Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Case of the Missing Russian Hockey Player

Innocently enough the story began ten days ago. Evgeni Malkin, the second overall selection in the 2004 NHL entry draft fired his agent, Don Meehan of Newport Sports Management. Malkin’s two month courtship with Meehan (one of hockey’s biggest agents) ended. Malkin decided he would again be represented by Pat Brisson and J.P. Barry, who bought IMG's hockey division last month. Brisson and Barry represented Malkin for several years but the Russian phenom left them in June to sign with Newport and Meehan, who also represents fellow Russian Alexander Ovechkin.

In the last ten days Malkin has gone missing, the Russian team he’s contractually obligated to play for, for the 2006-07 season is accusing the Pittsburgh Penguins of 'sports terrorism'. Once again the National Hockey League is capturing attention and once again it’s for all the wrong reasons.

Earlier this month, the Russian Hockey Federation after agreeing to sign a player transfer agreement with the National Hockey League in mid July, decided it wasn’t in their best interest to sign the agreement. The NHL imposed an August 1 deadline for the Russians to sign the agreement, the Russians refused.

Vladislav Tretyak (for the uninitiated Tretyak is a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame and considered a hockey icon) president of the Russian Ice Hockey Federation (RIHF), said the proposed agreement was not in the best interest of Russian clubs.

“We have been in constant negotiation with the NHL, trying to reach a fair deal, but unfortunately we were unable to fully take into account the interests of Russian clubs,” said Tretyak.

The Russians remain the only national hockey governing body to have not signed a working agreement with the NHL. IIHF president Rene Fasel has made it clear, there remains a very real possibility the Russians could be barred from competing in the 2010 Olympics if they don’t sign the agreement.

“There is a danger that if we do not find an agreement with (NHL commissioner) Gary Bettman, Russian players will not be allowed to play in Russia next year,” Fasel told reporters at May’s world championship in Riga.

Under the NHL’s collective bargaining averment, the NHL and NHL Players Association can prevent a player from taking part in a world championship without a transfer agreement in place.

Malkin had a two year contract with Mettalurg of the Russian Super League. Malkin (without the assistance of any agent) renegotiated the contract ten days ago, from a two to a one year contract. At that point it appeared Malkin would play one more year in the Russian Super League and then be free to join the Penguins.

Regardless of whether or not the Russian Hockey Federation reached a transfer agreement with the NHL, Evgeni Malkin was going to pursue his dream of playing in the National Hockey League. That makes perfect sense. Russia is a free and democratic society – holding people against their will ended in the early 1990’s.

Mettalurg are currently training in Finland. Saturday, Russian news agency Itar-Tass reported that Malkin had left the team, taken his passport, possibly obtained a Canadian visa and was reportedly on his way to the United States to sign a contract with the Penguins.

Initially his agent Pat Brisson and then the Penguins claimed they had no knowledge where Malkin was. That left the Malkin’s Russian team an opportunity to do all the talking – getting their message out to the media.

"I think he's in the process of getting an America visa or he's already here," said Slava Malamud, who works with the Moscow-based Sport Express, the largest sports publication in Eastern Europe.

"He could be signed with the Penguins in two weeks," said Malamud, who is based in Washington and just returned from Moscow after writing about Malkin's contract situation with Metallurg Magnitogorsk.

Gennady Velichkin, the general director of Metallurg Magnitogorsk made it clear to Reuters he was very upset – he’s ready to look for his pound of flesh whether its Malkin’s, his agents, the Penguins and the NHL.

"We've put so much resources, effort and money into Malkin's development as a player," Gennady Velichkin told Reuters. "He was our gold diamond, our prized possession. He had a contract with us. We were building the whole team around him and now he is gone. But don't think we will just sit there and do nothing. We will go to court to get what we believe is just compensation."

Velichkin offered an interesting analogy -- reminding Reuters European based soccer teams pay tens of millions of dollars in transfer fees when a player of Malkin’s ability moves to another team.

