Untangling the Foreign Player Mess
The big big news in the world of Russian hockey this week, off the ice, was the official decision of the Russian Ministry of Sport (often abbreviated as “Minsport”) on the number of foreign players allowed on the country’s various professional hockey teams. Russian KHL teams will be allowed five foreign players each, VHL teams will get four, Women’s League clubs two apiece, and the junior-level MHL will not allow any foreign players at all on its Russian teams. While the issue of foreign players has caused friction in the past between the KHL and the Russian government, there was nothing in those numbers themselves to indicate that a flare-up of the old tensions was at hand.
And yet a flare-up there has been. What apparently caught the KHL completely by surprise was the decision by Minsport not to allow the KHL to exempt Belarusan and Kazakh players from the foreign player limit, even though those countries, along with Russia, are part of the Eurasian Economic Union. The KHL exempted Belarusans from the foreign player limit for the first time last season, and it had been widely assumed that not only would that situation remain in force, but that players from Kazakhstan would now also not count as foreign. Certainly the league’s clubs proceeded through the summer signing season under that impression. And now, just as the 2015-16 season gets underway, they are forced to deal with a significant change of circumstances.
At the root of the problem is article 97.2 of the Eurasian Economic Union Treaty, which states in part:
“Member States shall neither impose nor apply restrictions set by their legislation in order to protect their national labour market…” [Link is a PDF, in Russian. The translation is my own.]
The Eurasian Economic Union, which came into effect last year, currently includes Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan, with admission negotiations ongoing involving other ex-Soviet countries. The KHL argues that article 97.2 means that players from those nations cannot be restricted in any way as regards playing in the various leagues of the EAEU. The treaty does go on to lay out some exceptions to 97.2, but they deal with areas such as national security; while I am by no means a labour lawyer, I could not see anything in the treaty that would allow professional hockey to get around that article.
The Ministry of Sport, and by extension the Russian Hockey Federation, obviously feel differently. The over-riding philosophy of both organizations has long been that the main purpose of professional hockey in Russia, including the KHL, is to bolster the Russian national team, and that other considerations are secondary. Minsport and the FHR also look askance at such players as Geoff Platt and Kevin Lalande, both Canadian-born and -raised, who did not count as foreign players last season due to the fact that they played long enough and well enough at Dinamo Minsk to earn Belarusan citizenship. And as objections go, that is actually a reasonable one. However, the language of article 97.2 seems fairly clear to me, and it is hard to see how Minsport’s decision to restrict Belarusan and Kazakh players could be allowable under those terms.
Deep unhappiness has been the KHL’s reaction to the new rule. League Board Member, and former Soviet hockey great, Vyacheslav Fetisov called the Minsport decision “nonsense.” So did Andrei Kovalenko, President of the KHL Players’ Union, even as he noted that his organization will be keeping a very close eye on the league to ensure that any cancellation of existing contracts is done correctly. Even blunter was Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk’s coach Vladimir Krikunov: “The circus has left town, but the clowns stayed behind,” said Krikunov, who went on to decry the un-brotherly nature of the decision. And Ilya Kovalchuk of SKA St. Petersburg, one of the KHL’s brightest stars, called for the removal of all limits on foreign players. While the KHL itself has been diplomatic in its official statements, it is clear that there is a lot of anger simmering away out there.
As far as the KHL is concerned, the real disaster here is the timing of the Ministry’s announcement. For the teams, two months of pre-season work is suddenly at risk, as they have to rid themselves of enough foreign players to get under the limit just as the “real” games begin. In some ways, that in itself is not a huge deal — no different, really, than dealing with a long-term injury to a player — but it gets worse. Teams are required to buy out the contracts of players whose contracts are cancelled, and that comes at a steep price: 50% of the this year’s total salary — 100% if the player is cut after December 21st — and 20% of any subsequent years on the contract, payable immediately (many thanks to Aivis Kalniņš for his help on that matter). Severstal Cherepovets, to name one club, have already complained that they do not have the money on hand for the buy-outs necessary to get them into compliance with the new rule.
Then there is the hardship involved for the players who suddenly find themselves out of a job through no fault of their own. Since Monday, three Belarusans have been let go by their Russian clubs: forwards Konstantin Koltsov (HK Sochi), Vyacheslav Makritsky (Torpedo), and Alexei Yefimenko (Sibir). Of those three, only Yefimenko has found a new team (Yunost Minsk of the Belarusan Extraliga). There are rumours that one or both of the Kostitsyn brothers will shortly be leaving Torpedo, too, as that team is still one player over the new limit. For some of the players affected, it is more than a matter of simply finding a new team on short notice; they face the prospect of having to move their families, destination unknown, just as the school year begins. The number of players affected is not huge — when the rule came into effect this week there were 19 Belarusans and five Kazakhs on Russian KHL teams, some of them on teams still under the foreign player limit — but even so.
Unsurprisingly, the Hockey Federations of Belarus and Kazakhstan are also not impressed at all with the new rule. The Belarusan Federation, in particular, reacted with fury to the announcement, calling the move “a knife in the back” and threatening to pull the Dinamo Minsk club out of KHL competition. The FHB claims that Russian Minister of Sport Vitaly Mutko promised earlier this spring that no change to the status of Belarusan players would be made for at least two years. Those statements were walked back a little bit shortly thereafter; the FHRB noted that they have no problem with the KHL itself and in fact are allied with the league against the new rule, and stated that their threat to withdraw Dinamo was not meant to be an immediate one. Nonetheless, the anger obviously remains. The Kazakh Hockey Federation was somewhat more restrained in their comments, calling the Minsport decision “unfriendly” and stating that they are “deeply convinced that… common sense will prevail, and the restrictive measures… will be lifted.”
So what happens now? Well, the KHL will hold a special meeting of the Board on September 8th, to discuss the matter and the league’s response, and that should be a lively affair. Meanwhile, the Belarusan Hockey Federation has announced its intention to appeal the legality of the new rules directly to the EAEU (the Court of the Eurasian Economic Union, incidentally, is conveniently if ironically headquartered in Minsk). There is even a chance that the IIHF will get involved, although what the world hockey body could do is a little bit unclear at the moment.
It is also possible, and indeed to be hoped-for, that the dispute will be settled through negotiation between the affected groups. Russian Minister of Sport Vitaly Mutko hinted at that possibility on Saturday, and sounded a conciliatory note in the process. While Mutko ruled out reversing his Ministry’s decision on the issue, he indicated a willingness to find some sort of compromise that would allow the players adversely affected by the rule to play out this season on their Russian teams, which would be a good start. He also stated that Minsport officials will take part in the KHL Board meeting on the 8th, in the search for a solution. Reading between the lines, Mutko seems as surprised by the anger towards Minsport’s decision as the KHL was by the decision itself, and we have to wonder how communication between the league and its hockey colleagues in the government broke down so badly.
Obviously, we have not heard the end of this story yet, and the coming weeks could prove very complicated indeed. I will leave the last word to the always-outspoken and interesting Fetisov, as he broached an important issue beyond the short-term implications of the Ministry of Sport’s decision. Said Fetisov:
“Let [Belarusan and Kazakh players] play; we should help the Belarusans and Kazakhs to develop hockey. The higher the level of hockey in Belarus and Kazakhstan, the better the competition in the KHL… When the Belarusans and Kazakhs beat us, then we can revisit this issue.”
Sounds good to me. There will be news notes tomorrow, in which we talk some actual hockey, although I may have an extra thought or two about this situation!