Sunday, August 27, 2006

Robbing Russia!

An interesting story from the National Post this weekend, a different point of view of the great Russian migration to the NHL of the last few years.

Former Team Canada and NHL head coach Dave King, takes the side of his new employers and suggests that the NHL is robbing Russia of their best players and considers the current agreement between the IIHF and NHL to be a pittance. He points out that the money returning to Russia is split among all the teams in the system, thus his team ends up with 10,000 dollars for their development.

While the Russian teams are spending millions of dollars refurbishing their stadiums and organizations, the big name players end up leaving resulting in less interest in the sport and fewer folks attending the games.

It makes for an interesting look at the issue from the other side of the negotiating table, added by the knowledge of the way things are done on this side of the ocean.

NHL robbing Russia, according to coach King
Teams paid 'a pittance' for developing stars such as Malkin
George Johnson in Calgary, CanWest News Service

Published: Saturday, August 26, 2006

Dave King is in need of a couple of centremen. Size, jaw-dropping skill and oodles of charisma are basic requirements.

Any interested parties, kindly drop him a line at the Romazan Ice Sports Palace. Immediately.
"Our rosters are frozen on Sept. 5,'' sighs the former coach of the Calgary Flames. "We just lost two of our top guys at centre. That's a cavernous hole down the middle. Imagine San Jose losing Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton.

"So we're kind of scrambling right now. It's tough at this time of year to find players not committed to teams. You go to a supermarket here looking for fresh fruit, you'd better be there at 8 a.m.

"Well, we're looking for fruit at 4 in the afternoon.''

It certainly has been a testing couple of weeks for the King and his current employers, Metallurg Magnitogorsk.

First, phenom Evgeni Malkin ditched Metallurg in Finland at its training camp, inciting a firestorm of controversy and ill will that promises to marinate a long time.

Then, on Thursday, another standout player, Alexei Kaigorodov, left to join the Ottawa Senators.

"Kaigorodov leaving was a shock, more so than Malkin,'' says King. "I don't think our guys were bowled over when Malkie left, just disappointed. They understand his desire to play in the NHL. But there had been a real sense of excitement when he extended his contract with us. The players were like 'Yeah, Malkie's staying!' So when he did leave, it kind of took the air out of our balloon a bit.

"That day at customs, as everyone else was running around trying to find him, I just sat on the bus. I knew it wasn't a case of his being unable to find his boarding pass. I knew he was gone.''
The Russians are right to oppose the current IIHF-NHL agreement that will net their federation a paltry $200,000 for such a unique talent as Malkin.

"And that figure,'' King reminds you, "is split between all the teams here. Which means $10,000 to Metallurg Magnitogorsk. A pittance, when you consider the time and money spent developing him.''

King says the ramifications of young superstars leaving goes far beyond any fee paid out.
A few years ago, in an effort to revitalize Russian hockey domestically, the Super League asked all teams to either build new facilities of 7,500 seats or more, or refurbish existing arenas, upgrade concessions, etc.

"We've almost finished a brand new $40-million facility. We spent $4-million building a new dormitory for the players. When you're spending that kind of money trying to upgrade your facilities and enhance your product, it's difficult to lose a top guy. Those types of players help you win games and championships and drive revenue.

"Teams are trying to generate sponsorship, there's an effort being made to bring in sponsors to televise games on TV. When the star players keep leaving, that makes selling yourself awfully tough.''

The insults and accusations have been flying since Malkin performed his disappearing act, eventually resurfacing in L.A. (Newport Beach sure beats the hell out of Magnitogorsk!)

King won't be drawn into that sort of shrill politicking. It isn't his style. But there's no mistaking his opinion that the current agreement has to be changed.

Quite frankly, the NHL has come across in this whole messy situation as heavy-handed, arrogant bully-boys, using their prestige and financial resources to pillage product. A player under contract, no less.

A ridiculous Russian law that allows any worker to void a contract by giving two weeks notice may make their coup legally valid, but it nonetheless remains morally bankrupt.

"I'd imagine if the shoe were on the other foot, and we or some other league were throwing big money to lure the NHL top young players away, they wouldn't be very happy about it, either,'' says King.

According to King, the eventual departure of top Russian talent is taken for granted. The money and the bright lights of the NHL are simply too tempting. But, he says, the objection is to players being taken at 18, 19 or 20. Or being scooped up, then dropped in the American Hockey League to fill out rosters when they, and the Russian teams, would be better served by them staying put.

"Every young Russian player enjoys playing in the Super League, but they dream of playing in the NHL. That dream is very much alive here. Nobody will argue that. When a player like Kaigorodov leaves, someone who's played here for five years, no one begrudges him his chance. In fact, once he made his feelings known to us, our team said he was right to leave for Ottawa.
"But at 18 or 19 ...''

When soccer prodigy Robinho moved from his home country Brazil, and his Santos club team, to superpower Real Madrid, the Spaniards forked over 30 million euros ($42-million).
Comparing the revenues and worldwide popularity of hockey to soccer is unfair, of course, but it's pretty easy to understand why the Russians feel cheated.

"The NHL has to find a way to create a win-win situation,'' cautions King. "Right now, it's win-lose. All one way.

"The development of players in European leagues is in their best interests, too. Unless the leagues here are healthy financially and competitively, that development will be compromised.

"A win-lose situation can only go on for so long.

"Then it becomes lose-lose.''

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