This past weekend one of the headlines in the mainstream hockey media was the defection of Montreal prospect Pavel Valentenko, who split the Canadiens AHL farm club in Hamilton to return to Russia to attend to a “family matter”, only to sign with Dynamo Moscow as soon as his plane touched down. On Monday, a second scandal erupted when it was revealed that Ottawa Senator prospect Alexander Nikulin, unhappy with the perceived lack of opportunity he’d been given by the Sens and smarting over the message conveyed to him by his agent that his coach saw no future for him in the organization, had delivered the ultimatum that if he wasn’t traded by the end of the day he was leaving for Russia.
The Nikulin story was mentioned — in varying degrees of detail — on every show on XM’s NHL Home Ice channel over the course of the work day on Monday. The general theme: The KHL is at it again, signing players who are under contract with NHL teams. Hosts Mike Ross and Phil Esposito, during Espo’s afternoon In the Slot program, even went so far as to speculate about whether an NHL team could or should lure a guy like Ray Emery away from his KHL team and back to the NHL as an example of turnabout being fair play. Their conclusion? No, the NHL wouldn’t do that because they wouldn’t want to jeopardize their standing on the Alexander Radulov case by signing a player already under contract with a KHL team.
While the KHL has been vilified in recent months for enticing players with NHL contracts — Radulov in particular — to return home to play in Russia, NHL clubs have quietly signed five young Russian players who were under contract to KHL teams since Radulov’s signing was announced the day after the two leagues agreed to stop poaching each others’ players. It might just be the NHL’s best kept secret (now that the truth is out about Rick DiPietro’s knee injury, anyway). While folks here in North America are up in arms about guys like Radulov, Valentenko and Nikulin breaking their NHL contracts to go home and play in the KHL, no one seems to have noticed that a handful of players have done the opposite, signing contracts with NHL teams despite having valid deals in the KHL. For those who missed it — apparently every credentialed member of the North American media — here’s the list of those players, the dates they were signed, and the NHL teams that signed them:
- August 27, 2008: Viatcheslav Voynov and Andrei Loktionov signed by the Los Angeles Kings
- August 29, 2008: Maxim Mayorov signed by the Columbus Blue Jackets
- September 22, 2008: Evgeni Grachev signed by the New York Rangers
- October 29, 2008: Alexander Vasyunov signed by the New Jersey Devils
Yes, that date is correct. The latest NHL “theft” took place only a day before news broke that Valentenko had signed with Dynamo Moscow.
In light of the fact that Ottawa GM Brian Murray was able to swing a late-day deal with Don Maloney to swap minor league defenseman Drew Fata for Nikulin, who now appears willing to stick stateside a little longer before taking his toys and going home, that leaves the current NHL vs. KHL score looking something like this:
NHL: 5 (Voynov, Loktionov, Mayorov, Grachev, Vasyunov)
KHL: 2 (Radulov, Valentenko)
Remind me again which league has the moral high ground here?
At the end of the day, I’m not particularly bothered by the fact that players are shuttling either way. As far as I’m concerned, for as long as the two leagues fail to hammer out a formal agreement that says otherwise, Vasyunov, who was getting little opportunity to play or develop in Yaroslavl, has as much right to seek out a situation that will help further his career as you or I do. Or Nikulin does. And Valentenko has as much right to return to Russia as you or I have to take a job closer to our own families (hey, it’s even better when it comes with a significant pay raise, right?) What I really object to is the hypocrisy being displayed by the media (and fans) in North America.
If you want to complain about the injustice or illegality of a player breaking their contract to play elsewhere, be my guest. But spare me the holier-than-thou, we’re right, they’re wrong bombast. Especially when your side is guilty of the same misdeed you’re railing against.
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