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Monday, November 16, 2009
The story on a young, brave Russian kid


The story of Kirill Kabanov is one of a young man who has already shown tremendous character in his 17 years on earth. But it's also the global hockey story of the continued struggle between Russia and the NHL and the chaos created by not having an orderly transfer environment.

And, as this story will tell you, more often than not, it's the Russian hockey establishment that is coming out on the losing end of not having a working agreement with the NHL, not the other way around.

Let's get to Kabanov's story. All he wants is to play in the NHL, whether the people who run hockey in his native country like it or not.

"The NHL is like heaven for young Russian hockey players," Kabanov told ESPN.com on Monday. "Like Alex Ovechkin, he's a big star. That's why I came over here. I'm excited. I just want to play in the NHL."

Kabanov is in New Brunswick with the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's Moncton Wildcats. He's there, he says, because of the Kontinental Hockey League in his native country.

"They wanted to keep me in Russia for like 10 years," said Kabanov. "They gave me no choice."

The Moscow native has been projected for months to be a top-five pick in next June NHL's entry draft. The 6-foot-3, 176-pound winger has oodles of talent, which made him a hockey prodigy in his early teens.

Moscow Spartak came calling when he was only 15 years old, in 2007 signing him to a five-year contract with a salary that escalated to almost $1 million in the final year. His father negotiated the deal. These were the days of the old Russian Super League.

This is where it begins to get interesting.

"Since Kabanov desired to play in the NHL as soon as he was ready to compete at that level, his father insured that his contract contained an 'NHL out clause' allowing him to unconditionally leave Spartak at any time to play in the NHL, even in the absence of a transfer agreement [with the NHL]," Kabanov's agent, Scott Greenspun, told ESPN.com.

At the end of the 2007-08 season, the Russian Super League was disbanded and the new KHL was formed. In order to play in the KHL, Kabanov had to sign a new KHL contract with Spartak.

"Spartak initially refused to give Kabanov a new contract with an NHL out clause," said Greenspun. "Kabanov refused to sign with Spartak and, instead, began to explore opportunities to play in Sweden and Germany, where there was considerable interest. Spartak, obviously concerned that Kabanov would not return to the club, induced Kabanov to sign a new four-year KHL agreement by ultimately agreeing to include the NHL out clause in that contract."

So everyone goes home happy … but not quite. Soon after the new contract is signed, the KHL judges the NHL out clause in Kabanov's contract invalid.

"And the KHL took upon itself to unilaterally remove that clause from the contract and deemed Kabanov unconditionally bound to play for Spartak for at least the next four seasons," said Greenspun.

After the 2008-09 season, Spartak sold Kabanov's rights to fellow KHL club Ufa for $500,000.

"Under KHL rules, Kabanov and Ufa had to sign a new contract as a result of the trade," said Greenspun. "Kabanov and his father therefore traveled to Ufa to discuss his contract status. A standoff occurred. Kabanov refused to sign a contract without assurances from Ufa that he could leave Russia at any time to play in the NHL, and Ufa refused to include such clause in Kabanov's contract because the KHL adopted a strict policy of restricting player's rights to leave Russia and play in the NHL."

Ufa offered a three-year deal with no NHL out clause, which would mean he couldn't cross over to the NHL until September 2012 at the earliest, and it's a deal that likely would have affected his NHL draft status for next season with teams likely hesitant to waste a high pick on him given his contractual status in the KHL.

Unable to figure out a new deal with Ufa that includes an NHL out clause, Kabanov returned home to Moscow and began the process of transferring his career to North America with the Wildcats, the Canadian junior team that selected him in the 2009 Canadian Hockey League import draft.

In the meantime, life at home in Moscow wasn't grand, with local media critical of Kabanov.

"Ufa gave him a final ultimatum," said Greenspun. "Report to Ufa immediately and sign a three-year contract without an NHL clause or Ufa would petition the KHL to disqualify him from playing in Russia for the next three years."

According to Greenspun, who also represents Alexei Kovalev among other NHLers, it was clear that the KHL was using Kabanov to send a signal to other young Russian players thinking of leaving Russia to play in North America.

Unfortunately for the KHL and its president, Alexander Medvedev, they misjudged Kabanov's fortitude.

On Monday morning, I contacted the KHL's North American-based spokesman to see if I could get Medvedev's take on all this but was told later in the day that the KHL president was out of pocket and unavailable for comment.

"Kabanov did not blink," said Greenspun.

At this point Kabanov formally applied to the International Ice Hockey Federation for permission to play Canadian junior hockey and immediately left Russia to start working out in Moncton while awaiting the IIHF's decision.

"The chess game continued," said Greenspun, "with the KHL holding its internal disciplinary hearing. While the KHL has not yet announced its decision, the result of the hearing is not in doubt."

In a New York Times blog in late August by hockey writer Jeff Klein, Medvedev indeed seemed to tip his hand.

"The disciplinary committee will consider the case," Medvedev said. "I do not want to anticipate their decision, but from the circumstances that are familiar to me, no choice remains beyond Kabanov being disqualified for an unprecedented violation of league rules."

So at this point, Kabanov really needed the IIHF to come through for him, because he's risking a three-year ban in Russian hockey. He needs somewhere to play.

"In its submissions to the IIHF, the Russian Ice Hockey Federation and Ufa explicitly indicated that a decision allowing Kabanov to play for Moncton could affect KHL-NHL relations," said Greenspun.

The irony is not lost on anyone in the hockey world. The initial Cold War between the NHL and KHL began when star winger Alexander Radulov left a valid contract in Nashville two years ago to play in the new KHL. The KHL in total has poached four players with valid NHL contracts.

In the end, Kabanov got the decision he had hoped for from the IIHF on Oct. 9. He could play in Moncton.

"After a lengthy investigation by the IIHF's legal department, it was found that there was no evidence that [Kabanov] was under a valid and binding contract with any Russian club at the time when he applied for the International Transfer Card [ITC]," IIHF communications director Szymon Szemberg wrote to ESPN.com in an e-mail Monday.

"This means that he was a free agent, free to sign with anyone."

A further appeal from the Russian Ice Hockey Federation was also overruled by the IIHF.

When Kabanov was informed of the IIHF decision, he was over the moon.

"I was very excited, I called my mom, my girlfriend, my father, my grandparents -- they were excited, too," said Kabanov. "But I thought for sure that is how they would decide. I was right."

Kabanov didn't waste any time impressing folks in Canada, putting up 14 points (5-9) in 11 games with the Wildcats, further cementing his ranking as a top prospect for next June's NHL draft.

Then the bad news. As if this kid hasn't been through enough already, Kabanov has aggravated an old wrist injury. Pending further medical tests this week, he might need surgery which would knock him of action for several months.

"I'm waiting for the final decision from doctors, I don't know what will happen," said Kabanov.

Who knows what this will do to his draft ranking, but people who have watched him play in Moncton will tell you he's going to be a star in the NHL.

In the meantime, the KHL must wonder at this point whether its efforts to sign young Russian prospects and keep them away from the NHL is really working. There seems to be more Russian kids in Canadian junior hockey than ever before. Why? Because they don't want their road blocked to the NHL.

Last week Medvedev met with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman in Washington. Perhaps this will be the first step in finally developing a better working agreement between both leagues. I think it's a long shot at best.

In the meantime, the chaos will continue and young men like Kirill Kabanov will be forced to make life-altering decisions at 17 years old. Makes no sense to me.