By STEPHEN WHYNO, AP Hockey Writer
Russia is hoping 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 like 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 restricted free agents like 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.
Agent Todd Diamond said: “The Olympics doesn’t pay the bills. 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.”
Speaking to The Associated Press after the Canadiens’ morning skate in Buffalo, New York, 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. “What I can tell you, though, is that 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, labor 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 or some vague notion like that,” 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. “But I really don’t want to get into the legalistics now. It’s way, way, way premature.”
AP Hockey Writers John Wawrow in Buffalo and Larry Lage in Detroit and AP Sports Writer James Ellingworth in Helsinki contributed.
Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SWhyno .
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