Inside the KHL’s ‘money for a roster spot’ scandal

In a radio interview in Russia last year, Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin said:

"You can say whatever you want, and everyone can talk very good. But if you look at what is happening in reality with our youth hockey, then the situation is a lot to be desired.

"When I was young, there were no people who came up and said: 'Here's the money for you, play my son, let him play and enjoy. And then we'll see.'  This is the worst. It's in the clubs, in national teams -- it's the same everywhere. And when I started playing for the national team, it was happening. Two, three people were there who 'had a pull.'  But now there are more of them. Unfortunately, in Russia money decides everything."

In the context of that corruption, a remarkable case has ended in Russia: One that led to criminal prosecution and a conviction for a manager of KHL's Severstal Cherepovets.

A 19-year-old player who was drafted by Severstal in the KHL Entry Draft two years ago claimed that he had to give up 50 percent of his monthly salary to secure a roster spot. The accused manager has maintained all along that the money was paid voluntarily and it went to other "less advantaged" players — those who made a lot less.

Dmitry Gromov, a 19-year-old Severstal player, went to the police in December last year with the complaint. The manager, Dmitry Popov, was arrested and, after signing a confession, was released pending criminal investigation. He was later charged under Article 159 of the Russian Criminal Code with "Swindling…by a person through his official position."

The confession stated that Popov indeed took the money from the player because "he assisted Gromov with signing a contract with Severstal."

But Popov later changed his story. Popov's attorney told Sovetsky Sport that the money was paid into a "pot" by Gromov along with another young player "with a large salary," the team's coaches and managers.

The money was then allegedly given to players playing for Severstal's junior team to compensate the "inadequacy" of what the highest paid young players and the rest were making. Popov attorney's comments that "the guys needed money not only for personal reasons…but also to pay for their university tuition" sounds as absurd as I have ever heard.

Just as absurd as Popov's statements that he "knew he was violating KHL's regulations" by paying some players under the table by taking money from other players in exchange for a roster spot. He added: "Of course there were tensions. Guys from Moscow, who are two years younger, come over and make 100 thousand rubles per month… And our guys make 10 times less."

Gromov, drafted by Severstal in the first round of the KHL draft, was making about 100 thousand rubles (just over $3,000) per month, in accordance with KHL's salary guidelines for drafted players. He had to give up 50 percent of that money to the unofficial "pot."

Popov claimed that the 50 percent was paid by Gromov voluntarily (something I have a huge difficulty to believe) and that he could have said no at any time. But Gromov told Sovetsky Sport this was not the case:

"I don't understand why I had to give up half of my salary. I did it voluntarily for a year. Popov convinced me that my 50 thousand [rubles] would help the team, although at the same time he promised that starting from the next season I wouldn't have to pay anything anymore. And I believed him.

"But at the end of September last year Zemchenko [another young player who was 'asked' to pay 50 percent of his salary into the pot] and I were invited to a meeting room after practice. We were told that we would still have to pay. Moreover, I was told that I had a debt of 150 thousand [rubles] for April, August, for the pre-season, and for September. I was shocked. Where would I get this money? I spent everything in the summer."

Yesterday, the court rendered its verdict. The hearing were very emotional and the tensions rose quickly Popov was convicted of a lesser offence, under Article 330 "Arbitrariness", and was ordered to pay a fine of 30,000 rubles and return 470,000 rubles to Gromov.

Before the verdict was announced, Popov refused to accept the guilt. He said, "I am not guilty. There was no other way for me to settle the situation within the team where due to this catastrophic difference in salaries between club's prospect and the 'outsiders,' created by the KHL regulations, there were problems. Coaches asked me to take action. And I did…"

The KHL is yet to issue a statement about this incident. A number of representatives of other KHL clubs have voiced their opinion that the Severtal incident is one isolated occurrence and it is not a widespread problem.

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