The Kontinental and National Hockey Leagues don’t have a transfer agreement in place that ensures the respective leagues honour the other’s contracts. What they have is an understanding, which sounds suitably Godfather-esque. This memorandum of understanding simply lays out the expectation that the two sides will respect contracts – you have your territory and I have mine – without it actually being illegal for a player to bolt one league and play for the other.
That’s why when there were rumblings that some players were planning on staying in the KHL even after the lockout ended, there was some concern that they were serious and that the KHL and NHL were about to throw down. But now the only player still holding out is Lubomir Visnovsky, which pretty much precludes any chance of a royal rumble. Visnovsky is just not the kind of player for whom the KHL will fight.
It’s not that Visnovsky is bad. Far from it: he is a fine player. He had a disappointing year offensively last season, but he’s still just one season removed from 68 points and finishing 4th in Norris Trophy voting with 20 first-place votes. That said, he’s not a massive star by KHL standards, even though he’s had a good NHL career, has performed well for Slovan Bratislava during the lockout, and has had some solid showings for Slovakia in the Olympics and World Championships.
And there’s the sticking point: Slovakia. Visnovsky isn’t Russian, which makes it incredibly unlikely that the KHL, still predominantly a Russian league, will stick their necks out for him in a battle with the NHL. And yet, Visnovsky seems to think that he’ll be able to stay in the KHL as there is no official transfer agreement. Will the KHL make a fuss over Visnovsky, burning bridges with the NHL just one year before the Sochi Winter Olympics? Oh heck no.
What a change from a week ago. Remember? There were rumours that the KHL was attempting to bribe Alex Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk into staying in Russia, while league president Alexander Medvedev talked tough to the Russian media:
“The NHL’s opinion of itself is so high. … Okay, let them get drunk on their greatness,” Medvedev was quoted saying in SportsDaily.ru (in translations by Sport-Express reporter Slava Malamud) on Tuesday. “We’ll see how many Euros look our way.
“A number of players have either decided to stay or are looking into it. …Our league will act according to our own and international rules. If players decide to stay, we will help them.”
Kovalchuk added fuel to the fire, saying he was “Not in a hurry to get to America” and “Nothing is out of the question.” Combine that with his earlier comments during the lockout that he didn’t “rule out staying in Russia” and people started to worry. Kovalchuk is exactly the kind of player for whom the KHL would make a stand. Meanwhile, Datsyuk quietly stayed in Russia as well, while Andrei Markov made waves with the Montreal media when he continued to suit up for his KHL team after a tentative agreement was reached on a new CBA.
If Kovalchuk, Datsyuk, and Markov had decided to stay in Russia, Medvedev’s fighting words would have potentially meant something. Kovalchuk and Datsyuk have suited up for Russia in 3 Olympics, while Markov has done so for 2. Medvedev said that if players wanted to stay, “we will help them.”
But now, all three are heading back to their respective teams, with Kovalchuk and Datsyuk both playing in the KHL All-Star Game prior to doing so. Will Medvedev help Visnovsky stay in the KHL, without any of the Russian stars also staying put? Not likely.
Bill Daly (who tragically died on Five Year Contract Limit Hill last week), commented on the situation by saying, “The KHL has repeatedly said that they will not permit him to play, so I guess we will have to see what happens.”
EDIT: Not long after this was written, we saw what happened. According to Dmitry Chesnokov, the KHL has barred Visnovsky from playing until the matter is sorted out with the NHL.
Visnovsky travelled with the team on Monday to Prague and the team has a game scheduled today. It remains to be seen if Medvedev and the KHL will step in and bar him from playing. Visnovsky is still holding out hope that he can come to an agreement with the Islanders wherein they’ll allow him to continue playing in the KHL, but that seems unlikely considering how they handled the similar situation with Evgeni Nabokov.
Visnovsky’s position is an understandable one, though, since he still feels that the no-trade clause in his original contract with the Los Angeles Kings should have remained with the contract when he got traded to the Edmonton Oilers, then the Anaheim Ducks. Instead of playing out what might have been his final NHL season in California, where he spent the bulk of his career, he was suddenly told to uproot and head to the east coast. I honestly feel that it’s not that he was traded to the Islanders but that he was traded at all, particularly to a team on the opposite side of the continent. It makes perfect sense that he’d prefer spending the remainder of the season in his home country.
That said, it’s probably not going to happen. He’s not going to be the line in the sand for the KHL and will likely end up suspended by the Islanders if he refuses to report. That will leave nowhere for him to play professional hockey this season and his contract would, like Nabokov’s, carry over for the following season, leaving him to play for the Islanders for a full 82 games if he wants to continue playing professionally.