Friday, October 28, 2005

Alexander Semin: Russia vs. NHL

Much to the NHL's dismay, Russia has not signed the IIHF transfer agreement with the NHL. As a result, there is no formal agreement for player transfers between the Russian League and the NHL. There is no agreement that each league will respect each other's contracts. The NHL has tried several plays to try to force the Russians to sign - mostly by threatening Olympic participation. The latest NHL attempt to make life unpleasant for the Russians is the case of Alexander Semin of the Washington Capitals.

Alexander Semin was a Capitals first round pick in 2002. In 2003-04, he spent most of the year in the NHL with moderate success (he scored 22 points in 52 games). During the lockout year, he played in Russia for Lada Togliatti, despite the Caps having assigned him to play for the Portland Pirates (Washington's AHL affiliate). The Caps have fined him $1000 a day for failing to report (this now stands at a fine of over $350,000).

Washington wants to force him to honor his NHL contract and come play for them. He is staying in Russia and playing for Lada Togliatti instead. Semin claims that he has to honor Russian military commitments, so he must stay in Russia. This is a common tactic used by Russian players and the Russian Ice Hockey Federation in negoatiation.

The problem began with a still unresolved lockout issue. Exactly which players did the NHL lockout? Semin was clearly an NHLPA member (as were many people on two way contracts who were eligible to play in the AHL - and were thus assigned). Semin believed as a locked out player he could play wherever he wanted (and naturally he wanted to return to his homeland in Russia).

The Capitals are threatening to sue Semin to force him to honor his NHL contract. This lawsuit is bigger than this, they are trying to force the Russian league to honor all NHL contracts.

The best precedent in this case is Alexei Yashin. He held out on the Ottawa Senators (with a valid contract) in 1999-2000. It was ruled that if he played in the NHL in the future he would have to make up that year (and the rest of his contract) with Ottawa. Yashin was not fined in any way for his holdout. So should Semin play in the NHL, he will likely have to complete his contract with the Capitals with no fine.

Further, the NHL wants to threaten anyone else involved in the Semin case. He is being represented by agent Mark Gandler (the same guy who represented Yashin in his holdout). The Capitals are threatening to sue Gandler for Jeff Friesen's $2.28 million salary. They claim that when Semin did not show up this year, they had to acquire Friesen to take his place. This is a bogus claim. It is much more plausable that the Capitals had to acquire a player like Friesen so their payroll exceeds the salary floor. This is merely an attempt to threaten Gandler.

In the end, I think Russia has every right not to sign a transfer agreement with the NHL. The NHL should stop trying to strongarm them. If the NHL wanted to negotiate a serious agreement with Russia, they need to significantly increase player transfer fees. In the absence of an agreement, player contracts in one league will not be honored by the other league. This will lead to a few cases like Semin. Players on two way contracts will make far more money in Russia then they would in the AHL thanks to the $75,000 waiver rule. I see no reason that a player sent to the minors wont jump back to Russia. This is the bed the NHL made. They will have to live with its consequences. In the meantime, their bullying of Russia does nothing to bend bridges. It burns them instead.

TSN's story on this is here.

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