Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Malkin: Growing The Game By Accident

With so much drama, the Evgeni Malkin saga has so many twists and turns about his whereabouts that it puts Waldo to shame.

Malkin- considered the best player not playing in the National Hockey League (meaning he’s either an amazing player or just marginally worse than Nikolai Antropov)- recently left his Russian Super League team Metallurg Magnitogorsk from their training camp in Finland and hasn’t been heard from since. According to his North American agents J.P. Barry and Pat Brisson, Malkin is “out of harm’s way” but refused to elaborate on anything else, heightening speculation he’s on his way to Pittsburgh to play for the Penguins, who drafted him in 2004. The Penguins are excited to bring Malkin on board, since it would give the team one of the NHL’s top centre combinations in him and Sidney Crosby, but Metallurg insists that Malkin finish the year he has left on his contract. Mettalurg’s director Gennady Velichkin stated that he will fight the Penguins with every legal avenue he can to combat their “sports terrorism” where they “steal people”.

At the centre of the dispute is the fact that the Russian Federation has not joined the European Leagues in the transfer agreement those leagues signed through the International Ice Hockey Federation and the NHL. The agreement calls for every team to be reimbursed US$200,000 per player, but Mettalurg says that Malkin is worth far more than that, and judging by the scouting reports, they may be right. The Russian teams want to do with the NHL what the soccer clubs do and negotiate separate transfer deals per player, which would probably peg Malkin’s cost somewhere in the millions, money the already cash-strapped Penguins can’t afford.

However, the issue runs deeper than Malkin’s services and the willingness of Mettalurg to let go of them. Scattered reports indicate that Russian entrepreneurs are interested in creating a “rival NHL” in Russia, and thus they are not too keen to let go of a player such as Malkin. The NHL already went through a similar soap opera with Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, and, if this dispute isn’t resolved soon, Malkin won’t be the last player to have difficulties transferring to the NHL. We are still a long way before the Russian League resembles anything like the NHL, but the prospect should not be laughed off, since teams may no longer wish to draft Russians anymore, unless they’re of the calibre of Malkin or Ovechkin (and even there this saga must impinge some hesitancy). Malkin, then, becomes the first step in Russia’s climb to an elite league and since the NHL doesn’t have an agreement allowing them to draft Russian players, the NHL doesn’t have the power to stop it.

While it may not yet be official, the creation of an elite hockey league in Europe is probably inevitable. It is only a matter of time before the NHL runs into a superstar who refuses to report to his team because he doesn’t want to leave home, and, after over 25 years of the best players leaving Europe for higher paydays in the NHL, it’s only a matter of time before the fans are fed up that the local sides can’t keep their best players. European fans deserve a chance to see their hockey heroes, especially Malkin, and with the growing international element of the game, it’s useless to expect major league professional hockey to stay on this side of the Atlantic. The Stanley Cup- it was determined during the lockout- isn’t the sole property of the NHL, and if a Russian League team has a chance to win the Cup, it should be given the opportunity. The game itself has become international, so it’s time for the Cup competition to reflect that- before the recalcitrant Russians force the issue.

The transition won’t have to be hard- the NHL can simply become a member of the IIHF and thus represent the North American wing, or- if the teams are even more daring- they can split into U.S. and Canadian divisions, divisions the league has been unofficially operating on for years. Sports in general have expanded their scope beyond the Canadian and American borders, mostly because the countries of Europe are finally operating on a level playing field with their North American partners. Gone are the days when everyone had to be in the U.S. or Canada for any kind of opportunities- those same opportunities and programs exist in Europe. The best teams don’t have to be in North America anymore, and that isn’t a bad thing- we live in a global culture, and the other world centres can certainly add to our own. European innovations added to hockey in the past, and who knows what new strategies lay in the future if the game is opened up?

Most likely Malkin’s becoming a Penguin, but the problem’s only going to get worse if the NHL doesn’t act. The game needs to grow past the North American shores- it’s time the NHL recognizes it before the Russians force them to.


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