Having failed in their bid to extort great sums of money from NHL teams with the emergence of phenoms Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, it appears Russian hockey czars are prepared to come in from the cold and sign a transfer agreement with their international colleagues, ESPN.com has learned.
Officials with the NHL, NHL Players' Association and International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) and representatives from member nations are expected to sign a new agreement this week at the World Championships in Moscow. The Russians are expected to rejoin the fold after refusing to sign for the past two years.
"I think they've pretty much been treated as outcasts for the past two years," one source familiar with the negotiations told ESPN.com Tuesday.
The Russians' decision to sign the agreement may herald a period of relative peace within the volatile Russian hockey world and should remove any potential quagmires for major international tournaments moving forward, most notably the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.
"To have everybody on board in a player transfer agreement is vital. The situation, when one important nation is not part [of it], creates an uneasy situation for everybody," IIHF president Rene Fasel told ESPN.com via e-mail Tuesday.
"On the other hand, the mandate of the Russian Ice Hockey Federation is to do things that are in the best interest of Russian hockey," Fasel added. "When they sign, they must feel that they are signing a deal which is acceptable for them. We are in a process where we are planning to extend our relationship with the NHL and that development could be affected negatively if Russia is not part of it."
Former Russian great and Hall of Famer Vladislav Tretiak agreed to a transfer agreement last August, but he was overruled by the powerful cabal of team owners in the Russian elite league. Russian team owners, believing their national league was being denuded of their best players by the NHL for inadequate compensation, had refused to sign the IIHF document hoping NHL clubs would pay exorbitant fees to bring Ovechkin, Malkin and others to their clubs.
However, the NHL's salary cap makes such payments illegal, and the penalty for working outside the cap is severe. Without the anticipated payments, the Russians were forced to try and extract money from NHL clubs by challenging the rights to players in court. But challenges relating to a number of players, including Ovechkin, Malkin and Alexander Semin, failed and left the Russian teams with nothing in terms of compensation and little option but to return to the fold where they will be entitled to the same payments as other member countries.
Under the terms of the new agreement, the payments will be more of a fixed fee as opposed to payments made on the basis of contingencies like whether a player plays in the NHL or in the minors.
The agreement will see the NHL pay between $10-12 million annually to the IIHF. The international body will then distribute the money to member countries based on how many players are selected and brought to North America by NHL clubs. That fee is split equally among the 30 NHL clubs.
"It's important to have Russia as part of the IIHF family because Russian hockey is key to growing the game, not only in Russia, but internationally," Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson said Tuesday.
Given NHL teams' victories in court, the new agreement isn't likely to have much of an impact on the day-to-day operations of NHL teams; but there will certainly be less hesitancy about selecting or signing a Russian player as there might have been in the past. This will also limit the potential for a player to bolt the NHL and return to play in the Russian elite league unless the NHL club agrees to such a move.
In the absence of a transfer agreement, for instance, Ottawa's Alexei Kaigorodov simply packed up and went home last season rather than accept assignment to the Senators' AHL affiliate in Binghamton. A transfer agreement would prevent a Russian team from taking him back unless the Senators (or the Phoenix Coyotes, who now control Kaigorodov's rights) agreed to the move.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.