Lockout in Russia? Let’s hope not, says Kovy

There are a few issues Russian Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) and its player union will have to solve, but not one of them seems to be a catalyst for a lockout.

Thus union president Andrei Kovalenko.

According to the 43-year-old NHL veteran (Quebec Nordiques, Colorado Avalanche, Montreal Canadiens, Edmonton Oilers, Philadelphia Flyers, Carolina Hurricanes and the Boston Bruins), there are no insurmountable issues between the KHL and its player trade union (that’s how it prefers to call itself). And Kovalenko has been his union’s president since its inception in 2009.

“Our collective agreement expires after this season,” Kovalenko told Russian newspaper Sport-Express, “but we hope to have a new deal done by the end of next April.”

There will be changes in the KHL’s structure, what with the addition of several new clubs, including Finland’s Jokerit Helsinki and, possibly, Lada Togliatti. That, the KHL has been saying, would mean an increase in the number of regular season games.

As it is, the KHL has three clubs from outside of the former Soviet Union: Czech Republic’s Lev Praha, Slovakia’s Slovan Bratislava, and Medvescak Zagreb from Croatia. There are also several clubs situated in the former Soviet republics, such as Dinamo Riga in Latvia, Ukraine’s HC Donbass, and so on. That puts a strange emphasis on one of the trade union demands: cut the number of foreigners permitted on each roster.

There’s one more issue here that can have an impact. It would be a political impact of major proportions: the European Union looks askance at limitations put upon its member states’ citizens seeking employment in other countries that belong to EU. A few years ago, it told European soccer’s governing body, UEFA, to clean its act or else. Nobody spelt the “else,” as nobody needed to: the UEFA fell in line forthwith.

Granted, Russia is NOT an EU member. But the Czechs are. And the Slovaks are. And so are the Finns and the Croats. As it is, the KHL is skating on thin ice. It has European Union-based clubs as its members. These clubs now will have to decide by whose rules they are going to play. The KHL’s? They wouldn’t be able to run their business in their home countries. The EU’s? What’s the KHL going to say?

There is, of course, a bit of a way out: they can always claim they’re foreign entities, only playing under a Russian league’s banner. To them, if anyone is a foreigner, it’s the Russians.

If this goes through, lawyers on all sides will have a field day.

Everybody concerned says the relationship between the league and its union is not as antagonistic as seems to be the case between the NHL and its players association (NHLPA). After all, Kovalenko makes no secret of his close cooperation with league president Alexander Medvedev and sundry top league officials. In fact, some contemporaries view this relationship askance. It resembles the bosom friendship between then-NHLPA Executive Director Alan Eagleson and then NHL President John Ziegler too closely for comfort, they say.

But still, disagreements do pop up from time to time.

“I don’t think we’re facing a lockout like the NHL did,” Kovalenko says. “But we do see certain important issues that our players view as the principle of how to proceed in the future.”

Such as?

“Such as the number of games,” says Kovalenko. “We conceded a few points to the league during the Olympic season, but we’d rather not see these things repeated ever again.”

More specifically?

“Training camps opened July 15 for this season,” Kovalenko explains. “We had to move the date by about two weeks (because of the Olympics). We’d like to see it included in the new CBA that training camps will not open before July 20, just as it used to be. Our members don’t like trips that last too long, either. This season, clubs play four away games in a row. That’s because the schedule was compressed due to the Olympics. We would prefer three-game road trips as a maximum.”

But if there is one issue the league and its trade union haven’t been able to see eye to eye, it’s the issue of foreigners on team rosters.

League president Medvedev has hinted some time ago that the limit imposed on clubs would be raised for next season from five to seven. Russian hockey federation didn’t like the idea, and Kovalenko isn’t a particular fan, either: “To include more foreigners would be counterproductive. The foreigners would form cliques and clans within teams, endangering clubs’ team spirit,” Kovalenko argues.

Well, speaking of spirits, Kovalenko knows whereof he speaks: whenever he used to be on an NHL team with another Russian (or, Heaven forbid, more Russians), these guys would stick together even if they hated each other’s guts. And never mind such infamous affairs as Kovalenko’s overnight disappearance on an Edmonton Oilers’ California swing, with his countryman Boris Mironov appearing for the club’s bus departure even later, claiming he had been trying to find Kovalenko. In vain, of course.

But that’s water under the bridge now, and Kovalenko is strictly against players forming cliques and clans within their teams.

His other point seems more valid: “We have to think about bringing up our own young players. Personally, I would prefer a limit of two to three foreigners per team, and those selected based on their top levels of play,” Kovalenko insists.

That kind of thinking limps behind the NHL by a couple of decades. The North American league has adopted, however grudgingly, Glen Sather’s old dictum: “I don’t care where the guy’s coming from. He may be coming from Timbuktu, but if he knows how to play hockey, he’s my kind of guy.”

Kovalenko warns, recognizing he’s talking about the NHL two decades ago: “Only those foreigners who were tops could play. If they were on the same level as the locals, clubs preferred to have Canadians or Americans playing for them.”

This is a sore point for the Russian psyche: they are (and have been for the longest time) of the view that they are the world power. While they might be getting used to sad fact their importance in the world economy (and consequently politics) has shrunk somewhat, they wouldn’t accept even a hint of similar developments so far as their hockey goes.

So, where the debates over limits on foreigners will end is anybody’s guess.

And then there are a few minor issues. Such as how to dress properly for the game. Wearing your sweater tucked into your pants is frowned upon in the NHL, and Russian fans read in their media again and again how their beloved Alexander Ovechkin has suffered. The KHL uses a similar rule, except here, we’re talking about fines. SKA St. Petersburg is a prime example of how it works in the KHL. “The club had to pay four fines for four breaks in one single game,” says Kovalenko, with righteous indignation.

Except, the fines get steeper with each infraction. Where the first fine would come at 10,000 rubles (about $330 Canadian), the infractions that follow double the fines: 40,000 rubles follow 20,000 rubles, and so on, you get the picture. “Our players don’t like it,” says Kovalenko. “It may happen that the player is innocent, he just hadn’t noticed. We would like to convince the league, and the referees, that this isn’t an issue to lose sleep over.”

He’s right there.

But what’s going to happen if Russian players decide they want to get bigger pieces of the pie than they are getting now? That they want to change their league throughout, an astute business proposition as it is and has been, into something resembling a co-operative rather than a corporation?

Nobody would answer this question for the record, but – anonymously – all those asked agreed: this is Russia, not America, we’re talking about. We pamper our players better than Hollywood pampers its celebrities. What are the players supposed to do in return? Why, nothing spectacular. Just play hockey and keep their mouths shut.

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