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Hudler in the middle of a KHL/NHL skirmish

by Ryan Hammond

Jiri Hudler is a midlevel player with modest stats. He's 25, just had his first 20 goal season in the NHL, and isn't particularly known for his size or attention to defense.

This isn't the sort of player you'd expect to create an international incident.

But he is the type the Russian leagues have been picking from the NHL in recent years, which makes him ripe for a contractual dispute.

Hudler recently became the latest in a string of moderate NHL talents to leave hockey's most skilled league for a pay raise in Russia's former "Superleague." Remember Alexander Korolyuk? Dmitry Bykov? Danil Markov? All solid former NHL players who are now in the KHL. You can't say they switched leagues purely for the money, but it probably didn't hurt.

The NHL doesn't like this state of affairs, though it's not currently clear what they can do. There were spats with the IIHF and Swedish Elite League about transfer agreements just a couple of years ago, and now the NHL is attempting to stop Hudler's move to Moscow. There haven't been threats of legal action yet, but it would be unwise to rule out the lawyers. Gary Bettman is flush with triumph from his recent sword fight with Jim Balsillie, and the hockey press may soon be flush with more stories of butting heads and swollen egos.

So what does this mean for Hudler? Ansar Khan of mlive.com believes the NHL is trying to send a message, and not so much worry about the Wings' rights to a player who's expendable from a marketing standpoint.

The Wings want Hudler back. They've lost a lot of offense already with the departures of Marian Hossa and Mikael Samuelsson.

But they're hoping for a speedy resolution because their hands are tied. They can't sign anybody until they know for sure that Hudler is gone. Because if Hudler returns, the Wings will be over the $56.8 million salary cap and would need to trim a player by the start of the season.

My guess is Hudler is allowed to play in Russia and the KHL will agree not to sign, in the future, any more players who filed for arbitration.

So it probably won't be fun, but the Wings can live without Hudler. What Bettman is likely worried about is another Bobby Hull situation down the road, where a Russian billionaire takes a run at one of the league's top talents and poaches him for a king's ransom. Pro hockey's early history resembled a wild west business environment, and if Bettman isn't the most knowledgeable fan, there are other members of the league's top brass who will certainly educate him on the subject. The first order of any business is self-preservation, and the NHL will do anything in its power to suppress emerging competition.

But losing a player like Malkin or Luongo is unlikely now, because of the KHL's protectionist employment policies and the beleaguered Russian economy. This story is about the future, and the price of oil will eventually go up again. Russia is a country with an awful lot of oil, and rich people typically like to own things. Bettman, to his credit, recognizes that rules are typically made by people with money and power and he wants to put pen to paper while this book is still open.


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