Tuesday, February 14, 2006

IIHF's Nabokov Mistake

Because the elite hockey league (the NHL) is in North America, most good hockey players come to North America to play hockey. Many stay and become citizens of either USA or Canada. This would be an unfair advantage to these countries (especially USA as 24 of 30 NHL teams are American) since they would be able to dress the elite players their country produces as well as those who come to the country and become citizens. The IIHF has tried to prevent this from occurring by not allowing players to jump from one team to another. The rule is that once a player plays in an IIHF tournament for a given country (thus allowing players who have citizenship with more than one country to select the country for which they will play), they are committed to that country and will play for that country alone in future IIHF tournaments. It is a fair rule that allows countries to keep "the rights" to their players even if they travel overseas and become citizens of different countries. It allows some of the weaker countries a shot at some of the "left over" players who would not be able to play for the stronger countries and have travelled overseas themselves. Most importantly, it prevents players with dual citizenship from "holding out" on one country when another country gives them a better offer.

One set of rulings they have made flies in the face of those ideals. Evgeni Nabokov of the San Jose Sharks was born in Kazakhstan. In 1994, he played for Kazakhstan in the World Championships (they were in the C pool at the time). So by those rules, Nabokov is a Kazak in international play.

In the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, Kazakhstan did not make the Olympics. Nabokov argued that he is a Russian citizen as well and should be able to play for Russia (who did make the Olympics). He argued that when he was born, he was born into the Soviet Union, and it due to the breakup of the USSR that he was unable to be on the Russian team. He was denied and did not play in the 2002 Olympics.

Responding to Nabokov's case, the IIHF changed their rules in 2003. They said that any player who plays for 4 years in a given country where he is a citizen can change his nationality in international hockey play. This would probably still prevent significant players from changing their nationality to Canada or USA because they would have to become citizens and then play on a team in that country for four years before they would be eligible to change citizenship (in principle this could lead to somebody like Alexander Ovechkin playing for USA in the Olympics before he is too old to be a useful player - which would circumvent the intent of the rule - but it is unlikely).

Now how did this address Nabokov exactly? It is not clear. He played for three years with Dynamo Moscow in the Russian league before coming to the NHL (actually he went to the AHL before the NHL). Before that he had played for two years with Ust-Kamenogorsk, which is a team in Kazakhstan playing in the Russian league. At that time, the Soviet Union had not fully broken up. Ust-Kamenogorsk was in the Commonwealth of Independant States - which was effectively Russia at the time. So he played five years in Russia, according to the liberal interpretation of the rules. So Nabokov was allowed to play for Russia in the 2004 World Cup.

There is potential for abuse of this rule. Imagine a player is born with dual Canadian and American citizenship (for example). Imagine they play for one country in an IIHF tournament. As long as they played as a junior, collegiate or NHL player for four years in the other country then they can change citizenship to play for the other country at some point. I think that circumvents to ideals behind the rules.

Now, in the 2006 Olympics Kazakhstan is in the tournament. They would be a much stronger team if they had Evgeni Nabokov in net. It might make for one more solid team able to give good games and possibly upset a favorite. Instead, Kazakhstan has to go with Vitaliy Kolesnik in goal. He is a solid goalie who made the AHL all star game (he was a last minute replacement on Planet USA who replaced Tim Thomas who was unavailable as he had been called up to the NHL), but the Kazak team would be much stronger with Nabokov in net.

I don't like the IIHF rulings where a player from a fledging hockey nation can change nationality after he has played for his country internationally, because his team doesn't make enough international tournaments for his liking (as in Nabokov's case). It also opens up the potential for other kinds of abuses - which likely we will see in the future.

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