KHL Maneuvers to Strengthen League with Kovalchuk and Hudler

Warren ShawCorrespondent IIApril 30, 2010

DETROIT - JUNE 12:  Sergei Gonchar #55 and Chris Kunitz #14 of the Pittsburgh Penguins defend against Jiri Hudler #26 of the Detroit Red Wings during Game Seven of the 2009 NHL Stanley Cup Finals at Joe Louis Arena on June 12, 2009 in Detroit, Michigan.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

With names like Jiri Hudler and Ilya Kovalchuk and rumors bouncing back and forth about them playing for teams in the KHL (Kontinental Hockey League) and the NHL (National Hockey League), it is obvious that there is growing tension between the two leagues.

Now that the Cold War is over and Russia has embraced capitalism in the purest sense, true global competition is emerging on the ice, both potentially changing the fortunes of teams in the NHL and further eroding an already imperfect collective bargaining agreement between the NHLPA and the NHL.

Before Mikhail Gorbachov and Glasnost ushered in a monumental change in our country’s relationship with the other part of the world, Russian and Czech players who wanted to compete in the best hockey league in the world had to defect to do it.

Players literally had to sneak away, sometimes leaving friends and family members to fulfill their lifelong dream of playing in the NHL.

Early defectors, like Vlad Nedomansky, Peter Statsny, and Sergei Fedorov, to name a few, will go down in hockey history for essentially making this new talent pool obtainable, if not accessible, in the then Soviet Union.

Nedomansky was one of the biggest stars in Czechoslovakia and was considered by some then to be the best player skating outside of the NHL. Nedomansky and a teammate escaped to the West in 1974 to sign with the defunct WHA's Toronto Toros. Nedomansky was vacationing in Switzerland when he decided to defect to the WHA.

Nedomansky scored 369 goals in 419 games for the Czech national team and was a 30-plus goal producer for the Red Wings when he came to the NHL. He also sparked the flame that convinced the Wings organization to go after Fedorov, Larinov, Konstantinov, Kozlov, and Fetisov.

The play of the Russian five changed the way every team recruited in the NHL.

Sergei Fedorov was drafted by the Red Wings and was one of the main reasons the Wings won multiple Stanley Cups and were named Team of the Decade by The Sporting News .

His elite skills made it difficult to develop defensive strategies, because when Fedorov came off the ice, Steve Yzerman went on it.

The KHL manifested within the new Russian economic system. Its creation was a natural progression as Russia struggled with doing business in a free enterprise environment.  

According to Wikipedia the league was formed in 2008 from a predecessor organization, the Russian Super League, and was a successor to the Soviet Championship League, which was founded in 1946 with five teams.

The KHL began operations with 24 teams, 21 of which are based in Russia.

The KHL has floated tax-free, and even rent-free, contracts to entice top players to come aboard. The problem is that the KHL has not exactly been a glowing financial success.

The league has a lower salary cap than the NHL, and according to some sources, several teams have been unable to pay players on time and fulfill their contractual obligations.

One of the reasons Detroit may get Jiri Hudler back in their lineup is the failure of the Moscow Dynamo, the team he signed a contract with when he left the Wings.

During the Olympic hockey tournament in Vancouver, Alexander Medvedev, the president of the KHL, made it known that his league plans to seriously pursue forwards like Ilya Kovalchuk when he officially becomes a free agent.  

Medvedev some time ago told ESPN's Pierre LeBrun, "Yes, yes, because it will be absolutely legal...It's understood with the leagues that if it's a free agent, or even a restricted free agent, they could decide where to play. So Kovalchuk has the full right to decide where to play."

"We are going to negotiate with him and his agents what kind of agreement could be reached."

Given Kovalchuk’s inconsistent performance in the playoffs as a member of the New Jersey Devils, it is possible the only team willing to fulfill his $100 million contract demands may be the KHL.

Medvedev's attraction to the two-time 50-goal scorer is apparent. His league desperately needs to add a player they can build the league around.  

Kovalchuk, similar to the WHA signing of Bobby Hull, would provide the marquee player they need to attract other players who are in their prime.

When Bobby Hull signed with the WHA, it provided the fledgling league with legitimacy it never would have been able to obtain otherwise.

Considering the unstable financial condition in which no team is making money, as well as the restrictions on rosters, it is imperative that the KHL engineer some creative moves to increase their exposure and improve their product.

The league is overseen, in part, by state-owned companies, which makes sense given running a for-profit hockey organization is a daunting task, even for those who have been doing it for 100 years.

And while the NHL still hasn't committed to the 2014 Sochi games, some of the top Russian players, including Alex Ovechkin, have already said they are taking part whether they have the NHL's blessing or not.

Ovechkin has since softened his tone, adopting a wait-and-see attitude.

So far, the best players to jump ship from the NHL to Russia have been, for the most part, players at the end of their careers.

Given how salary disputes have torn apart a number of teams that could have competed for the Stanley Cup, the arm wrestling between the NHL and the KHL cannot be positive for either league.

Ted Lindsay did not envision all of this when he went to bat for NHL players years ago.