SPORTS

Russia’s brawn drain

The NHL continues to lure the best of the East

MALCOLM GRAY January 22 1996
SPORTS

Russia’s brawn drain

The NHL continues to lure the best of the East

MALCOLM GRAY January 22 1996

Russia’s brawn drain

SPORTS

The NHL continues to lure the best of the East

Valery Gushin has skilfully negotiated Russia’s rough transition from communism to capitalism and landed in the executive suite. At 50, the former defenceman for Moscow’s Soviet Wings hockey club is now part-owner and general manager of the city’s Red Army hockey team, one of Russia’s bestknown sports clubs. But ——— Gushin is not content at the top, even in a spacious office adorned with black leather armchairs and photographs of celebrities ranging from Russian President Boris Yeltsin to Vancouver Canucks superstar forward Pavel Bure. That inscribed picture of the Red Army alumnus is, in fact, a constant reminder to Gushin that more than 100 players from the former Soviet Union are now boosting gate receipts in North America for the National Hockey League. And that,

Gushin says, is just another example of how Western entrepreneurs are grabbing Russian resources for small change. “The NHL comes here with tanks,” says Gushin, “and takes away our best players.”

Gushin has been the loudest critic of the 1994 agreement between the International Ice Hockey Federation and the NHL regarding the transfer of players to North America. But he is not alone, and in response to mounting com£

plaints, NHL governors last month agreed to boost their 1996 payment to the federation to $3.9 million from a planned $2.6 million; the annual fee will rise to $5.2 million by 2001. The league’s motivation is simple: former east bloc players now comprise about 15 per cent of the names on NHL rosters, and their availability enabled the league to add five new franchises since 1991 without the usual dilution in talent associated with expansion.

Still, NHL teams nearly backed away from the planned increase—thanks, ironically, to Gushin. Last October, in flagrant violation of federation rules, the Red Army boss signed Alexei Yashin, a disgruntled centre who was

already under contract to the Ottawa Senators. Yashin had returned to Russia after walking out of the Senators’ training camp in a salary dispute. Gushin used the ensuing controversy to make the case that Russian clubs deserved a better deal for supplying the NHL with players. But his grandstanding angered federation officials, who promptly

banned Red Army from lucrative games abroad until June. And NHL senior vicepresident and senior counsel Jeffrey Pash says Red Army’s disregard for international rules caused some NHL governors to reconsider the plan to increase transfer fees for imported players. “The teams’ general managers were outraged, and so were we,” Pash says. “It was a destructive action under the circumstances.”

Russia’s brawn drain dates back to the waning years of the Soviet Union, when the Big Red Machine began to sputter as the empire collapsed. The first major defection

came in 1989 when Alexander Mogilny, then a 20-year-old right-winger, signed a multimillion-dollar contract with the Buffalo Sabres. Mogilny, now a Vancouver Canuck, was followed by other stars, and Soviet clubs scrambled to get compensation for their promising players before they, too, skated away. With no rules to follow, transcontinental negotiations ranged from difficult to impossible.

Finally, in 1994, hockey’s governing bodies imposed a measure of order. Under the terms of their deal, the NHL is required to pay an annual fee to the International Ice Hockey Federation, which disburses funds to the various national hockey federations; they, in turn, pay individual clubs for the loss of players. The arrangement has provided guidelines, but it has not eliminated problems. Clubs in Russia—as well as some in Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic and other European hockey havens—complain that they get no compensation at all for players who, after being selected in the NHL draft, are then sent to the minors. “NHL teams sign up anyone they think might help them,” says Gushin. “This year alone, seven of our players were taken in the NHL draft, but all of them are still in the minors and we have received nothing for the years of training that we have given them.” The NHL has urged member clubs to return players to their European teams if they fail to make the big-league roster—just as clubs now do with Canadian juniors.

More money and better domestic organization could enable Russian teams to hang on to some of the star players that appeared on the country’s bronze-medalwinning team at the recent world junior championships. But the exodus of talent that has weakened the quality of play in Russia’s top leagues will likely continue. Yashin has re-signed with Ottawa—for $17 million over three years—and other Russian players will look west simply because the average NHL salary is more than $800,000 annually, compared with the $1,000a-month stipend that players get at home. As a result, the NHL can expect to reap the bounty of Russian hockey for years to come. And the league can expect to hear more from Valery Gushin.

MALCOLM GRAY

JAMES DEACON