Friday, December 28, 2007

Ice Hockey: The Russian Power Play

Ever since the de facto defection of Evgeny Malkin to the NHL in the summer of 2006, Russian Hockey has been fuming. Miffed at what they perceive to be too little money paid by NHL franchises in transfer fees for Russia’s best players, Alexander Medvedev and Igor Larionov, two of the primary movers and shakers of Russian Hockey, have been scheming in secret for a solution.

In the past two weeks, the secret has been unleashed. Russia is now proposing a European Hockey League to be run in opposition to the NHL. European teams, similarly frustrated by the low NHL transfer fees, are signaling their interest.

As a 33-year hockey fan, to this I say "Go ahead".

While the NHL will no doubt put a brave face on this proposal, secretly they are fretting, in my opinion for no good reason. With some of the best players in the NHL coming from other countries, it’s logical to think that the NHL would indeed worry. No team ever wants to lose their stars without compensation, precisely why the Russian scheme is on the table.

Yet the mere existence of European players in the NHL flies directly in the face of Commissioner Gary Bettman’s stubborn and quixotic plans to expand NHL market share in the United States. The NHL is arguably sixth in the pecking order behind the NFL, NCAA Football, the NBA, NCAA basketball and NASCAR in the United States. It probably isn’t helping matters when certain owners are forced to market foreign-born players with non-Anglo surnames to the slack-jawed yokels in the Deep South where Bettman insists there is a fan base.

You’ll pardon me for a quick interlude. Like most true fans of the NHL, I am not a fan of Gary Bettman. In many ways, the constant clunky changes he has made to the NHL during his tenure have destroyed the game I used to watch as a boy. Bettman has given us the Glo-Puck, the abolition of the 2-line pass and the "goalies-can-only-touch-the-puck-in-the-funky-trapezoid-behind-the-net" rule. On the flip side, the owners in the NHL love him, primarily because he was able to institute a salary cap for the league during the last lockout. While I’m not thrilled with the Bettman tenure, fans of the NHL better get used to him. With the support of an ownership group more eccentric than any other in professional sports, I have a strong feeling that he’s not going anywhere for a while.

Now back to our regularly scheduled blog post. Having seen hockey games in the South firsthand, I can tell you that these people are not watching hockey for the goals. They’re watching it for the hitting and fighting. It will more than likely make the marketing jobs in places like Nashville and Dallas that much easier if North American skaters claim the jobs left behind by European players going back home to play.

With regard to Russian players in the NHL, the time has long since passed when these players need to take a hike and go home. It is interesting that Russia would want to reclaim a player base from their own country that typically only give half-hearted efforts on any given night in the NHL. Too often, unlike the rest of their Eurasian counterparts, Russian players like Alexei Yashin have been picking the pockets of NHL owners based on scouted talent rather than effort. Yashin is now picking the pocket of his own countrymen. After over a decade of needless subsidy by the NHL, Yashin has now returned to Russia to grift his own people, for which the NHL is no doubt grateful.

An interesting side headline to this whole Russian plan is the amorphous involvement of Bob Goodenow, formerly the head of the NHL players union, the NHLPA. The plan currently on the table for the proposed European League calls for a salary cap, something Goodenow fought against as a union head. Time will tell how this particular wrinkle plays out in the coming months.

Europe has provided some great hockey players to the NHL over the past 4 decades, but the day of reckoning has arrived. With the current NHL now bloated with 30 teams and struggling for an American identity, a proposed league in Europe could end up being a boon for North American hockey as more NHL roster spots open up to skaters on the home front. It could just be the tonic that Gary Bettman has been looking for to cure an ailing league on the brink of marginalization in the United States.

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