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Proposed European hockey league has NHL players curious, but skeptical

MONTREAL - Alexei Ponikarovsky looks at the notion of a new pro hockey league in Europe with a skeptical eye.

The Toronto Maple Leafs forward doesn't say it can't work, but he's not sure he'd want to play in it.

"The NHL's been here for a long time," Ponikarovsky said Saturday. "If you want to create something like that, it's going to take a while for it to become something big, so I'm not sure if it's a good idea or not."

One newspaper reported that a wealthy Russian businessman has hired former NHL Players' Association executive Bob Goodenow to help create a new league that would compete with the NHL for players.

Alex Medvedev, deputy executive of Russian natural gas producer Gazprom, is behind the new league, which also has former NHL star Igor Larionov on a "working group" to help it get started.

Larionov said Goodenow visited Russia this week to discuss the league, which could start as soon as September 2008. He also told the Star that sponsors and broadcasters have been contacted by Medvedev's representatives.

"There's still a lot of work to be done," Larionov told The Canadian Press on Saturday. "I want to make sure it's on solid footing."

The league would likely begin with clubs in eastern European cities like Moscow and St. Petersberg, Russia, Kyiv, Ukraine and perhaps Helsinki, where the Jokerit club is reportedly interested in signing on.

Ponikarovsky, who is from Ukraine and is married to a Ukrainian-Canadian, did not appear ready to jump to the new circuit.

"All of the best players are playing here and I'm not sure who is going to be playing there, so I'm sure the level of hockey will be lower," he said.

In the absence of a transfer agreement between the NHL and the Russian hockey federation, Russian league clubs have been luring away some NHL players with large contract offers, most notably former New York Islanders centre Alexei Yashin.

Other European countries are also pushing for a better deal.

Currently, European teams often lose players under contract to the NHL, receiving US$200,000 per player in exchange. It is unclear whether the prospective league would honour NHL contracts.

"Usually the guys who go there, it's when they have nothing left here," said Ponikarovsky. "They see they don't have a future here.

"They just go because they're still paying money. For me, I want to play here. It's not my goal to go back to Russia. You can always do that."

His teammate Matt Stajan, who is the team's representative on the players association, looked at the bright side of the proposed league - more job opportunities for players.

"You have to see how something like this develops," said Stajan. "My dream was to play in the NHL, but for guys that are borderline, who are on the cusp, that could open up hundreds of more jobs for players.

"I don't think it's a bad thing for the players. I think it definitely would be a good thing."

His coach, Paul Maurice, cannot see players abandoning what is currently the world's premier hockey league.

"I can't imagine why anybody would want to play in any other league than the NHL," he said. "I still think that, as an athlete and as a competitive person, you want to play at the highest level you possibly can.

"And as long as the NHL has the highest level of hockey, it will always draw the best players."

His Montreal Canadiens conterpart Guy Carbonneau is not so sure. His team lost young winger Alexander Perezhogin to a Russian club last summer.

"It's not good for the NHL because you lose the young guys," said Carbonneau "Perezhogin was starting to play really well, but he's making twice as much money as he was going to make here.

"So I'm sure the people from the NHL are looking at it as a threat and will try to find a solution."

Carbonneau is baffled by the economics of Russian hockey, where he said rich owners seem to spend freely on players despite a lack of big arenas, high ticket prices or large TV deals to recoup the cash.

"During the lockout, the (Ak Bars) Kazan team had a payroll that must have been $50 million and they played in a 4,000-seat arena with $5 tickets," he said. "I didn't go to school for very long, but. . ."

There has been talk for years of NHL expansion into Europe, but the league has so far concentrated on building teams in the United States, including in many southern cities with no hockey tradition.

European expansion has been mostly dismissed by players and clubs alike due to the long travel and time zone changes.

Canadiens goaltender Cristobal Huet, who is from France, said there are European cities, particularly in Germany, with large enough arenas for NHL hockey.

"When they had the European Champions League, it was very interesting to play against the best teams in other countries," he said. "I'd like to stay in the NHL, but just in general, it's good to have new challenges in Europe."


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