NHL, KHL still can't agree on much

Nicholas J. Cotsonika

TORONTO – Slava Fetisov fought to leave the Soviet Union so he could play in the National Hockey League. He finished his Hall of Fame career by winning back-to-back Stanley Cups with the Detroit Red Wings. In 1997, he helped bring the Cup to Russia for the first time ever.

Now he imagines bringing another prize back home.

“The main competition would be champion of the KHL and NHL playing for the Super Cup,” said Fetisov, chairman of the Kontinental Hockey League. “That’s my vision.”

It is a vision similar to others at the World Hockey Summit. Europeans want to be on par with the NHL, not trailing behind it on the other side of the globe, out of sight, out of mind. It is part dream, part defiance.

A progressive idea among North Americans has been an NHL division in Europe. Well, listen to how IIHF president Rene Fasel reacted to that during a Q&A session Tuesday at the Air Canada Centre.

“Try to come,” Fasel said. “Good luck. This is our territory, and I will fight like hell and not allow anybody to come from abroad. I think in Europe we are strong enough to do something on our own and then have the competition between Europe and North America. That makes the fan happy. That’s really what we should do.”

Fasel said having a European champion play the Stanley Cup winner “would be music.” The NHL is singing a different tune, however. Deputy commissioner Bill Daly said that while the league respects the IIHF, “we’re going to do what’s best for the National Hockey League and our clubs when and if we ever view that to be appropriate.”

At this point, a transoceanic championship is a far-away fantasy. The talk is so speculative that Daly included the words “when,” “if” and “ever” in his rebuttal. But it illustrates the feelings Europeans have about the state of the game as more immediate issues are debated, and it puts the NHL in a sticky spot.

It’s hard not to sympathize with the Europeans, as their best players leave home – at early ages, hampering their home leagues – to play overseas.

“My message here in North America: You are not alone in the world,” Fasel said. “Europe is existing on the other side, and they love the game as much. Give us some consideration.”

But the more Fasel said “it’s not a money thing,” the more it seemed like a money thing. And what is the NHL going to do, cede its spot as the world’s top league?

The Europeans, especially the Russians, want the NHL to help them develop so they can compete with the NHL. In the short term, it makes sense for the NHL to play along, because the European leagues are supplying them with players. But what about the long term? What if the European leagues are strong enough to keep those players someday?

Speaking of the Russians and the KHL, Daly said: “They view themselves, as you know, at the current time, the second-biggest and most successful professional hockey league in the world, and they want to work within that construct to get even better. They want to look to us to help to do that.”

Why is that in the NHL’s interest?

“That’s a good question,” Daly said, pausing to find the right words before continuing. “In isolation, or the broadness of that question, it probably doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to do that.

“Having said that, we do want to be good partners in the hockey world. We do get a significant number of players and good player talent from the Russian league, just as we do from other European leagues, and we’ve always tried to work with those leagues to make sure hockey remains strong in all areas of the world, because it ultimately benefits the National Hockey League.”

The NHL used to have a transfer agreement with the IIHF, allowing its clubs to sign players under contract in Europe for a flat fee. That agreement is gone. The NHL has struck agreements with individual countries such as Sweden and Finland, and Fasel said other countries will realize that “50 percent of something is better than 100 percent of nothing.” But the Russians want more.

Fetisov said the KHL wants a partnership with the NHL after years of rocky relations. The sides signed a memorandum of understanding this year to respect each others’ contracts. The NHL will play games against Russian league teams for the first time in two decades this preseason when the Carolina Hurricanes face SKA St. Petersburg and the Phoenix Coyotes play Dinamo Riga.

Still, at the same time, the Russians are trying to bring home their stars – signing free-agent goaltender Evgeni Nabokov(notes), for example – and won’t let their future stars leave without a fight. If the NHL wants a player of the caliber of Capitals star Alex Ovechkin(notes), the Russians want proportional compensation.

“First of all, we came here to show we’re going to do everything in our power to protect our league, the clubs, and not let players go almost for free to play anywhere else,” Fetisov said. “Money is not what we want right now. But in the future, if you want to get a good player, you have to pay.”

And so the partnership between the NHL and KHL is in its infancy, at best. Daly said the games between the NHL teams and Russian teams represented “a baby step.” He said the relationship between the leagues was improving, but “you have to walk before you can run.”

The Europeans, especially the Russians, have a lot of growing to do before they will be able to compete with the NHL. The KHL has some money to sign some players, but not enough economic power to rival the NHL. Daly doesn’t seem worried. He said the sides have had no specific conversations about bringing KHL teams to play NHL teams in North America, let alone for a Super Cup.

“I think with time that’s certainly the environment they’d like to see happen,” Daly said. “I continue to believe that the National Hockey League will be the premier professional hockey league in the world for the foreseeable future and the best players in the world will continue to want to play here, and that’s certainly been the case to date. I expect it to continue to be the case.”