Sunday, August 20, 2006

They’ve found the Missing Russian Hockey Player

They’ve found the missing Russian hockey player -- Evgeni Malkin. Malkin who left his Russian Super Hockey League teams’ training camp ten days ago during their Finnish training camp showed up safe and sound over the weekend. Malkin was in the loving arms of his agents IMG’s Pat Brisson and J.P. Barry resting in Los Angeles.

Malkin has resigned from Metallurg Magnitogorsk, (that bothersome Russian Super Hockey League franchise) something apparently anyone is free to do in the former communist country, even professional athletes. What a wonderful concept, an athlete decides he doesn’t like the team, he gives two weeks notice and he’s a free agent.

Is there a possibility this uniquely forum of Russian sports free agency can come to North America and even better can be applied to both a team and an athlete? Imagine what that would do to guaranteed contracts in professional sports. (Major League Baseball, National Basketball Association and National Hockey League player all ‘enjoy’ guaranteed contracts)

Malkin is now insisting he never meant to sign that one-year contract with Metallurg Magnitogorsk, he only did so under extreme psychological pressure. Malkin claims that he signed the contract at 3:00 AM after hours of intense non-stop pressure. His parents were standing beside Malkin during the entire experience.

Malkin who doesn’t speak any English spoke to selected ‘interested’ media outlets (both The Pittsburgh Post Gazette and The Pittsburgh Tribune Review). Malkin made his comments through interpreter Slava Malamud with Malkin doing the interviews from IMG’s Los Angeles offices.

"The next morning when I woke up, I called Mr. Barry and asked him to help," Malkin told Malamud according to a report in The Pittsburgh Post Gazette. "I was pressured very hard. I kept asking them, 'Why aren't you keeping your promise to let me play in America?' They did not want to listen. They just kept on with their arguments."

Once Malkin arrived at Metallurg’s training camp he left in the middle of the night to a planned rendezvous at what is being called a secret apartment where he met his agent J.P. Barry and one of his associates in Helsinki. If this is starting to sound more like a Tom Clancy novel then a sports story your understanding of how warped this story is quickly becoming would be correct.

"I'm very hurt. You cannot treat people like that. They promised me last year I would be free," Malkin told Malamud. "Now it turns out they're not going to keep their word while I am supposed to."

It would appear not only is Malkin feeling his experiences have been filled with psychological warfare, Metallurg team officials are feeling their own brand of mind over matter.

"My lawyers told me that the [fax] copy was not good," Gennady Velichkin, Metallurg's general manager told the Russian media over the weekend. "Several lines in it are not readable. . . . The lawyers are saying that this document is unacceptable. Even if we might assume that Malkin decided to ask for employment termination, then this has to be done legally. According to the law, Evgeni still has to work at least two full weeks, but he has been absent for five days already."

Velichkin is saying he has been faxed something from IMG, it may concern Evgeni Malkin, but he can’t seem to read it.

"When I told J.P. Barry that the notice is not readable and cannot be accepted as a document, Mr. Barry answered that they will write another one . . . and there is nothing you can do about it.' "

Barry might consider FedEx or another overnight courier. The courier costs are a business write-off. With the commissions Barry and IMG stands to earn after Malkin signs his first multi-million dollar contract he’ll be able to pay for overnight super express service.

Velichkin, has made it clear this battle isn’t over in fact as far as he’s concerned it has even begun.

"I will do everything to battle for the rights of our club and all of Russian hockey," Velichkin vowed. "They think they can steal our players and that all the hockey world works for the benefits of the NHL. They steal the future [of Russian hockey], make big money on our players, but those who trained the players, babied them, will receive nothing. Nothing will stop [the NHL] until somebody will teach them."

The Russian Hockey Digest website reported Friday that Velichkin had been given permission to spend Malkin's salary (more than $1-million U.S.) for legal costs.

The Penguins aren’t saying very much. However they did trot their new television play-by-play announcer Paul Steigerwald (Mike Lang who had been the Penguins TV voice for 30-years was fired on June 30).

Steigerwald, who must consider himself a budding NHL general manager (let alone the gall for offering any insight after replacing Lang, the Penguins longtime beloved voice) , had a great deal to say about Malkin, at least according to a report in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. Steigerwald believes Malkin is the second coming, the heir apparent to Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux.

