Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Bob Bourne Identity

Imagine wanting to leave your current employer to join a company that offered better pay, greater opportunities for advancement, and top-notch facilities and management. Now imagine that your old boss hired the mob to threaten your family if you didn't turn down the offer.

In the NHL, that actually beats the old days, when your old company itself had armed guards at the gates to prevent your departure. Today's John Rolfe has an excellent piece on the situation of Evgeny Malkin, drafted by Pittsburgh to help revive the franchise. His former Russian club, Mettalurg, didn't want to lose him and he played with them all of last season - even re-signing for another year before suddenly spiriting away from the team and turning up with the Penguins.

He may not risk sleeping with the fishes any more, but the Russians aren't pleased about it. This quote is priceless to help establish the mindset here:

Asked about the sum he was seeking for Malkin, Velichkin said: "Before his disappearance I was asking for $2 million from Pittsburgh but now I want more, a lot more."

Velichkin is Gennady Velichkin, the GM of Mettalurg. A standard transer fee from an NHL team to a European club is only $200,000, BTW, so he was already blackmailing* driving a hard bargain with the Penguins for drafting a player who preferred to play Stateside - the standard transfer agreement doesn't apply to Russian clubs. Now he's decided that the price has just gone up, at precisely the time that his hostage prime bargaining chip has absconded. Malkin has his own reasons for getting out of Dodgski, but topping the list had to be the relative freedom from mobsters that NHL players currently enjoy.

The Russian Chief of Hockey will be familiar to all: Vladislav Tretiak, one of the greatest goalies to ever play, and who probably would have dearly loved to join the NHL himself in the wake of the Canada Challenge of 1972. (I believe the Canadiens actually drafted him one year, in a late round, but his time came too soon.) His boss (Minister of Sport) is Viacheslav Fetisov, better know to fans of the NJ Devils, who employed him as a defenseman after his own defection. Of course, they have to say such things, they're the hockey honchos in a country chock-a-block with mafiosi. There's also the valid thought of fair compensation for a player who may be an All-Star in his new league. On the other hand, there's the sour grapes of a man denied Malkin's chance, and a government that's willing to bank Kim Jong Il but not afford its players the freedom (and the pay) to prevent this sort of thing.

*There's always the way Bender looks at it: "Blackmail is such an ugly word. I prefer 'extort' - the 'X' makes it sound cool."

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