Elite Russian clubs want direct negotiations

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- No. 1 draft prospect Alexander Ovechkin might have a tough time getting from Russia to the NHL next season.

The player-transfer contract between the NHL and the International Ice Hockey Federation expires at the end of this season. Some clubs in the Russian elite league have said they do not want to be a part of any new agreement.

Without a player-transfer agreement, it likely would take longer to get European players into NHL uniforms.

Earlier this season, Nikolai Zherdev, who was the Columbus Blue Jackets' first-round pick in 2003, flew out of Russia to Canada and eventually joined the club. His Red Army team in the Russian Elite League protested, saying Zherdev still had military obligations in Russian.

An arbitrator later determined that the NHL and the Blue Jackets had met all criteria to bring Zherdev to the league thanks to the player-transfer agreement.

"They seem to prefer, at least some clubs in the Russian league, to negotiate individually as opposed to being paid on a formula basis because they think they make out better that way," said William Daly, NHL executive vice president and chief legal officer.

"We informed the IIHF that we don't have an interest in doing a new player-transfer agreement if they don't have the Russians included. That's kind of where it sits right now."

Of course, there may not be a 2004-05 season because of the stalemate between management and the players' association over a hard salary cap.

Ovechkin, a left wing for Dynamo Moscow, is considered the most talented player available in the draft in June.

Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Craig Patrick has called him "head and shoulders" above everyone else in the draft class. Florida Panthers GM Rick Dudley said that Ovechkin is "the best prospect I've seen in 20 years in this business."

With the NHL season winding down, Pittsburgh, Columbus, and Washington are vying for the inside track to the No. 1 overall pick. The five teams with the fewest points will enter a weighted lottery to see who will have the No. 1 selection.

Daly said the future of any player-transfer agreement would be decided by the Russian elite league.

"It's uncertain at this point, basically, how their voting mechanism works as to how the Russian league as a whole goes and whether they agree to be part of a new agreement," Daly said.

Daly is visiting NHL cities and talking to clubs about the impending negotiations on the league's collective bargaining agreement, which expires in September. Many believe there will be a work stoppage because of the gulf between the league and the players' association over the financial health of NHL teams.