Thu, Nov 18, 2004 - Page 20 News List

Players from NHL find employment in Europe

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Czech ice hockey star and New York Rangers forward Jaromir Jagr, center, is welcomed by Russian fans and Omsk Avangard officials at the airport after his arrival in Omsk, Russia, Friday. Jagr left the Czech league to play with Omsk Avangard during the NHL lockout. He is said to be the highest payed player in the Russian league.

PHOTO: EPA

Money talks, in any currency, in any language, in any business, including a locked-out NHL.

While the warring sides are not discussing their bitter financial fight, monetary incentives are evident in the increasing exodus of NHL players to professional teams in Europe.

There have been no negotiations since Sept. 9; the lockout began on Sept. 15; the regular season was to open on Oct. 13.

According to the International Ice Hockey Federation, 276 NHL players have signed with European teams. That number would stock almost half the prestigious North American circuit, where 30 teams dress 20 players for every game.

The migration to Europe could be a factor in the negotiations toward a new collective bargaining agreement and it illustrates the changing economic dynamics of an increasingly global sport.

But the long-term ramifications are unclear, particularly in Russia, where talented players are working for surprisingly high salaries in a nation where capitalism is new and evolving. Could hockey be headed for a new world order?

"The Russian league has a lot of money, either oil, locomotive or car money," said Kevin Prendergast, vice president for hockey operations of the Edmonton Oilers, who scouted Russia for three weeks last season. Agents who are signing their players to teams in Russia, the Czech Republic, Sweden and other nations will meet in Chicago Wednesday for a lockout update from Bob Goodenow, the executive director of the NHL Players Association.

One agent, Jay Grossman, who is based in New York, has placed about 20 of his 35 clients with European teams. He said the NHL should not be surprised because the level of play has improved in the Russian league.

While discussing the European impact on the collective bargaining process in the NHL, Grossman said that in the past, when there was "Armageddon talk" about a season being canceled, there was always speculation that a new league in North America might challenge the NHL.

"But they don't have to have it because we're into a global economy right now," Grossman said.

Although top salaries in Europe are said to be about US$300,000 a month, much less than NHL stars earn, the job market there eases pressure on the union to capitulate to the league's demand for cost certainty that would reduce NHL wages from their current average of US$1.8 million a season to US$1.3 million.

The union interprets cost certainty as a demand for a salary cap. "There's dollars out there being paid to players, this has raised the bar," said Grossman, whose clients include Ilya Kovalchuk (Atlanta), Nikolai Khabibulin (Tampa Bay) and Alexei Morozov (Pittsburgh) have signed with Russia's AK Bars Kazan.

"When a team like Kazan comes knocking at the door, the players have no problem with it."

Kazan also has signed Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards of the Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning. Jaromir Jagr of the Rangers has moved from Kladno of the Czech league to Avangard Omsk of the Russian league.

According to the international federation, the Russian league leads in NHL players with 61, Sweden is next with 58 and then the Czech Republic with 51.

"It's all supply and demand," said Pat Brisson of the International Management Group, which represents Jagr. "It's a competitive environment." Most players have exit clauses in their contracts that would allow them to return to their NHL teams if the lockout is settled, although Peter Forsberg of Colorado has committed to a full season with MoDo in his native Sweden.

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