Union says NHL didn't get consent for '08 Europe games

Updated: January 26, 2008, 11:18 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

ATLANTA -- The National Hockey League and the new head of the players' union have had their first public spat and it has jeopardized the league's plans to start the regular season in Europe again next season.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced Saturday plans to open the 2008-09 regular season with four teams -- the Ottawa Senators, the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Tampa Bay Lightning and the New York Rangers -- playing two games each in Stockholm and Prague.

The league also announced the Rangers will play European champion Metallurg Magnitogorsk from the Russian elite league in a one-game exhibition in Berne, Switzerland, for what will be known as the Victoria Cup. The International Ice Hockey Federation hopes the Victoria Cup will become an annual event.

The problem is the NHLPA hasn't seen final details on any of these games and has yet to give its final consent. Without the support of the union, the games could be postponed the new head of the players' union, Paul Kelly, told a handful of reporters Saturday afternoon.

"Is there a possibility that we may say this isn't good enough and it undermines those events? Yes, there's a possibility. We're not going to just be a rubber stamp," Kelly said. "Once we're presented with details for these events we'll study them carefully, we'll talk to the players. If the players approve, then there'll be no problem. But it won't be a mere formality."

The union has been aware of the plans for games in Stockholm and Prague for weeks now and Kelly told deputy commissioner Bill Daly late Friday the players were comfortable with the league's announcement, in general, that those games were going to take place.

But Kelly said he was taken by surprise when the league also announced the Victoria Cup exhibition.

"Did I know that they had the Victoria Cup on the drawing board and the Rangers on the drawing board? Yes I did. Did I know that they were going to announce it today? No I didn't," Kelly said.

"This kind of falls into the general category of: If they want the players' association to be a true business partner, then they have to include us in discussions about these matters at the earliest stages. We shouldn't read about it in the press and we shouldn't find about it after the fact," he said.

Given that the Russians have refused to sign an agreement governing transfer of players to the NHL since the end of the lockout three seasons ago, Kelly said he wondered if the NHL and its players should be in a hurry to play an exhibition game against a Russian club at all.

"We keep saying 'Guys, get us the details' because the devil is in the details. It's not good enough for [Rangers president and GM] Glen Sather to say that my guys are onboard. That doesn't cut it," Kelly said.

In the end, it would be a huge shock if the players refused to take part in these international events, because in general players have been supportive of international play.

But this is the first public clash Kelly has had with the NHL since taking over the post in late October -- and he publicly made the point that the union will take the league to task if the players feel they're not being fully consulted on joint issues like this.

"We're not just an afterthought. We're not just along for the ride," Kelly said.

Daly seemed surprised at the union's reaction.

"There seems to have been a breakdown in communication somewhere along the line. We felt the PA had specifically authorized today's announcement. We'll address it directly with Paul and try to make sure it doesn't happen again," Daly said in an e-mail message.

Provided the players consent to the games Pittsburgh and Ottawa will play games in Stockholm Oct. 4 and 5, while New York and the Tampa Bay Lightning will play in Prague on the same dates. The Rangers will play Metallurg Magnitogorsk Oct. 1 if the players agree to take part in the Victoria Cup.

The NHL hopes to show off some of its top players -- Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby, Ottawa's Daniel Alfredsson and Tampa Bay's Vincent Lecavalier.

New York's Jaromir Jagr would be the top draw in Prague.

Sather, the Rangers president and general manager, said his team is excited to be part of the trip.

"It's a chance to experience another culture, another way of life," he said. "You may never get a chance to do it again."

The NHL opened its current season in London. The Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks played the Los Angeles Kings before two sellout crowds at O2 Arena.

Alfredsson would be happy to play in his home country.

"I am really looking forward to it," he said. "There is going to be a lot of interest. Of course, us being one of the better teams in the league playing against Crosby, going against the face of the league, it's going to get a lot of attention."

Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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