Russian teams aim to lure former stars back home
Players to be invited if strike halts games in North America
By MATTHEW FISHER
Most of the 70 or so National Hockey League players from Russia and other former Soviet republics will be invited to play in Russia's Superleague if the NHL is hit by a players' strike or a lockout in October, 2004.
The 18 teams in Russia's Superleague have begun discussing a system by which every team can sign either two or three NHL players if the NHL loses all or part of the 2004 season because of a labour dispute between the owners and the players' association.
"No number has been fixed yet but we are talking about this," said Alexander Steblin, president of the Russian Ice Hockey Federation and the Superleague. "As a fan or a team manager I would naturally like to see our Russian players back in the uniforms of the clubs they left."
Soviet hockey superstar Vyacheslav Tretiak said Russian fans, deprived for more than a decade now of the chance to see their best players play at home, were already excited over the prospect of an NHL strike.
"For hockey players it is important to play hockey so I think they will come," said Tretiak, who works part-time as a goalie coach for the Chicago Blackhawks. "If there is a strike, the longer it lasts the more players will come here. It may not only be Russians. Some Canadians might come, too. The Russian League has an open-door policy and that is good for Russian hockey."
Steblin cautioned that working out exactly how many NHLers would be allowed would involve some hard bargaining. The Superleague's poorest teams fear that those teams with money - Avangard Omsk has an almost NHL-like payroll of US$15-million per year - will end up with all the best players. There are also concerns over the cost of insurance.
"A rich club could take [Pavel] Bure, [Alexei] Zhamnov, [Alexei] Yashin, [Sergei] Fedorov and [Ilya] Kovalchuk. They could all end up on one team," Steblin said.
René Fassel, president of the International Ice Hockey Federation, said every hockey-playing country in Europe was already buzzing with anticipation at what an NHL strike might mean for their favourite local teams.
"They are all talking about it, especially in Russia, where the whole country would love to have a chance to see a player such as Fedorov," Fassel said. "It is expected that a lot of European and North American players will want to play in Europe if there is a strike in 2004. We have no legal way to forbid them from coming.
"If they want to play here, it will be great for European hockey. Some players came back during the last NHL strike [in 1994] and it really brought the fans out to the rink."
After a few very difficult years, Fassel said, Russian hockey was once again on a sound footing.
"As was seen at the recent world junior championships, it's amazing how powerful and skillful the young Russian players are," Fassel said. "For some years their development system was not working, but it's working unbelievably now."
One of the big changes is that, as in communist times, big money is again behind hockey, Fassel said. But this time the backers aren't in the Kremlin. They are staggeringly rich Russian businessmen such as Fortune 500 billionaire Roman Abrahamovich, who owns Avangard Omsk.
Omsk, Lokomotiv Yaroslavl and AK Bars Kazan are rumoured to be paying as much as US$1-million a year to a few players and as much as $500,000 a year to some coaches. A half-dozen Canadians, such as former Ottawa Senator Bruce Gardiner, now play in Russia's Superleague for about US$300,000 a year. The money has helped lure Russian players home from teams in Western Europe.
"Our hockey is better now because its centre has moved to Siberia, where there is a lot of money because there is oil and steel and big factories," said Tretiak.
However, with tickets only costing between $1 and $10 per game, with meager television money and with few Russian arenas holding more than 7,000 spectators, teams do not come close to breaking even. Ironically, the Moscow-based teams, who once boasted the elite players, are among the poorest.
"Poorer clubs cannot afford the better talent," said Sergei Kotov, coach of the Wings of the Soviet, which are now in 17th place in the Superleague. "It would be fairer and more interesting for the fans if all the teams had the same amount of money to spend. The way it is now the results are becoming predictable. The teams with the most money always win."
This is fine by Steblin. He hopes that more wealthy Russians will become Superleague benefactors.
"If oligarchs with billions of dollars wish to spend some it on hockey players, why not? It is their wish. It's a market economy. It's democracy."
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