As far as the Canadian Hockey League is concerned, top NHL draft pick Nail Yakupov still belongs to them.
The first-overall pick of the Edmonton Oilers had been hoping to spend his time locked out of the NHL at home in Russia playing for his hometown team, Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk, in the KHL. But the CHL and Hockey Canada see it differently, since he’s still under contract to the Ontario Hockey League’s Sarnia Sting.
“He hasn’t been released,” said CHL president and OHL commissioner David Branch. “It certainly caught those of us in the league office off guard because he suddenly was reported as playing in the KHL. We had no knowledge of that.”
Yakupov spent all summer telling reporters he wasn’t sure what his plans were, except that he wouldn’t go back to junior. In August at a press event in Toronto, he was directly asked if he would return to Sarnia.
"No,” he said. “Yeah, but just for a visit ... go to the rink and see my GM and coaches who have helped me and supported me for two years.”
The issue is with Yakupov’s International Transfer Card (ITC) – which he would need in order to play the season in Russia. At this point his ITC hasn’t been approved by Hockey Canada which prompted International Ice Hockey Federation to fine the Russian Ice Hockey Federation $5,200 (Can.) for allowing Yakupov to play in two games for Nizhnekamsk. The IIHF also informed the Russian federation to keep Yakupov out of competition or “risk stronger sanctions, including sanctions (suspension) of the player, pending the final decision of the IIHF's appeal procedure.”
“From where I sit, there was a request put forward under normal protocol by Hockey Canada (asking) is Yakupov released?” said Branch. “Well, no, he’s under contract to Sarnia and from there things seemed to flow.”
Late Wednesday evening, Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson released a statement saying the decision on Yakupov’s future rested with Sarnia.
“Hockey Canada cannot sign the international transfer card for Nail Yakupov until the Sarnia Sting club releases this player from his contract,” said Nicholson. “If Sarnia advises Hockey Canada that it has released the player, Hockey Canada will sign his transfer card.”
The Russian federation also has seven days in which to respond to the IIHF in regards to Hockey Canada’s claim that Sarnia owns his rights.
“If you’re the Canadian Hockey League you would want these players to honour their commitment,” said a source close to the situation. “Hockey Canada on behalf of the Canadian Hockey League and the Sarnia Sting is saying, ‘This is his obligation to play for Sarnia, so we’re not going to sign the transfer card.’ “
“That doesn’t mean he won’t be given a transfer card, it means that the IIHF has to go through procedures now to decide.”
The Edmonton Oilers assigned Yakupov to Sarnia on Sept. 15, but according to Yakupov’s agent Igor Larionov, the NHL club had no problems with him playing against bigger, stronger players in the KHL.
The Sarnia Sting have been publicly supportive of Yakupov’s decision, but in when it was suggested Sarnia had no problem with Yakupov playing in the KHL, Branch said that wasn't the case.
“In terms of Sarnia, that is not what they are telling us,” said Branch.
Sting GM and head coach Jacques Beaulieu said his team is just following the rules set forth by the CHL-NHL agreement and Hockey Canada. He said at this point he isn’t sure whether or not Yakupov would return to the Sting.
“We’d love to have him back,” said Beaulieu. “If he decides to come back we’ll welcome him with open arms.”
At the same time, however, the coach-GM said he would understand Yakupov’s disappointment if he had to return to the Sting for a third OHL season.
“We’re not in the business of holding people back,” said Beaulieu. “We’re in the business of developing hockey players and that’s what we’re paid to do. It’s unfortunate that he can’t play there right now (in the KHL) and we all hope for our organization and everybody’s sake that this gets rectified real soon.
“When you have your mind set on the National Hockey League and you’re making a good dollar – I’m sure he’s making a good dollar over there – I’m sure it’s going to be disappointing if he has to come back (to the OHL).”
But the fight over top-end European and Russian talent is nothing new for the CHL. The issue of transfer agreements being given or denied by various hockey federations happens every year with various CHL clubs. Over the last few years CHL clubs have found it easier to bring talent over from Russia as compared to some eastern European countries or Sweden. There is the thought, however, that the fight over Yakupov could make the situation tougher for CHL teams if the Russian Federation decides to retaliate and make it even more difficult for their players to play in North America.
“That’s their prerogative,” said Branch. “I think that just going back to the (World Hockey Summit) we had a few years ago it was clear that a number of the European federations are working hard to develop their programs to keep their players at home. So I think that’s all around the growth and development of hockey, but I’m not in any way concerned about repercussions.”