 transfer fee for signing a European free agent after its agreement with the IIHF expired earlier this month. Russia had pulled out of that system three years ago.
Medvedev called the $200,000 in compensation as too little, and he wants a new deal that would also prevent players under 21 from switching leagues.
He said he's frustrated that numerous European prospects spend time developing in the NHL's minor leagues when they could be playing professionally in their respective native countries.
Medvedev argued the NHL has not respected contracts players have signed in Russia, including Malkin.
Led by Metallurg Magnitogorsk, Russian clubs sued in October 2006, claiming that the NHL broke U.S. antitrust law and improperly interfered in their business affairs by signing away players, including Malkin, who were still under contract. Malkin was cleared to play for the Penguins only after a U.S. federal judge denied the Russians' claim.
"The NHL, for decades, has ignored our contracts. Why should we respect them without any agreement? There is no legal basis for respect," Medvedev said, noting his league will comply when a deal is reached.
Medvedev is deputy chairman of Gazprom, the world's largest natural gas refiner and distributor. He founded the CHL earlier this year as a successor to the former Russian Super League. The CHL will feature 24 teams and is scheduled to begin play in September.
Medvedev said his league has already signed three NHL players scheduled to be unrestricted free agents this summer: forward Chris Simon, defenceman Andrei Zyuzin and goaltender John Grahame.
Medvedev said CHL teams will have a maximum 25-player rosters, with five slots set aside for non-Russian players. Non-Russian goaltenders will count for two slots.