From an outsider’s perspective (aka non-hockey fan), one might assume that this sport is made up of Russian players whose names no one can pronounce with accents no one can understand. While this thought might be easy to assume since names like Ovechkin, Malkin, and Kovalchuk dominant the airwaves, a simple look at team rosters over the last 10 years and you’ll learn that a different trend is taking place.
Simply put, over the last decade there are less and less Russians playing in the NHL every year. For instance, during the 2000-01 season, there were a total of 87 Russian players in the NHL. In 2005-06, that number was down to 40. In 2010, only 23 full-time Russian players suited up for an NHL team.
Some believe that the difference in style of play has kept many young Russians from making the move, arguing that bigger rinks and more finesse systems played in Europe are just too different from the North American emphasis on defense and physicality.
While I agree that these differences, along with the language barrier, may slow a player’s initial development, I don’t believe they’re contributing to this overall decline – such dissimilarities have existed for decades.
No, the real reason the Russians are staying put is purely economic. The KHL has more money than ever before and is able to pay their players millions of dollars a year tax free. This has helped send players such as Alexei Yashin, Nikita Filatov, Alexander Radulov, and a host of other players back to Russia.
Additionally, the re-entry waiver system keeps players in the AHL making around $65,000 per year, with a maximum salary of $105,000. Any minor league player making more than $105,000 must clear re-entry waivers to get called up to the NHL…and elite Russian prospects aren’t clearing any waivers.
Not too many Russians want to come all the way over to North America to play in the AHL and make peanuts for a living when the KHL can offer much more. This waiver system, plus our tax code, makes it so that any legit Russian player in the AHL is earning less salary than he would in his homeland by a significant margin.
Between the money issue and the lack of a transfer agreement (where player contracts do not have to be honored by either league), the nail in the coffin is the draft. GM’s are beginning to avoid Russia players like the plague for fear that they’ll waste a draft pick on someone who will never step foot on American soil.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about all of this was there were more Russians playing in the NHL during the 90’s when they had a lot more to risk than money. Back then it wasn’t uncommon to hear about Russian NHL players being strong-armed by the Russian Mob for money or worse.
Evgeni Malkin, one of the best players in the world almost never came to the NHL because men associated with his former Russian club put him “under intense pressure” to sign and honor a deal to keep him in Russia. Matter of fact, he was under so much “pressure” to keep playing in Russia that he had to hide out for five days in Finland in order to escape his team and make the courageous journey to North America. This was only several years ago!
At the end of the day, the tax code is what it is. The best solution is for Bettman to not strong-arm the KHL, so the KHL doesn’t strong-arm their teenage hockey players. It would be most prudent for a transfer deal to be negotiated. Every other international sport has one, there is no reason for the NHL and KHL not to have one.
This way the NHL gets the players they want, the KHL gets the money they want and young Russian players have a chance at living a little thing called the American Dream.