Happy times nearing in KHL-NHL relationship?

November, 12, 2009
The news release Thursday from the Kontinental Hockey League read like a 1970s Cold War communiqué:
    "KHL Statement on Meeting Between President Alexander Medvedev and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman

    On November 11, Alexander Medvedev, the President of Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), met with National Hockey League (NHL) Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly in Washington, D.C., prior to the game between the Washington Capitals and New York Islanders.

    The parties exchanged their positions on issues of relations between KHL and NHL, including but not limited to, transfers of players with different status, National team level competitions, including Olympic Games and World Championships, club level competitions and the future of the European-based Champions Hockey League.

    The two sides reached an understanding of the need, using political terminology, to reset and upgrade their relationship. As a result, moving forward, designated representatives of the KHL and NHL will work in a spirit of collaboration to thoroughly analyze all issues between the leagues and identify mutually acceptable and beneficial solutions.

    The results of such work will be reviewed by the Leagues' leaders during their next meeting, scheduled during the Vancouver Olympic Games in February 2010."

In other words, are we about to see a détente in the hostile relationship between the NHL and KHL?

I'll believe it when I see it.

But for what's it's worth, Bettman, Daly and Medvedev did meet in a quiet room at Verizon Center in Washington before Wednesday night's Islanders-Capitals game, and they even watched the first period together.

"It was constructive," Bettman told ESPN.com on the phone from New York on Thursday. "It was good to see Alex again. Last time we had seen each other was in Rome a little over a year ago. We agreed that it would be good if we could find some areas of cooperation where we could work together, and we were going to see if we could begin that process by trying to find some common ground."

When I last spoke with Medvedev a few weeks ago for a piece I did on the KHL, the Russian hockey league president said he would meet Bettman anywhere at any time. Well, he got his wish Wednesday night.

From where I sit, there's a little more at stake in this for Medvedev. His battle with the NHL has backfired somewhat despite the modest success of his second-year league. Because of the lack of an international player-transfer agreement between Russia and the NHL, fewer Russian players are getting drafted, and those who are being drafted are generally going lower.

In the meantime, when a prized prospect like Kirill Kabanov (a projected top-five pick in the June 2010 draft) tells the KHL to stuff it and comes over to play Canadian junior hockey because he wants to chase his NHL dream, you know that Medvedev, whether he wants to admit it or not, perhaps realizes his showdown with the NHL isn't going as well as hoped at this point.

Still, an improved relationship would also benefit the NHL, which could at least count on the Russian league no longer poaching players who are under contract. Much of the ill will between both leagues was born out of star winger Alexander Radulov leaving behind a valid contract with the Nashville Predators and signing a deal in the KHL in the summer of 2008.

"My primary focus is the KHL's unwillingness to respect our contracts," Bettman told ESPN.com. "I've been pretty consistent on that certainly since the Radulov matter came to the fore."

Medvedev's primary focus has been the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and more precisely the inclusion of NHL players in those Games. Bettman has been noncommittal about NHL participation post-2010 Vancouver, and that's been enough to drive Medvedev bonkers. Indeed, Bettman confirmed that the 2014 Games were discussed in their meeting Wednesday night, but he would not elaborate further.

I'm sure Medvedev reminded Bettman that superstar Russian NHLers Alex Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk and Evgeni Malkin have vouched to play in the 2014 Games, regardless of their NHL commitments. That's Medvedev's trump card, no question, on this issue.

But one thing that rarely gets raised is that I also believe Medvedev wants all the top countries to have their top stars in Sochi, not just mother Russia. If you're hosting the best tournament in the world, you want the best in the world to be there. On that front, Bettman, his owners, and the NHL Players' Association still hold the rest of the cards.

The reality is that there is nothing right now Bettman can tell Medvedev, with full certainty, that would make the KHL president happy. Olympic participation is a collectively bargained item between the NHLPA and NHL owners. The players' union absolutely wants to continue Olympic participation, while the owners aren't so keen on an event that hasn't made them much money since the first foray in 1998. Still, the owners would no doubt relent on this issue if the union threw them a bone in CBA talks. But this is all to be determined.

Because the current CBA runs for at least another year and a half, and perhaps another two and a half years if the NHLPA picks up the option year, Medvedev will have to wait a while before he gets his 2014 answer.

In the meantime, will we see a happier coexistence between the KHL and NHL? Count this hockey writer as skeptical.

Note: Speaking of the NHLPA, my "Hockey Night In Canada" colleague Elliotte Friedman has an excellent take on what's happened with the turmoil-filled union.

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer




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