Russian hockey team sues NHL for 'stealing' players

[JURIST] Russian hockey team Metallurg Magnitogorsk [team website; Wikipedia backgrounder] on Wednesday sued Evgeni Malkin, the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the NHL [TSN report] in a dispute over the star hockey player's move from Russia to the National Hockey League, the second such lawsuit to be filed this week by a Russian Super Hockey League team. The lawsuit, seeking an injunction blocking Malkin from playing in the NHL this season, comes the same day that Malkin, injured in a preseason game, is set to make his NHL debut [ESPN preview]. On Tuesday, Lokomotiv Yaroslavl [team website; Wikipedia backgrounder] also filed a lawsuit in US court [Canadian Press report] against the NHL, Calgary Flames, and Edmonton Oilers, claiming that Andrei Taratukhin [team profile] of the Flames and Alexei Mikhnov [team profile] of the Oilers are under contract with them for the 2006-2007 season and also sought an injunction. Neither player has yet appeared in a regular season game; Taratukhin was assigned to the American Hockey League [league website], while Mikhnov hasn't dressed for any games.

The dispute arises from Russia's refusal to sign on to the player transfer agreement [press release] between the NHL and International Ice Hockey Federation [group website]. Under the current agreement, European teams receive up to $200,000 in compensation if one of their players leaves to play in the NHL. Russia objected to that figure as too low.

This battle has been fought before. Dynamo Moscow, the former team of 2004 #1 overall NHL draft pick Alexander Ovechkin [ESPN profile], sued in US District Court in Washington, DC last fall to stop him from playing for the Washington Capitals. The court threw out the case [Washington Post report], holding that it lacked jurisdiction to enforce a Russian arbitrator's ruling that Ovechkin still owed the club a year on his contract; Ovechkin countered that he had signed a new deal with an escape clause. Ovechkin went on to score 52 goals and win the Calder Trophy as the 2005-2006 Rookie of the Year. Proposals were on the table to offer Dynamo as much as $900,000 in transfer fees [Hockey's Future report] for Ovechkin, but they demanded up to $3 million.

Evgeni Malkin [ESPN profile], who was taken right behind Ovechkin in the 2004 NHL Draft, remained in Russia until this season, when he exercised a loophole in Russian labor law [Pittsburgh Tribune-Review report] to walk away from his contract. Again arguing that the transfer agreement would not have provided enough compensation, Metallurg Magnitogorsk executives blasted the move and vowed to go to court to seek damages. The team's General Director Gennady Velichkin called the move "pure sports terrorism" [Reuters report], saying "They all like to talk about democracy, the American way and then they shamelessly steal our best players." TSN has more. The Edmonton Sun has additional coverage.

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