Russians have yet to prove military obligation

Nikolai Zherdev scored his first National Hockey League goal on Thursday. It remains to be seen if it will be his last this season.

A conference call on Thursday did not clarify the status of the Columbus Blue Jackets winger, who is claimed to have fled from his military obligations in Russia. Progress, however, is being made.

NHL executive vice president Bill Daly arranged the call with the International Ice Hockey Federation, the Russian Ice Hockey Federation, the Central Red Army team (CSKA) and the Blue Jackets to discuss the player's status and possibly avert what could be a contentious arbitration hearing.

One of Zherdev's agents, believed to be Alexander "Sasha" Tyjnych, also participated.

"We had a conference call," Daily told ESPN.com on Friday. "There was a great deal of talk regarding concern for the well-being of the player. On the subject of military service, it was discussed a little, but in a situation like that, we didn't expect the documentation issue to be resolved and it wasn't."

Zherdev, 19, flew to Toronto on Sunday and gained permission to enter the United States at the U.S. Consulate in Ottawa on Monday. He debuted for the Blue Jackets on Tuesday against the Anaheim Mighty Ducks.

According to one NHL source, the Russian federation and CSKA, Zherdev's former team, were either unable or unwilling to provide conclusive proof that Zherdev is a conscripted soldier. A lack of that disclosure, along with the Blue Jackets' payment of a $100,000 transfer fee to the IIHF, caused Daly to initially rule that Zherdev was eligible to play in the NHL. A source close to the IIHF told ESPN.com that, because documentation was not presented, the issue will likely go to arbitration once the Russians prepare their case.

The inability to produce legal proof of Zherdev's status during the call generates suspicion about the credibility of the Russian organizations' claims, as well as about the documents themselves when they're eventually presented.

The agreement between the NHL and the IIHF, which expires at the end of this season, states "nothing in this agreement is intended to permit any player to avoid his country's obligation of compulsory military service," according to the IIHF's Web site.

Though he plays for the team run by the Russian army, Zherdev said he has never taken a military oath. Because he was born in Kiev, Ukraine, Zherdev is not a Russian citizen and would have to volunteer for military service. It's unlikely he did. The fact Russian officials allowed Zherdev to leave the country and did not ask border agents in Canada or the U.S. to stop him further weakens the validity of their claims.

Should the matter proceed to arbitration, the outcome likely will depend on the Russians' ability to produce valid documents of Zherdev's military status.

If they do, Zherdev would have to return to Russia where he could face desertion charges (at worst) or would serve a year in the military (at least).

If they don't, Zherdev could return to Russia anyway, so as not to jeopardize the future of other players in the country.

Considering recent events, there is a possibility that players in Russia, including current NHL draft picks and future draft prospects, will be pressed into military service -- either uniformly or arbitrarily -- or simply denied passports to leave the country. Both tactics could be used as a means of leveraging negotiations for a larger transfer fee in the next agreement between the NHL and IIHF.

Players like Alexander Ovechkin, the top-ranked prospect for the 2004 draft by Red Line Report, an independent scouting review, could see their stock drop if NHL teams fear they can't be signed and legally imported, or that their military obligation will be arbitrarily invoked. Such a development could cost a player like Ovechkin millions in earnings.

Zherdev's return could placate the Russians until a new agreement is negotiated between the NHL and the IIHF.

Currently, the $100,000 transfer fee for the release of European players from their club teams is split among IIHF members, instead of going directly to the player's club team or country.

When it became public knowledge in Russia that Alexander Svitov of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Stanislav Chistov of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, both first-round picks in 2001, signed NHL contracts, both were immediately hustled off from their club team in Omsk to military outposts. Both men eventually gained their release; however, sources told ESPN.com that the NHL teams paid additional funds to the club team that held their rights.

The implication was that the IIHF and the Russian federation were in agreement with the exchange of the negotiated fee with the NHL, but that the clubs wanted a bigger cut. That's not an unheard of practice in Russia, where many hockey officials argue that increased fees are the only way to recoup their investments and slow the exodus of talent to the NHL, a process that Russian clubs claim is destroying their nation's hockey program.

Regardless of the outcome of Zherdev's situation, it's likely the next agreement will address military obligation more definitively and adjust the transfer fee. While the NHL and its member teams would like to put a stop to backroom-type dealings, Russian officials would like a transfer fee on par with fees in other sports. The Russians have long pointed to soccer, noting that transfers of players from one country to another often produce fees upward of $1 million.

Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.