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    Crisis in Russia-NHL relations: finding a solution

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    MOSCOW, August 12 (RIA Novosti sports commentator Mikhail Smirnov). -- The crisis in relations between top Russian and NHL hockey managers has reached its peak. Before long it will be clear how it will end, but already now it can be said that unless the sides make major concessions, something they refuse to do so far, one of them will celebrate a Pyrrhic victory, with the victors pausing to ponder the price they paid. Hockey worldwide is now so integrated that no one can afford the luxury of ignoring the interests of any of its members, especially such influential ones as NHL or Russia.

    The Russian Professional Hockey League (PHL) explains its refusal to sign a collective contract with the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) and NHL by saying it omits provisions of vital importance for Russians. The first thing they are demanding is that NHL bosses recognize the existing contracts of players with the Russian clubs and agree to clubs handling player transfers. However, senior Russian hockey officials themselves admit that contradictions in Russian domestic legislation allow the North Americans simply to ignore this demand. The Russian Labor Code, for example, grants any person the right to give up one’s job within two weeks, and this alone, should the agreement be not signed, will give a trump card to NHL clubs in securing Russian club players for free.

    Any immediate changes in Russian labor legislation, so eagerly looked to at an emergency board meeting of the hockey super league by PHL Vice President Vladimir Shalayev, are, however, unlikely. He himself said that it is four years now that the State Duma, the lower chamber of the Russian parliament, has been trying to make a minor amendment to the law on physical culture and sport — to delete the line saying that relations between sports organizations and athletes are based on labor legislation. Then, in Shalayev’s view, everything would click into place, and there would no be need to demand that the NHL recognize players’ contracts with the Russian clubs.

    Now this is becoming the moot point at negotiations. The NHL, too, is aware of that. Its commissioner Gary Battman, during a recent flying visit to Moscow, made it clear that if the NHL recognized the Russian contracts de jure, then the IIFF contract would lose any relevance. It would be naïve to expect North American club owners to wait patiently until players’ contracts with the Russian clubs expire.

    NHL bosses will similarly treat another demand of the Russian side: the player’s right to return to Russia if he is sent to an NHL team farm club. No one there is going to create an easy life for Russian players, and if the coach decides to downgrade a player, nothing will stop him.

    So discussions may continue only on two remaining conditions set by the Russians — increasing the compensation sum for any player from $150,000 to $350,000 and cutting the duration of an NHL contract from five to three years. Incidentally, the Czechs, too, who have not yet signed the collective contract, are limiting their requests to financial compensation. So a crucial round of talks in Zurich on Friday between NHL and IIHF representatives, which will also be attended by President of the Ice Hockey Federation of Russia Alexander Steblin and Vladimir Shalayev, will have a hard time discussing laws regulating the global hockey community. –0-

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