Russian hockey player Evgeni Malkin, surfaced yesterday, fittingly on an ice rink -- in Los Angeles alongside NHL players -- and apparently poised to sign, seal and deliver his services to the Penguins by month's end. Yet the latest plot twist in his global hockey melodrama unfolded half a world away, over a fax machine in his air-polluted steeltown home of Magnitogorsk.
Gennady Velichkin, head of the Metallurg Magnitogorsk team from which the player he called "a national treasure" fled last weekend, told Russian media yesterday that the contract termination sent the team was so unacceptable that the club's lawyer tossed it into the trash.
Mr. Velichkin added that the faxed, handwritten letter, part of the two-week's notice required under Russian law to void a contract, was a "crude falsification" bearing a signature that didn't resemble the one on the deal Mr. Malkin, 20, signed, reputedly under duress, in the wee hours of Aug. 7.
"They would take his signature at 3 in the morning on a contract, but not on a letter of resignation?" joked Ronald Brand, the director of Pitt's Center for International Law Education and an internationally noted expert in foreign court judgments.
So begins the next leg of the ongoing Malkin saga, which may see him end up in court before he plays for the Penguins.
"I'd be surprised," said Downtown attorney Dennis Unkovic, an international-law specialist who isn't involved in this case, "if this doesn't have to be negotiated out, as opposed to just walking away from the contract. It's one thing if you're working on an assembly line. But these [young hockey stars] are very specialized people with the potential of damages. [Metallurg officials] are probably looking for a cash settlement."
NHL Executive Vice President and chief legal officer Bill Daly echoed that notion, pointing to Moscow Dynamo's litigation against Washington Capitals star Alexander Ovechkin, who was drafted immediately before No. 2 Malkin in the 2004 draft. A U.S. District Court judge last January ruled in favor of Mr. Ovechkin, who, differently from Mr. Malkin, didn't have an enforceable contract in place with his Russian team.
"I think the cases have factual differences," Mr. Daly said in an e-mail interview. "But the themes are similar -- the players both want to play in the National Hockey League, and the Russian clubs are trying to extort large sums of money to allow them to play here." The Russian Hockey Federation has declined the past two years to sign the international player trade agreement between the NHL and other foreign countries, mostly because many team officials there contend players like Mr. Malkin should earn them much more than the $200,000 guaranteed in that deal.
Mr. Daly added that NHL officials and attorneys would become involved in any potential Malkin litigation, the same as they did with Mr. Ovechkin "although we weren't named as a party. We felt there were league interests involved, and we wanted to advance and protect league interests. It would be premature to speculate what might happen here, but it's certainly possible that league interests will be implicated again."
Agent J.P. Barry, who was there to greet Mr. Malkin in Finland and begin the cloak-and-dagger escape plan across three continents, told Canadian media that he and co-agent Pat Brisson aim to have their client in Penguins training camp on time next month.
"Hopefully, he'll be able to go to Pittsburgh in a few weeks," he told the TSN network in Canada. "As far as we're concerned, the two-week notice is the next area that we'd look into in the next little while. He could very well sign after that. Or we could look into different circumstances the past month." He didn't specify, though those circumstances likely involve the pressured negotiations Aug. 7 and two written attempts to terminate Mr. Malkin's existing Metallurg contracts.
In the first interviews piecing together this tale of foreign intrigue, Mr. Barry told TSN that the L.A.-based agents were contacted Aug. 5 by Mr. Malkin, two days before he re-signed with Metallurg and amid the firing of his previous agent, Don Meehan, after two months and rehiring the Barry-Brisson firm. He asked one of them to meet him in Finland, where Metallurg would land en route to a tournament. Mr. Barry said Metallurg team officials withheld Mr. Malkin's passport for most of the past month, and immigration at the Finland airport would be the first chance he would have to get it back.
Mr. Barry whisked him into seclusion at an undisclosed apartment -- "we have some Finnish friends who helped us out." They awaited visa clearance from the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki. That visa arrived Wednesday, he said. Two hours later, the player and agent boarded a flight to America.
The crux of the case remains the document signed Aug. 7 in Magnitogorsk.
"The Russian labor code is the applicable law, and it's a matter of the contract between Malkin and who he played for," said Kirk Junker, director of international programs and assistant professor with the Duquesne University law school. "He may have agreed to all sorts of things" under not only the jurisdiction of Metallurg, but possibly the Russian Hockey Federation as well.
Neither the U.S. nor Russian governments can legally get involved. It's strictly a labor case, in which his Russian team could seek an injunction to delay Mr. Malkin's Penguins debut or seek an arbitration settlement against the player, which would be enforceable to a degree in U.S. courts.
"Incidentally, according to the law, he is obliged to work at least those two weeks, and he ... has been shirking [such responsibilities] for five days," Mr. Velichkin contended.
In the meantime, Mr. Barry said, Mr. Malkin skated yesterday with NHL star Rob Blake and others on an El Segundo, Calif., rink that the L.A. Kings use as their practice facility.
For the first time in this five-day saga for Mr. Malkin, the Penguins commented yesterday in a statement by new General Manager Ray Shero: "We have been informed by Evgeni Malkin's agents that Evgeni is now in the United States. At the appropriate time, we look forward to sitting down with Evgeni and his representatives to discuss what can be a very bright future with the Pittsburgh Penguins."
Chuck Finder can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1724.