MOSCOW, (RIA Novosti sports commentator Mikhail Smirnov). --The first round of the Eurohockey tournament, called the Ceske Pojistovny Cup is under way in the Czech Republic which is traditionally a token marking the start of a new ice hockey season in the Old World.
Its opening has always been eagerly anticipated and for obvious reasons. To this year's purely sports expectations are added different kinds of emotions, at least in Russia. Relations between Russia's ice-hockey authorities and the NHL have never before been in such a deep crisis. In essence, the sides are conducting a "cold war" or shall we call it an "ice war," that just yesterday seemed to have frozen over. Actually, the reasons behind the current crisis that culminated in Russia's refusal to sign a Player Transfer Agreement with the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) and the National Hockey League (NHL) are far from the sport itself. Hockey players have become valuable commodities therefore adding to a clubs' "bottom line" in terms of assets. Their value in terms of cash flow and its effect on a clubs' ability to conduct business have become incredibly important.
The Russian Professional Hockey League (PHL) says the agreement with the IIHL and NHL was not signed because it lacks clauses that are fundamental for Russians. First of all, they demand that NHL bosses acknowledge players' current contracts with Russian clubs and agree to let the clubs take decisions whether they want to transfer a player or not. The managers of Russian ice-hockey, admit though, that contradictions and inconsistencies in Russian legislation allow North Americans to totally ignore their demands. An example being, the Russian Labor Code permits any individual to quit a job after a two-week notice, and this alone would give NHL clubs carte blanche to draft Russian players for free.
Immediate changes in Russian legislation were pushed through by PHL vice-president Vladimir Shalayev at a emergency session of the Superleague's board, however, these changes are very doubtful. According to Mr. Shalayev himself, the State Duma has been unable to adopt a tiny amendment in the Law on Physical Culture and Sport just to delete a small line stating that relations between sports organizations and athletes are founded on the basis of the labor legislation. Should this amendment be enforced, there would be no need to demand that the NHL recognize players' contracts with Russian clubs. Valery Kuzin, deputy chairman of the State Duma's Physical Culture and Sports Committee, noted that adopting the amendment could be easier said than done, and he personally does not see any prospects for a quick solution of this issue.
The NHL saw and assessed the situation perfectly well. At any rate, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman made no specific promises during his recent emergency visit to Russia. However, he hinted that if the NHL recognized Russian contracts de jure, it would make no sense, in terms of the IIHF agreement. It would be naive to expect the owners of North American clubs to humbly wait for the termination of players' contracts with Russian teams.
It would have been impossible for him to predict that in the end yet another hockey power - the Czechs - would surrender and the stubborn Russians would confront the world's hockey monster, the NHL, in a face to face "ice war!"
Finally it came exactly to that. The Czechs, long-time Russian allies in this "war" with the NHL, drew their swords at the last moment. They demanded that overseas clubs should increase the minimum player transfer fee from $150,000 up to $300,000. The NHL yielded but only a little. Under the new agreement American clubs shall pay no less than $200,000 for transferred players. Mr. Bettman, in turn, forbade NHL clubs to accept Russian hockey players who have existing contracts with their home clubs. A player can be transferred on the condition that he has no contract or it is void. Besides, NHL clubs are categorically prohibited from negotiating transfers with Russian teams. There has been nothing mentioned about compensation on this point.
Under the current agreement NHL clubs have the right to transfer players from European countries which have signed the new agreement by the August 24 deadline. That means that any Russian player can be transferred any time.
Thus Russia is in a difficult situation. First, NHL clubs are legally not liable to compensate Russian clubs for player transfer. Secondly, they can lure players all year round. For example, the deadline for player transfer this year was August 24. After that those players who could not find an American club could stay in Europe. But this does not apply to Russians. "The transfer of Russian players to the NHL does not fall under the new agreement", the IIHL was explicit about that situation.
So it is highly probable that the Russian national team will be seeing more and more players crossing the ocean after each tournament. Under such conditions one can only guess how hard the coaches' job is going to be when they work with the national team for the Turin Olympics.
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