There's a battle brewing between the NHL and Russia's top professional hockey league. And it could end with some of the best players in the world shirking their contracts to stay closer to home – decisions that could potentially involve International Ice Hockey Federation sanctions and Olympic bans.
Amidst rumours the Continental Hockey League (KHL) attempted to bribe high-profile stars such as Alexander Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk to persuade them not to return to North America, Russian oil baron and league president Alexander Medvedev told Russian media the players were not inclined to abide by a previous agreement to honour NHL contracts.
"The NHL's opinion of itself is so high. … Okay, let them get drunk on their greatness," Medvedev was quoted saying in SportsDaily.ru (in translations by Sport-Express reporter Slava Malamud) on Tuesday. "We'll see how many Euros look our way.
"A number of players have either decided to stay or are looking into it. …Our league will act according to our own and international rules. If players decide to stay, we will help them."
While Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin have already begun returning to North American in the aftermath of the lockout, Kovalchuk has remained vague on the situation and is now considered the biggest name likely to attempt to stay in Russia.
The 29-year-old winger signed a 15-year, $100-million (U.S.) deal with the New Jersey Devils in the summer of 2010, but is believed to be under enormous pressure to remain the centrepiece of the KHL with the powerful SKA Saint Petersburg team (owned by Medvedev).
"Not in a hurry to get to America. … Time will tell [if I stay in the KHL]," Kovalchuk told the Sport-Express newspaper Tuesday. "Nothing is out of the question."
Despite the fact NHL camps are likely to open Sunday, Kovalchuk played in a KHL game Tuesday, and has said he would like to skate in the Russian league's all-star game on the weekend.
He joins New York Islanders defenceman Lubomir Visnovsky as players with NHL contracts who have expressed interest in staying in the Russian league.
The KHL was formed in 2008, with the intent of creating a European super league that could compete with the NHL for talent. But to date, the North American league has won most of those battles and the two sides had previously declared a truce over players under contract.
In Washington on Tuesday, however, Ovechkin revealed a handful of the top Russian stars had met and discussed possibly staying in the KHL if the NHL's new collective agreement wasn't to their liking.
"If the deal was, if they're going to cut our contracts, probably I'll stay there," Ovechkin said of the conversation. "I have 10 years [left on his contract] and if they were going to cut my contract for five years and 24 per cent, I'd rather stay home and play for my family and friends."
Last October, Kovalchuk had expressed similar sentiments, telling Russia's Sportsbox.ru his decision to return to the Devils could hinge on if the NHL's new collective agreement would result in his salary being cut.
While the proposed new deal didn't come with an immediate rollback, it will likely result in players' salaries being shrunk over the next season or two via escrow payments, as the players' share of revenues is cut to 50 per cent from 57 per cent.
"Basically, I don't rule out staying in Russia in the case of a reduction of our salaries in the NHL," Kovalchuk said last fall. "I just don't understand why they needed to sign such contracts. Or they were just hoping to cut the percentage later?
"I believe that the contracts must be respected and this is a fundamental question. There's no way the head of the [NHL Players'] Association and the hockey players will agree on the wage reduction."
When informed of Medvedev's comments Tuesday, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told reporters the league didn't want to comment on the dispute.
"We have no response," he said. "We will see what happens."