While the Russians have been asked to sign the same agreement every other national hockey federation has with the NHL, as far as their concerned (or at least Malkin’s team is) the NHL can’t put a gun to the heads of the Russian Hockey Federation and force the group to sign an NHL player transfer agreement.

As valid as it is for anyone to have the freedom of choice as to where they want to work (and let’s remember professional hockey players are working at their chosen profession), the Russians are right in suggesting the NHL is wrong in trying to circumvent the player transfer process to meet the NHL’s needs.

"They all like to talk about democracy, the American way, and then they shamelessly steal our best players. This is pure sports terrorism," Velichkin said. "Don't forget, Malkin is a young kid. He is still very naive, and it was easy for them to get into his head all that stuff about the American dream and how great the NHL is.

"The Pittsburgh owners are trying hard to sell the club, and the price would be totally different if they had Malkin. But you can't just take our best players and expect to get away with it."

While as the publishing of Wednesday’s SBN DailyDose (midnight) Brisson now admits he knows where his client is, but is refusing to say where he is. All Brisson is saying, the Malkin is “safe”.

Velichkin continued his verbal assault telling Soviet Sport:

"How am I supposed to look for him? What, am I supposed to ask Interpol to look for him? Is it not clear that Evgeni left for America at the invitation of the people overseas? The Americans' arrogance is beyond any bounds. This is the theft of the century. They don't care that Malkin is Russia's national treasure.

"We must sue not only Pittsburgh but the entire National Hockey League and its whole arrogance. The NHL must receive a total condemnation from the entire sporting world. Let's get back to the question of the compensation. ... Money is not most important for us. The most important [aspect] for us is to get a precedent and win the case."

The National Hockey League for its part remained silent, until Bill Daly, the league’s deputy commissioner answered an email sent by The Toronto Star’s Paul Hunter.

"Russian clubs need to understand the consequences of their reluctance to enter into a mutually acceptable framework for player transfers," wrote Daly.

Hunter sent Daly a second email, this time asking the NHL’s second in command to clarify exactly what he meant by “consequences”

"Continually losing players with no compensation."

Daly also spoke with The Pittsburgh Post Gazette, sending an even more ominous message, echoing some of the issues SBN has raised for several months.

"The days of involuntary servitude are behind us," Daly told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "We certainly respect the player's ability to make personal choices consistent with his rights and obligations under applicable law. And it certainly doesn't surprise us that he wants to play in the NHL. At the end of the day, players are going to play where they want to play."

In Daly’s final comments it is very clear as far as the National Hockey League is concerned whatever contract Malkin may have signed, isn’t legally binding as far as the NHL is concerned.

As for Velichkin's intention to take the NHL to court over Malkin, Daly wrote that he had "no idea what Magnitogorsk's current intentions are."

"At this point, this is a matter that is strictly between Mr. Malkin and his former team. We certainly support Mr. Malkin's right, however, to make personal decisions affecting his career."

Before this develops into anymore of an embarrassing situation, here a few recommendations all the parties involved should consider:

Evgeni Malkin should be allowed to play in the National Hockey League. However not until the 2007-08 NHL season.

The contract he signed for one more season with the Mettalurg of the Russian Super League should be honored, respected and fulfilled by Malkin

The National Hockey League and the Russian Ice Hockey Federation (RIHF) agree to negotiate a transfer agreement between September 1 and December 31.

If the agreement isn’t signed, not just verbally agreed to, but signed and enacted by January 1, 2007 the two sides agree that within 45 days both parties agree to submit their final positions to binding arbitration. Whoever the arbitrator is announces the agreement no later then March 1, 2007.

If it’s wrong for the Russians to hold Evgeni Malkin hostage it’s just as wrong for the National Hockey League to be putting a gun to the heads of the Russian Ice Hockey Federation. For the sake of all parties involved a fair and equitable solution needs to be found. If the Russian Ice Hockey Federation believes their athletes have greater value then the various federations who have already signed the agreement that is their right. Look for solutions to the challenges, if Malkin signs a contract with the Penguins it will represent a step backwards for the evolution of the National Hockey League.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited in this Insider Report: Reuters, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette and Soviet Sport