International ice hockey: player poaching and contract dispute.

Author:Zdrojeski, Kate
 
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Since the 1990's, European hockey leagues have relied on player transfer agreements to govern the movement of contracted players from their European teams to the U.S. National Hockey League (NHL). Player transfer agreements are brokered by the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) and ensure that European clubs receive compensation for players electing to terminate their contracts in favor of new agreements with the NHL. As of 2007, the IIHF and the NHL had no player transfer agreement in place. This lack of an international agreement has resulted in an increase in contract breach, or player poaching. Without an enforceable player transfer agreement in place, hockey teams worldwide have no remedy for international breaches of contract. This Note first examines the role of the IIHF in governing international player transfers and suggests that a new method be implemented to regulate international player movement. A "posting" model, as used in Major League Baseball, will better address the concerns of the NHL and IIHF member bodies regarding player transfers while simultaneously reducing the incentive for international contract breach.

  1. INTRODUCTION

    Few sports enjoy the international presence, global following, and dental destruction of ice hockey. Though the U.S. National Hockey League (NHL) enjoys a reputation as the world's premier league, ice hockey is hardly America's game. Countless leagues exist around the globe, with the premier talent hailing from European nations such as Russia, Sweden, and the Czech Republic (1) However, with the promise of lucrative contracts and high levels of competition in the NHL, Europe's most talented players frequently choose to abandon their national teams. Further, foreign players often accept opportunities to play in the NHL without regard to their existing contractual obligations.

    The signing away of contracted players, or player poaching as it is commonly called, is an unfortunate occurrence in international ice hockey. Since the game lacks a powerful, supreme governing body, (2) hockey leagues exist as sovereign entities and often disregard the rules governing their international counterparts. Though historically prevalent, the issue of player poaching recently rose to the forefront of international ice hockey when Alexander Radulov signed a three-year deal with Russia's newly-formed Continental Hockey League (KHL) (3) while still under contract with the Nashville Predators. (4)

    This Note examines the regulations governing international player transfers in ice hockey and the concept of player poaching through the lens of the Alexander Radulov saga. Part II provides substantial background on the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), the NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement, the now-expired international Player Transfer Agreement, and the history of player poaching. Part III discusses and analyzes the posting system, (5) a method used to regulate international player transfers in Major League Baseball. Part IV proposes that the IIHF and NHL modify their current player transfer system by adopting a posting system and strengthening the IIHF.

  2. THE RISE AND FALL OF THE IIHF/NHL PLAYER TRANSFER AGREEMENT

    On July 11, 2008, Russian-born Alexander Radulov, a forward with the NHL's Nashville Predators, signed a three-year contract with the KHL's Salava Yulayev Ufa. (6) Questions immediately arose concerning Radulov's breach of his NHL contract and the validity of his KHL agreement. When Radulov allegedly signed his KHL contract, the NHL and the KHL had no agreement in place to govern international player transfers or prevent player poaching. (7) Though the IIHF has successfully brokered several Player Transfer Agreements (PTAs) (8) between the NHL and IIHF member bodies in the past, Russia has not signed a PTA with the NHL since 2005. (9) Currently, no PTA exists (10) between the NHL and IIHF member bodies, (11) despite the IIHF's frequent warnings that a lack of a PTA will result in chaos throughout the hockey world. (12)

    1. The International Ice Hockey Federation

      The IIHF is ice hockey's world governing body. According to the IIHF Statutes and Bylaws, the IIHF formed in 1908 and its purpose is to "govern, develop and promote international ice and in-line hockey." (13) The IIHF Statutes and Bylaws go on to identify the IIHF's intent "to establish and maintain clear jurisdiction over ice and in-line hockey internationally." (14) Sixty-eight countries have some form of IIHF membership (15) and, therefore, are required to abide by the policies and regulations set forth in the IIHF Statutes and Bylaws. In addition to regulating the rules and member bodies of international hockey, the IIHF also regulates all international hockey games, the IIHF World Championship tournament, and the various national teams that form for participation in the Olympics. (16) In addition to these basic functions, the IIHF also establishes ground rules for international player transfers. (17) Under Article 205 of the Statutes and Bylaws, the IIHF is responsible for "ensur[ing] the good order of the sport internationally and, in relation to player movement, to safeguard the player and his position with regard to player eligibility for international competitions and to uphold discipline and maintain order between clubs and within the sport." (18) As such, the IIHF requires all players who wish to move to the national hockey association of a member country to obtain an IIHF international transfer card (ITC). (19) Additionally, a player's transfer becomes valid only upon confirmation by the IIHF. (20) Further:

