MONTREAL - The Montreal Canadiens suspended Pavel Valentenko without pay on Friday after the prospect left the Hamilton Bulldogs of the American Hockey League to sign a three-year contract with Dynamo Moscow.
Valentenko was in the second year of a three-year, entry-level deal with the Canadiens organization, but opted to sign with Dynamo at the urging of his family, the player's Ottawa-based agent Rolland Hedges said.
The Canadiens made no further comment, but an NHL spokesman says the league has raised the issue with the International Ice Hockey Federation. Valentenko will also need clearance from the Russian Hockey Federation before he can play for Dynamo in the Continental Hockey League, known as the KHL, according to Hedges.
The NHL is currently without an agreement with the Russian federation on player transfers and the two sides remain at odds over last summer's signing of Nashville Predators' forward Alexander Radulov to a three-year contract reportedly worth US$13 million with Russian club Salavat Ufa.
Hedges said Valentenko did not want to return to Russia, but he supports his entire family on his hockey earnings and was unable to do that on an AHL salary.
With his signing bonus plus a salary of $62,500, he was earning about $150,000 per season with Hamilton, before taxes. Without revealing a salary figure, Hedges said he would earn "substantially more" and with no taxes in Russia.
"His goal was to play in the NHL, but financially, playing in the AHL wasn't cutting it," said Hedges. "He was very upset at doing this.
"He came over here to make the NHL. He didn't just run home. He had to do it. He knows he shouldn't have done what he did contractually, but he had to. It's not a Radulov situation."
Hedges said Valentenko has been supporting his family since he was 15, and took a pay cut to pursue his NHL dream when he signed with Montreal before the 2007-08 season.
After playing all of last season and the first four games of this season with Hamilton, he was given permission to return to Russia to attend to a family matter. He said the signing was not premeditated.
"His intention was to go home to see his parents and see what he could do," said Hedges. "When he got home, his father already had the deal done (with Dynamo).
"And if you saw the size of the deal, you'd see why."
The six-foot-two, 220-pound Valentenko, a fifth round draft pick in 2006, is a physical but low-scoring defenceman despite his booming shot. In 61 games for Hamilton, he had one goal and 17 assists.
The friendly 21-year-old had learned to speak good English and seemed to be adjusting well to North America.
He had a mediocre camp and failed to crack a Canadiens lineup that already had seven defencemen under NHL contracts. But he was among a half-dozen defence prospects in the organization considered to have NHL potential.
Valentenko's original Russian club Niznekamsk traded his rights to Dynamo after he left them to sign with Montreal.
The NHL and the Russians agreed to go to binding arbitration to settle the Radulov case, but the process is stalled because the Russians insist it be held in Russia while the NHL wants it to go to an international court in Switzerland.
The IIHF suspended Radulov from international play on July 18 and the Predators suspended him for the 2008-09 season on Sept 2.
"The only thing we're against is that he had a contract and we want our players to abide by their contracts," added Hedges. "But I understand why he did what he did."
The Canadiens retain their NHL rights to the player should he ever ask to return.