November 12, 2009
It's not strange to witness political summits in Washington, D.C., and there was another one on Wednesday night when NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and KHL President Alexander Medvedev discussed the complicated and often bitter relationship between the two professional leagues.
I spoke with Bettman before and after the meeting, and with Medvedev after the meeting, which he had requested. The topics ranged from player transfer agreements to potential superstar defections to whether Alex Ovechkin(notes) and the Capitals will play in Russia against KHL clubs. Plus, an interesting conversation about Russians owning NHL teams.
First, here's Bettman prior to their meeting:
Q. How would you characterize the relationship between the KHL and the NHL?
BETTMAN: I think on a personal and professional level it's open and cordial. But we, for a variety of reasons, haven't been able to come to common ground on some fundamental issues.
How important is it to come to an agreement in light of player contract issues?
I think it starts with player contract issues. I think that if we're going to look forward and look for ways to cooperate, the KHL and the Russian Hockey Federation, from our standpoint, are going to need to respect our valid contracts. That's something to date hasn't happened, starting back to the Radulov contract.
Alexander Medvedev said it's a two way street, and there have been some contract [issues with] their players.
The KHL has alleged that repeatedly. In no instances the IIHF or the courts have found that to be the case. The fact is that we do respect contracts, and have done so consistently. And the KHL has not.
Mr. Medvedev also discussed owning an NHL team. Have you discussed it with him? He said he had expressed that interest to you, but he hasn't had a response from you.
He's never expressed that interest to me. I'd be interested to hear it directly.
How would you view a Russian [owning a team]?
I don't think a person's nationality, who seeks to be a perspective owner, is the issue. It's whether or not the person, when you do all the due diligence, see the financial resources, and the owners, because it's the owners' decision, determine whether or not the person would be a suitable partner. But it has nothing to do with country of origin.
KHL hasn't landed yet a superstar player. They obviously have their sight set on one. Do you see them as a competition for certain players, certainly Russian?
I think the best players in the world play and will continue to seek playing in the National Hockey League. We wish the KHL good luck. And I know they are going to work very hard to try and establish their league and bring it to the highest level that it can achieve. But the final analysis is that the best players will continue to play in the NHL.
You have mentioned that the IIHF hasn't found any wrongdoing when it comes to players with KHL contracts coming to the NHL, but the NHL is not part of the IIHF, and the KHL is. You can understand the Russians when they say that the IIHF's decisions are only binding on them and not the NHL. Do you see the transfer agreement being the issue just between the NHL and the KHL and maybe leave the IIHF out of it altogether?
I think it's an issue that goes to the respect of contracts. The KHL has acknowledged to us, for example, that the Radulov contract was valid. But nevertheless they allowed him to play. That's not something that we would do.
Now, here is what Medvedev had to say about his meeting with Bettman:
Q. You asked for the meeting with Gary Bettman yourself. How did it go?
MEDVEDEV: We already had a trip planned to North America on business. We decided to use this opportunity. I am very happy that NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and his assistant Bill Daly accepted our proposal for a meeting. We had a very constructive meeting. Its main result, if you use political terms, is that we decided to, as they say in English, reset and upgrade our relationships and to try and bring them to a new level.
There will be a compact working group created for this purpose. It will analyze all of the problems that have been accumulated, and will try to identify possible solutions to the key questions. That includes transfer of players of different categories between the leagues. We also talked about tournaments involving national teams and clubs. I think that a certain progress in our relationships is now visible. There signs pointing to that, although I don't want to be overly optimistic.
When is the next round of these talks scheduled?
Let the experts work for a while and create a menu for us. And from it we will pick what will turn out to be acceptable for everyone.
Is it a reality now that the Washington Capitals, for example, will travel to Russia now and will have a series of games against KHL clubs?
We talked about this topic as well. This is because the owner of the Capitals Ted Leonsis is interested in such a trip. And Bettman's position is that if this progress in our relationships remains, nothing will be an obstacle for games between KHL and NHL clubs. I hope we will overcome our differences.
Salavat Yulaef's GM Oleg Gross in his interview to Sovetsky Sport said that his club had an opportunity to invite Sergei Kostitsyn(notes), but the club decided to decline it as it would harm the relationship between the NHL and the IIHF. Is this the result of a new policy by the KHL targeting friendship with the NHL?
We haven't changed out position. Our mutual opinion is that we should talk more and reach a compromise. As I mentioned, we should reset our relationship and take it to a new level.
I know that the day before the game against the Islanders, you met with the Russian Capitals...
Yes, we had a meeting and spoke with Ovechkin, Semin and Varlamov. And this is the result that you see [Varlamov was in goal playing well and Semin scored the fastest goal of his career]. I really liked the game. It was very lively.
Finally, here is Gary Bettman once again, with his reactions to the meeting:
Q. Could you tell me about your meeting with Mr. Medvedev - how it went and if you accomplished anything?
BETTMAN: It was good to see Mr. Medvedev again. We had a cordial, constructive meeting. And we're going to look to see if we can sort of re-set the dial and look for the ways to work together on matters of common interest.
Is there a timeline?
We didn't set a specific timeline.
After you find some common ground, would it be possible to see an NHL team, like the Capitals for example, in Russia?
Well, when people and organizations work together, I suppose anything is possible.
You asked earlier about Mr. Medvedev owning an NHL franchise. I misunderstood the question. There was a general expression of interest. But I thought you were referring to a specific franchise. There was never a discussion of a specific franchise. Their questioning and their expression of interest was a general one.