      When a player applies for an international transfer, the member national association of the country from which he is transferring in signing the transfer application shall be deemed to have confirmed that there is no reason for them to prevent the player from transferring to the new club or national association. (21) With regard to player transfers to non-member organizations, the IIHF provides that if the organization and the IIHF have a PTA in place, then the IIHF will execute international player transfers in accordance with such an agreement. (22) In contrast, players who leave member body organizations to play in non-member organizations without player transfer agreements with the IIHF "will at all times be regarded as belonging to [their] original member national association." (23) The IIHF also reserves the right to discipline players who do not follow the international transfer procedures outlined in the Statutes and Bylaws and the International Transfer Regulations. (24)

      Although the IIHF lists the U.S. as a member country, (25) the NHL is not an IIHF member association. While IIHF International Transfer Regulations govern international player transfers between IIHF member bodies, the NHL must rely on an alternative international transfer system. (26) In the past, the IIHF has brokered PTAs between the NHL and IIHF member bodies. (27) While the IIHF does not believe that PTAs are an unsuccessful method of governing international player transfers, numerous instances of player poaching have gone unpunished over the years. (28) Even with the standing to regulate international contract dispute, the IIHF has struggled to put an end to this problem. While the NHL is not under IIHF jurisdiction, Russia, the Czech Republic, Sweden, and countless other hockey powerhouses are IIHF member bodies and, therefore, subject to IIHF regulations. Although the NHL's membership within the IIHF would go a long way towards alleviating the problem of player poaching, (29) it will not cure the illegal behavior of its international counterparts. While the IIHF could prohibit players who have engaged in illegal transfers from participating in IIHF international championship events, (30) such punishments would not serve as adequate deterrents. (31) Though the NHL reserves the right to punish players that leave their NHL teams for international clubs, the NHL has no standing to enforce such punishments overseas. (32) The NHL, and all hockey leagues, should be able to rely on the authority of the IIHF, hockey's self-proclaimed "world governing body," with regard to international matters. The IIHF's lack of actual authority, however, is alarming and shows the immediate need for reformation of both the IIHF-NHL PTA and the IIHF generally.

    2. The NHL/NHLPA Collective Bargaining Agreement

      Pursuant to the NHL Standard Player Contract, the league requires all players to "play hockey only for the Club unless his SPC [Standard Player Contract] is Assigned, Loaned or terminated by the Club." (33) Further, NHL clubs reserve the right to fine or suspend any player who engages in "conduct impairing the thorough and faithful discharge of the duties incumbent upon [him]." (34) However, the NHL's jurisdiction does not extend beyond its member clubs. Thus, the NHL has no standing to punish or suspend from the game players who breach their contracts in search of more lucrative, international opportunities. Under the NHL and National Hockey League Players Association (NHLPA) Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), when an NHL player leaves his team before the term of his NHL contract has ended, the NHL deems him a "defected player." (35) The Commissioner of hockey may fine or suspend a defected player (36) until he returns to his NHL club. (37) Alternatively, if the player becomes free from obligations to the unaffiliated club via dissolution or completion of his obligations but does not contact the NHL Club with which he was last under contract, the Commissioner places his name on the "Free Agent List (Defected Players)." (38) The meager penalties proscribed by the NHL CBA are not adequate disincentives or deterrents and will not keep players from defecting to other leagues.

      Alexander Radulov and several others (39) have already left for the KHL, and some in the sporting world predict that more will follow. (40)...

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