Russia hopes the lure of playing in the Olympics draws some players back home to the Kontinental Hockey League.
The Russian Hockey Federation said Wednesday it will try to keep KHL players from leaving for North America and attempt to bring NHL free agents back this summer. That could include pending free agents such as the Montreal Canadiens’ Andrei Markov and Alexander Radulov.
"In Russia, all the necessary conditions will be created to grow their skill and readiness to play for the national team," board chairman Arkady Rotenberg said in a statement.
Washington Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin plans to represent Russia at the 2018 Olympics in South Korea despite the NHL announcing it would not participate. Rotenberg said the federation will help players with legal issues so they can play.
For those without contracts like Markov, Radulov and Buffalo Sabres defenceman Dmitry Kulikov and restricted free agents Washington’s Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dmitry Orlov and the Colorado Avalanche’s Mikhail Grigorenko, there will be plenty of interest from the KHL. Still, it’s unlikely that the Olympics alone would be enough to make top Russian players leave the NHL.
"I don’t think it changes the dynamic of who wants to play in the KHL and who wants to play in the NHL," agent Jay Grossman said.
Kulikov said it could be an option for some players but that he hasn’t thought about it.
"I don’t think it’s going to happen for me," Kulikov said. "It’s everyone’s personal choice."
It’s a personal choice that has to do with money, security and other things beyond just the Olympics.
"The Olympics doesn’t pay the bills," agent Todd Diamond said. "You have to decide whether you really want to go try (playing) in the NHL. I don’t think the ability of a player not to play in South Korea should enter into the argument."
The 38-year-old Markov said he’s "too old for the national team." Radulov, who has bounced back and forth between the KHL and the NHL, has heard the Russian Federation talk about keeping talent for a long time.
"They’ve been saying that for years," Radulov told the AP. "We’ll see. The time, I’m not trying to think about that right now."
Dan Milstein, agent for Chicago’s Artemi Panarin, Toronto’s Nikita Zaitsev and Alexey Marchenko, Montreal’s Nikita Nesterov, and Pavel Datsyuk, said he thought it was a "shame" the NHL decided not to let players go to the Olympics.
"The guys I represent really want to go because they want to play for the Russian team, but I’m advising them not to publicly comment on the matter," Milstein said. "They are all disappointed and hopeful the NHL will re-open talks."
Ovechkin said in September he’d go to Pyeongchang next February regardless of what the NHL decides and stood by that Tuesday.
"Somebody going to tell me, like, don’t go, I don’t care — I just go," Ovechkin said.
Even though Capitals owner Ted Leonsis has said he’d let Ovechkin and other players go to the Olympics, labour experts don’t see them as having many rights if commissioner Gary Bettman chooses to crack down.
"Bettman has the power to protect the integrity of the game," said George Smith, a professor at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario. "He could insist that none of the owners allow any of the players to go, and I think under the collective bargaining agreement, they would have to violate the collective agreement in order to go individually, which would be risky at best because there would be grievances and penalties."
Rotenberg said the decision of any players under contract overseas to attend the Olympics anyway would be worthy of respect. While the Russian Hockey Federation is saying it will help legally, it could also get some help from the NHL Players’ Association.
"If those turn out to be an issue that we have to deal with, we’ll look at the contracts and we’ll represent the players if they have a case to make in that regard," NHLPA executive director Don Fehr said, adding he doesn’t wanting to get into legalities. "It’s way, way, way premature."