Russian players caught in conflict

Updated: June 21, 2004, 3:07 PM ET
By Jim Kelley | ESPN.com

It's a story no one seems to want to talk about but one that has significant impact on the upcoming National Hockey League entry draft:

If you draft Alexander Ovechkin, when can you get him and how much will it cost?

There are no easy answers.

Ovechkin, a left winger expected to be picked first overall, is so highly regarded he's already been billed by The Hockey News as the best player to come out of the Russian hockey system. That's enormous praise.

The hitch is he's under contract with Moscow Dynamo in the Russian League, and Dynamo isn't expected to give him up willingly. Couple that reluctance with the fact the agreement between the NHL and the International Ice Hockey Federation that governs the transfer of European players has expired and there are reasons to waive a red flag of caution.

To understand the implications, let's revisit some recent history.

The NHL/IIHF agreement expired at the conclusion of the World Championships in May. Under the old agreement, NHL teams could sign European players whose rights they owned even if those players were under contract to a European club. The NHL teams needed only to pay the negotiated fee, meet deadline agreements so that the signing would not disrupt the European team's season, and negotiate a contract with the player.

It's largely been a workable agreement. Over the last three years, roughly 185 players left European teams to play in the NHL. In return the IIHF dispersed $28.8 million in collected fees among its member federations. Last season, non-North American-born players accounted for one-third of the players on opening-day rosters. And as the pool has grown, the drain of talent from European leagues, especially the Russian League, has become noticeable.

Under the old agreement, Ovechkin's transfer fee would have been about $220,000. However, with a new agreement under negotiation, the Russian Federation is asking that the fee be increased to millions and threatening not to participate otherwise.

Without an agreement, just when and how Russian players would get to the NHL -- and at what cost -- is in doubt.

Mikhail Titov, president of Moscow Dynamo, told The Moscow Times that his team would like to receive in the range of $2.5 million to $3 million for Ovechkin. Vsevolod Kukrushkin, chief of the Russian Ice Hockey Federation arbitration committee, put the figure at $1million.

"To prepare a player like Ovechkin, a top talent, takes years of effort," Kukushkin said. "The NHL should be paying $1 million for a player like Ovechkin. That's the market value."

Who's to say Russia's officials are wrong? Ovechkin is big and fast, has great hands and vision, is an excellent skater and is viewed as an impact player in the mold of Ilya Kovalchuk, an immediate impact player with the Atlanta Thrashers who still has considerable upside. A player at that skill level can sell a lot of tickets.

Many NHL scouts maintain he can play in the league right now. Complicating matters is the fact he's under contract to Dynamo through 2006.

"If there were an agreement in place there is no issue," said Don Meehan, Ovechkin's North American-based agent. "A team could just sign him and the other contract would not be in effect. Without one, well, the only thing that's clear is that in Russia, right now, there are no rules."

Bill Daly, the NHL's executive vice president and chief legal officer, told ESPN.com that talks on a new agreement have begun, but it will not be in place before the draft.

Daly said the NHL will not negotiate a separate transfer agreement with the Russian Ice Hockey Federation and that it's up to the IIHF to get the Russians back in the fold. He also said it's uncertain how the situation will play out.

"I'd be speculating," he said, regarding Ovechkin's future status. "I understand he has a contract for another year and no one has given me information that it would be binding or non-binding with U.S. or Canadian courts. Certainly in the past, courts have been strict in that regard and we do respect circumstances surrounding those contracts that are legitimate.

"A club would have to be acting on information and legal advice if it were to ignore a contract, and I'm not making a judgment either way. If a club received factual information regarding the situation and legal advice that a contract might not be enforceable, it would certainly have the ability to try and (bring the player to the NHL)."

While Daly exercised caution, he didn't slam any legal doors, either.

Should the Washington Capitals, owners of the first pick, or another team draft Ovechkin, they might consider signing him immediately. Through players are considered under contract in Russia, oftentimes the wording of the contracts renders them invalid. In addition, contesting any Russian league contracts and taking advantage of not having a transfer agreement could save the drafting team money. On the downside, such a move could open the door to a variety of lawsuits filed by Russian teams in Russia and the United States or Canada.

The Russian Ice Hockey Federation has indicated it might challenge the move in court should someone attempt to sign Ovechkin without compensation, either to the Russian Ice Hockey Federation or Dynamo. They may or may not win, but they could perhaps delay his transfer for anywhere from months to years.

While an NHL team may explore and exploit legal loopholes, the NHL is forthright in its desire to forge a new transfer agreement with the IIHF and compensate federations for players. An absence of an agreement would free players to join the NHL without any compensation due their former teams.

Daly stressed that the agreement needs to be fair for all parties.

"We acknowledge an obligation to continue to feed the development of these leagues," he said. "They provide us with great talent. At the same time, the agreement needs to work for everyone."

Complicating the issue further is the expiration of the NHL collective bargaining agreement on Sept. 15. If there is a lockout, Ovechkin could decide to stay in Russia -- for good. With the rise in salaries in the Russian League in recent seasons and the potential for a more restrictive entry-level system under the new CBA, it could well be worth it for him to remain in Russia.

Losing Ovechkin at such a young age would be yet another blow to Russia's national program, as would losing Evgeni Malkin, a center projected to go second overall. Both players represent Russia's future in international tournaments -- Russia hasn't medaled in the World Championship since winning gold in 1993.

The Russian Ice Hockey Federation, which produces more high-end NHL players than most other European countries, want either an end to such losses or what they perceive as market value in return.

"We've been unsatisfied with this contract for a long time," said Andrei Mochkin, spokesman for the Russian Ice Hockey Federation. "We won't be taking part in the new contract if it remains in its current format."

Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.