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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Changes In the Rules Of the Game

When Vyacheslav Kozlov won his freedom from CSKA's hockey team in a Detroit courtroom in the spring of 1991, it sparked a trickle of top hockey players to the West akin to the brain drain in Russia's scientific community. The collapse of the Soviet Union several months later opened the flood gates to players streaming into the world market.


For the hockey players, the situation presents a degree of self-determination unknown under the former Soviet system. But while athletes view the change as a golden opportunity for huge paychecks in the West, the once indomitable Soviet hockey machine, which churned out Olympic gold medals and world championships at an unparalleled level, finds itself in unfamiliar territory.


Not only has Russian hockey lost the generous support of the state sports committee. it is also losing top players. Coaches and administrators argue that Russian talent is being pilfered by the West, as CSKA claimed in their lawsuit over Kozlov against the Detroit Red Wings and the National Hockey League. They say the former Soviet hockey establishment has been backed into the frustrating position of a farm league for the wealthier Western leagues.


In contrast to the Cold War era, when no players were allowed to play out of the country - or even at the height of perestroika, when fading stars and mediocre athletes were reluctantly permitted to play out their careers in the West - Russian hockey is losing most of its best prospects.


Several former Soviet players - Buffalo's Alexander Mogilny, Vancouver's Pavel Bure and Detroit's Sergei Fedorov - have blossomed into superstars in North America's National Hockey League, while almost all the other 40 or so Russians in the NHL are valuable contributors.


Although some argue that the NHL and other European leagues are reaping the fruit of the Russian hockey system by exploiting the economic upheaval to lure the hockey elite away, it is, in reality, a gigantic step on the road to breaking down the barriers that previously prevented self-determination by athletes. Players are now free to choose their employers, rather than be strictly controlled.


While Russian hockey will suffer losses in the short run as the sport attempts to become self-financing in the absence of state support, the opportunity for the top players to play and compete with each other on a daily basis will raise the level of play in the sport overall and benefit the fans who follow the game.


In addition, Russian hockey will strengthen financially - with transfer fees, advertising and merchandising - as players compete harder to step onto the world stage.