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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

2 Visions Vie for Future of Russian Hockey

APMalkin, left, falling face first into the ice on Wednesday after colliding with a teammate.
Hockey team owners and government officials are pushing two competing visions for restoring Russia to its pinnacle of gold medal greatness.

The Russian Hockey Federation wants to reinvest in the country's hockey program -- training and aggressively recruiting young, talented players, while making the sport more entertaining for fans.

The Federal Agency for Physical Culture and Sports, meanwhile, envisions a Euro-Asian hockey league that would initially include former Soviet states and eventually encompass Finland, Sweden and other European countries.

"In any sport, the highest target is the Olympics," hockey federation spokesman Vladimir Gerasimov said. Referring to the site of the next Winter Games, Gerasimov added: "We are hoping for good results in the World Championships in Moscow next year, but our main goal is Vancouver in 2010."

With this in mind, the federation, under the leadership of Vladislav Tretyak, has built a youth hockey clinic in Mytishchy, just north of Moscow; imposed a salary cap on players to ensure talent is more equally distributed among teams; begun penalizing clubs for hiring non-Russians; and instructed referees to limit "clutch-and-grab" play, which is believed to speed up the game.

Vyacheslav Fetisov, head of the federal sports agency, takes a more global view, arguing the best way to achieve greatness is to build an international league that can compete for star talent with the U.S. National Hockey League.

"The league is meant to be the counterweight to the NHL, which will balance the situation in the world," Fetisov said in October at a news conference unveiling plans for the league.

Fetisov's office did not return numerous phone calls seeking comment.

What is undisputed is that Russian hockey -- like the nation's applied sciences, military and other areas where the Soviets once excelled -- has been in steady decline since the 1991 Soviet collapse.

From 1956, its first Winter Games, to 1988, its last, the Soviet Union won all but two gold medals in hockey. A 1992 unified team, comprising players from former Soviet states, captured gold at the Albertville Games.

Since 1992, the Russians have won no gold medals, picking up the silver at the 1998 Nagano Games. In this year's Turin Games, Russia finished fourth.

In recent years, Russia has seen top talent flee to the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Washington Capitals, Detroit Red Wings, Vancouver Canucks and other NHL teams.

Last month, Metallurg Magnitogorsk forward Evgeni Malkin disappeared, only to reappear days later to sign a three-year contract with the Penguins; Malkin is to be paid $984,200 annually and could earn bonuses totaling $2.85 million.

The Malkin fiasco -- the 20-year-old had already signed a one-year contract with Metallurg and had received years of expensive training at state cost -- has prompted an outcry among team owners, government officials and others. The Russian Hockey Federation's arbitration board recently ruled that Malkin, having violated his contract, was barred from playing for other teams, though it is unlikely that ruling will have any impact on his NHL career.

Russia now appears to be at a tipping point. But it remains unclear if the country will embrace the strategy mapped out by the hockey federation or seek to fuse its resources with hockey programs in Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan.

For now, no one seems to know much about the proposed Euro-Asian league.

"I really don't know anything about the league," said Ken Yaffe, the NHL's senior vice president for business affairs, speaking from the NHL's headquarters in New York City. Yaffe indicated he wouldn't be surprised if the new league came to fruition. "Fetisov's a legend for hockey fans all over the world," Yaffe said. "He's a smart and ambitious guy."

Yaffe noted that the Russians' refusal to sign a transfer agreement with the NHL had exacerbated tensions between Russia's Super League and the NHL. The transfer agreement would give Russian teams $200,000 for each player they lost. But Russian hockey officials counter that by signing the agreement, they would be legitimizing what they view as NHL poaching of their best players.

"Relations with the Russian Hockey Federation are tenuous," Yaffe said.

Frank Brown, the NHL's vice president for media relations, also said he had not heard of Fetisov's plan.

Still, talk of a new league is hardly surprising, said Dennis Chighisohla, the director of the New England Hockey Institute who is familiar with the Soviet hockey program and has coached men's and women's teams in the United States and Europe.

"The threat of competition might be the only bargaining power Russia has right now," Chighisohla said by e-mail. "I sense that a new league -- be it the Euro-Asian, whatever -- is inevitable."

But Russian team owners and other hockey officials suggest the recent changes adopted by the hockey federation may be enough to stanch the flow of players Westward and improve the sport's public perception at home.

Mikhail Golovkov, president of the Super League club Dynamo Moscow, was especially enthusiastic about stricter enforcement of on-ice rules. To help implement the new rules, referees have received pay raises; they now earn 22,000 rubles ($820) per game, or 4,000 rubles more than last season.

"The clampdown on refereeing is an excellent idea," Golovkov said. "It means more goals, and more goals make for better entertainment. ... If we can create a really exciting, really attractive league, it can be considered the first step on the way to competing with the NHL. Then we may keep our top stars."

Gerasimov, the hockey federation spokesman, said the new changes -- including the 300 million ruble ($11.2 million) salary cap that each team must abide by -- would help forge a single, unified system that would breed good players and help foster a more dynamic and profitable league.

One outstanding question is whether the creation of a Euro-Asian league would siphon players, money or even whole clubs out of the Super League. Vadim Aminov, press attache for the Ufa-based club Salatov Yulaev, said that if the new league were to be created, his team would want to join it.

Still, evidence from recent Olympics suggests that neither of the visions being pushed by the hockey federation and the federal sports agency necessarily produce gold medals.

Sweden, the Czech Republic and Canada have won gold medals fielding teams composed of players almost exclusively from the NHL.

Since 1992, Sweden has won two gold medals, most recently in Turin, in February. The Czechs took home gold in 1998, while Canada has captured two Olympic silver medals and one gold medal during the same 14-year period.