Nikolai Zherdev, the Columbus Blue Jackets winger at the center of an international controversy, will not play for Russia in the upcoming World Junior Championships, despite being appointed as their captain, a source close to the team told ESPN.com.
The 19-year-old Zherdev, the fourth overall pick in the 2003 draft, arrived in Columbus on Dec. 2 amid charges by Russian officials that he is a conscripted soldier. The Blue Jackets signed Zherdev to a three-year contract in August and paid the $100,000 transfer fee required in the agreement with the International Ice Hockey Federation to acquire his release from the Central Red Army team (CSKA). Without proper documentation proving Zherdev was a conscripted soldier, the NHL confirmed his eligibility to play for Columbus.
According to the IIHF, the Russian Ice Hockey Federation presented NHL executive vice president and chief legal officer Bill Daly with documents proving Zherdev's military status during a meeting regarding the 2004 World Cup of Hockey in Zurich, Switzerland, on Wednesday. Daly, speaking through a league representative said only that "the parties continue trying to work through this process."
Should the NHL determine the documentation is both accurate and legal, Zherdev would be in violation of the NHL-IIHF agreement, which specifically prohibits players from switching leagues in order to avoid serving mandatory military obligations.
According to the IIHF, Russian officials have yet to file a petition for arbitration. If they do, it's not known how long the process would take, though it likely would not be completed before the tournament.
With the situation unresolved, there are no guarantees Zherdev would be returned to his U.S. team after the tournament, which will be held in Finland, Dec. 26-Jan. 6. As a result, Zherdev is fearful of playing for Team Russia or returning to the country, and the Blue Jackets are apprehensive about leaving him unattended, the source said.
Zherdev has consistently maintained that he is not a Russian soldier and has now stated that he wouldn't return even if it's determined that he is. The Blue Jackets have indicated they will support any decision Zherdev makes.
"Zherdev is here, he is here on his own accord and he doesn't want to go back," Columbus assistant general manager Jim Clark said. "We stand firmly behind him."
Clark also questioned the Russian documentation, recently telling the Columbus Post-Dispatch that it is "a spoof to the point that if he's been inducted into the military it's been done for the sole purpose of restricting his movement. He's received no military training. He's never been through any sort of boot camp."
Should Zherdev be ruled ineligible to play for Columbus, the mandate would likely last only until the agreement between the IIHF and the NHL expires at the end of this season. Zherdev might still be classified as AWOL by the Russian military, but he would also be under contract to the Blue Jackets and free to play once the agreement is terminated.
In a related matter, the Russian daily Sport-Express reports that Vasiliy Tikhonov, son of CSKA and Russian national team coach Viktor Tikhonov, has left the club. The younger Tikhonov reportedly has been let go because of his role in the Zherdev affair. The elder Tikhonov did not give a reason for his son's leaving, but denied it was because Zherdev left the team under his son's watch.
Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.