Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The Cold War may be a thing of the past in a political sense, but the battle between Russia and the West is still alive and well in the hockey world.
This week, representatives of the NHL and KHL, among numerous other ambassadors from international hockey leagues, gathered in Toronto for the World Hockey Summit. One hot topic was whether NHL players will be allowed to skate in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, but another, more-pressing issue took center stage.
That topic was the ongoing battle between the world's biggest and best hockey leagues, the NHL and Russia's Kontinental Hockey League. Since the KHL was formed in 2008, the league has placed itself in direct competition with the NHL by attempting to lure players to Russia. How successful the upstart league has been in achieving that goal is up for debate, but it's clear that the KHL has at least drawn the attention of the NHL.
On the surface, the leagues appeared to be civil towards one another in Toronto this week, but just like in the Cold War, the real battles are raging behind closed doors.
Former NHL player and current KHL executive Slava Fetisov, a Hockey Hall of Famer, did his best to highlight the supposed goodwill between the warring leagues when he said, "We need the help to grow together. I think we need the relationship with the NHL. But in reality, synergy is not on at the top of the list for either sides.
NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly was more pragmatic in his assessment of current relationship between the leagues when he said, "I think, obviously, we have had some misunderstandings and disagreements and you only bridge those differences by continued dialogue. I think we have improved the level of dialogue in recent months and I hope that continues."
The real point of contention facing the leagues is that there is currently no transfer agreement in place between the NHL and KHL. Until an agreement is worked out regarding that issue, there are no rules of engagement when it comes to the KHL trying to lure players away from the NHL, or vice versa.
Up to this point, most of the NHL players who have decided to jump ship for the Russian league have been toward the end of their careers, but there is one name that keeps popping up as an example of the KHL's ability to draw talent away from North America. That player is former Nashville Predators forward Alexander Radulov, who signed a three-year deal with Salavat Yulaev Ufa of the KHL in the summer of 2008 despite having one season remaining on his contract with the Preds.
Both the NHL and the International Ice Hockey Federation condemned the signing, but without a transfer agreement in place, neither organization had any legal recourse to stop Radulov from leaving his NHL club. All the Predators could do was suspend Radulov for the 2008-09 season and lament the fact that they wasted a first-round pick on a talented player who decided his best career move was to play professionally in his home country.
Two years later, Radulov's exodus seems like an isolated incident but there are still no rules in place that could prevent another player from making the same decision. The very real possibility that a young player will simply pull ups takes and leave for the KHL has struck fear in the hearts of NHL general managers and possibly has led to only four Russian players being selected in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft over the last two years. After Radulov, a key question regarding any Russian prospect has been the player's desire to play in North America, something that is not as easy to gauge as whether or not a guy has the skill to be a success in the NHL.
As with the aforementioned issue regarding NHLers playing in the 2014 Olympics, the transfer agreement problem will not be solved before the NHL's current collective bargaining agreement expires on September 15, 2012 and there is a distinct possibility that the controversy will linger on even after a new CBA is agreed upon. After all, the KHL is a separate entity and doesn't have to bow to the NHL demands.
One hopes that cooler heads will eventually prevail for the sake of international hockey as a whole. While the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the U.S. went on for over 40 years, hopefully the NHL and KHL can find a more expedient solution to their problems.