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Judge rules in NHL's favour in Evgeni Malkin contract dispute

Metallurg Magnitogorsk, a Russian Super League team, claims that Malkin is under contract in his native country. The club sought a preliminary injunction that would have banned the forward from playing for the Penguins until the matter is resolved.

But the ruling Wednesday by U.S. District Judge Loretta A. Preska clears the way for Malkin, a star rookie with Penguins, and minor leaguers Andrei Taratukhin of the Calgary Flames and Alexei Mikhnov of the Edmonton Oilers to stick with the NHL franchises.

Led by Metallurg Magnitogorsk, Russian clubs sued in October claiming that the NHL broke U.S. antitrust law and improperly interfered in their business affairs by signing away players who were still under contract.

The deal with the International Ice Hockey Federation calls for the NHL to pay a US$200,000 fee when it signs European players, but Russian hockey officials declined to sign the agreement on the grounds that they were unfairly compensated for top talent.

Since then, the world's two top hockey leagues have been at odds.

In August, the NHL told its clubs they were free to sign contracts with Russian hockey players already under contract.

Malkin, 20, had just signed a one-year contract with Metallurg Magnitogorsk when he abruptly left camp to join the Penguins this fall.

In retaliation, the Russian clubs asked the U.S. courts to issue an injunction benching the players in North America and returning them to their old teams while the case was fought.

Preska ruled that the Russians hadn't met the standard for a preliminary injunction. To do so, she said, they would have had to prove that the players' absence from the Russian league was causing their former teams irreparable harm.

The courts have generally found that the loss of a star athlete can indeed constitute such a harm, but Preska said that in this case, the Russian clubs appeared to be more concerned with wresting larger player transfer fees from the NHL than maintaining their competitiveness.

"These cases were always about money," Preska said. "The only issue is how much."

The ruling doesn't stop the case for good, but all but ensures that Malkin, Taratukhin and Mikhnov will remain with their NHL teams.

"Obviously we are very disappointed," said Alexander Berkovich, the lawyer for the Russian clubs.

He rejected the notion that the dispute was all about money, saying his clients were more concerned with winning than wringing dollars from the NHL.

"They need the best players," he said, "Regrettably, it's not going to happen in this case."

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in a written statement that he hoped the ruling would persuade the Russian clubs to "discontinue their strategy of litigation," and engage in "good faith negotiations" about the future system for player transfers.

In the absence of an agreement, the NHL has maintained that Russian labour law allows players there to quit with two weeks notice, freeing them to play elsewhere with no compensation due to their former clubs.

Malkin has nine goals and six assists in 12 games for the Penguins this season.

"We always have been confident in our position in Evgeni's case," said Tom McMillan, the Penguins' vice-president of communications. "We are very happy for Evgeni, his family and Penguins fans."


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