"That's a bold statement, but I don't throw that stuff around lightly," Steigerwald said Friday, the day after Malkin appeared in Los Angeles. "I don't compare every guy with good reach to Mario, but after seeing video, (Malkin) reminds me a lot of Mario ... And he's more physical than Mario was at that age. He runs over people, makes long saucer passes and makes it looks like he's going to pass then shoot, shoot then pass."

"I think it's awesome (that it looks like he'll play for the Penguins)," Steigerwald said. "I think it's great for the organization, and it gets everybody excited about the entertainment value, the competitiveness and just the overall style the team can play with the added offense.

"It's going to make the Penguins far more powerful than they would be without him."

"I think people in Pittsburgh have no idea," said Steigerwald, who said he's already come up with the nickname "The Ev-Generator" for the Russian star. "And the international intrigue has made him a larger-than-life figure. A lot of people now are curious about him."

Malkin seemed to be feeling better as the weekend ended. He sounded a lot more upbeat in a report in Sunday’s Tribune Review then he did in Saturday’s Post Gazette interview.

"Definitely I never expected anything like that to ever happen to me, but life is full of surprises, good and bad, and this is one of those times," Malkin said. "This is life. Sometimes you have to accept things the way they go or try to alter your situation."

"After I had the contract signed, I felt so upset and I felt deceived by Velichkin," Malkin said. "I felt something had to be done about that, so I phoned J.P. the next day and asked him to help me to leave. I was so determined."

The ‘grey area’ in the picture Malkin continues to paint regarding his contract negotiations with Velichkin and Metallurg Magnitogorsk are the tactics used to get Malkin to sign.

"I was very much concerned about my family because I expected Mr. Velichkin to start making phone calls and be not quite polite with my family," he said. "I was also worried that lawyers would start calling and contacting my family trying to get them to sign any kind of documents which has already happened. They received calls and were asked to sign papers."

Forget about sounding like a Tom Clancy novel, Malkin’s next pronouncement concerning his negotiations might suggest he and Velichkin visited the Hanoi Hilton, the infamous American POW camp where American POW’s where forced to sign confessions under extreme physical and mental duress.

"I'm glad that I'm here," Malkin said. "I wish things could have been done in a different way, amicably. It's been a very difficult decision for me to make. But I knew that I had to do that. I do recall that Velichkin said if I leave that there can be a huge, huge scandal, which obviously has happened. But I do know that now that I am in the right place for myself.

"It was the only way, unfortunately."

Brisson and Barry aren’t saying very much but are believed to be planning their own legal action against the Russian Ice Hockey Federation. Velichkin has more then a million dollars at his disposable to fight Brisson. Irregardless of who wins, the ultimate victor is going to be the lawyers on both sides.

The ‘bigger picture’ implications remain essentially what they were last week. The NHL continues to make veiled threats to the Russian Ice Hockey Federation, suggesting in they either reach a transfer agreement with the National Hockey League or stand to get nothing when Russian hockey players move to the NHL. Two agents who work for IMG are suggesting they’re getting ready to sue a Russian Hockey team. The Russian hockey team is getting ready to sue the NHL, IMG and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

What remains obvious to everyone, other then those connected to this unmitigated disaster is their lack of understanding concerning the long term implications. Has IMG considered the damage and harm that might come to their reputation if this matter gets dragged into the legal system? Could the Evgeni Malkin battle effect IMG’s ability to conduct business in Russia and in Europe which could be a much more lucrative business? Does the NHL really want to be at war with the Russian Ice Hockey Federation? Certainly the Russian Ice Hockey Federation wants to be compensated for the development of hockey players who make it to the National Hockey League.

Clearly what’s missing in the Great Russian hockey player escape is a clear understanding of the issues on anyone’s part. Malkin’s assertions that he was forced to sign his current contract while under psychological pressure are laughable. If indeed, Russian law allows anyone to quit their job with two-week notice, the Russian Ice Hockey Federation better find a lasting solution. Enough is enough, find a way to make the case of the now found Russian hockey player Evgeni Malkin work for everyone.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited in this Insider Report: The Pittsburgh Post Gazette, The Pittsburgh Tribune Review