The three top prospects for this year’s NHL draft all played in Europe this season and they’re all projected to become enormous stars in North American and make millions of dollars over the course of their careers. And if things go as planned, they’ll be a cash cow for their NHL employers, as well.
But what about the teams they’re leaving? In the case of Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi, the Tappara and Karpat teams in the Finnish League will not only be losing their best players, they’ll also be parting with two young men in whom they’ve invested an huge amount of resources. And once they sign deals with the NHL teams that select them, they’re receive a one-time payment of about $240,000. That’s it. Nothing more. Do not pass Go. Do not collect any more money. And in the case of the Zurich Lions in the Swiss League, they won’t receive a cent.
Well, a meeting of the rather unwieldily named Alliance of European Hockey Clubs (EHC), set for Wednesday in Vienna, wants to see if something can be done about that. With close to 50 European teams already committed to membership, the organization is led by former NHLer Hakan Loob. It’s an organization that thinks the International Ice Hockey Federation and the national federations that represent them have done a poor job of looking out for their interests and they want change.
The meeting Wednesday in Vienna is another baby step in that process. At the meeting, the 10 members of the interim board will meet to discuss the mission of the alliance and confirm the priorities of the group, which will be presented to the full membership at the first annual meeting, which is slated for June 13 in Berlin.
Much of this, of course, centers on money. According to the transfer agreement between the NHL and the European federations, teams receive about $240,000 per player they lose, regardless of whether he’s a future NHL superstar or a fourth-line grinder. The Russian federation, which has opted out of the agreement along with Switzerland, gets nothing when it loses a player. What the alliance wants to do is to come up with a model that replicates soccer, where negotiations for players are done directly between the two teams involved. The way it stands now, if the Toronto Maple Leafs want to sign Russian free agent defenseman Nikita Zaitsev, CSKA Moscow gets nothing.
In soccer, transfer payments for the best players can exceed 100 million dollars. That’s not going to happen in hockey, ever. But the alliance might be able to get more of a basketball model, which will see European teams receive a transfer payment of at least $650,000 per player it loses, depending upon whether the player is willing to give up some of his salary to his former team, if he’s still under contract.
A number of details have to be worked out, chief among them being whether or not the alliance believes it can do better by changing the current system. The way it works now, European teams that lose players receive $240,000 regardless of whether the player is under contract or not. So even if a player gets free agent status in his league, the team that loses him still gets money. It would be hard to believe any NHL team would be willing to pay for a player unless he’s being let out of his contract. So perhaps what might happen is players who are free agents will go to the NHL for even less, while players who are still under contract will command much higher transfer fees. As it stands now, NHL teams cannot negotiate with European teams for transfer payments and you can see why the NHL might want to keep it that way. It doesn’t want the New York Rangers and Maple Leafs winning bidding wars for the best European players, while poorer teams lose out on getting them. But if the EHC has its way, that might change.
Another area where the EHC wants more equity is in the profits from international hockey events. As it stands now, European teams that loan their players for World Championships and World Junior Championships don’t receive any of the profits from those events directly.
There is still a lot of work to do and a lot of unanswered questions, but it looks as though the landscape in Europe is changing. Teams there are clearly tired of what they view as poor top-down representation from the IIHF and their national federations and they’re preparing to start flexing their muscles.