The saga that brought Russian rookie forward Evgeni Malkin to the Penguins is scheduled to continue tomorrow in a Manhattan courtroom.
Metallurg Magnitogorsk, the Russian Super League team for which Malkin played in his hometown, filed a lawsuit against the NHL and the Penguins after Malkin left Metallurg in the summer and, two weeks later, signed with the Penguins. Verbal arguments for a preliminary injunction seeking to bar the Penguins from having Malkin in their lineup will be heard in federal court tomorrow by Judge Loretta A. Preska in the Southern District of New York.
Malkin, 20, is not named in the case and is not expected to appear in court. The Penguins do not play that night.
Preska might rule from the bench, but could defer the decision.
The case is being heard at the same time as one in which Russian team Lokomotiv Yaroslavl has filed suit over prospects Alexei Mikhnov, who signed with Edmonton, and Andrei Taratukhin, who signed with Calgary.
Bill Daly, executive vice president and chief legal officer of the NHL, and Alexander Berkovich, the attorney representing Magnitogorsk and Yaroslavl, say they have strong cases.
"We believe we have valid defenses both to the propriety of a preliminary injunction itself, and to the case on merits," Daly said in an e-mail interview. "We intend to vigorously assert those defenses."
Berkovich is hoping the case sparks a change in the way Russian players matriculate to the NHL. Russia declined to sign the most recent transfer agreement with the International Ice Hockey Federation that calls for a $200,000 fee from the NHL when it signs overseas players. The suits also claim that the three players were under contract with their Russian teams.
"Our claims are over interference with contracts and interference with business relations," Berkovich said. "We're also claiming antitrust violation.
"The only way to do it is for the NHL clubs to come to an arrangement [individually and directly] with the Russian clubs, like they do in soccer. But the NHL prohibits its clubs from doing that."
Officials with Russian teams have said $200,000 is inadequate for players they have developed.
The attorneys representing the NHL and the named teams, Bradley Ruskin and Scott Eggers of the New York firm Proskauer Rose, did not return a phone message.
Malkin, who received widespread attention when he scored at least one goal in each of his first six NHL games, also got a lot of notice for his route to the United States.
He was selected second overall by the Penguins in the 2004 NHL draft but remained in Russia until last summer.
On Aug. 7, Malkin signed a one-year contract with Magnitogorsk, although he said he did so grudgingly in the wee hours of the morning and only after team officials came to his home and pressured him.
When the team flew to Helsinki, Finland, a few days later to train, Malkin took his passport and slipped away. He met one of his agents, J.P. Barry, and stayed in Helsinki until he had clearance to come to the United States.
He also faxed a two-week contract termination notification to Magnitogorsk, which is allowable under Russian labor law.
After two weeks in Los Angeles, Malkin arrived in Pittsburgh for the first time and signed an entry-level NHL contract with the Penguins on Sept. 5.
On Sept. 15, the arbitration committee of the Russian Hockey Federation ruled that Malkin could not play with the Penguins because of his contract with Magnitogorsk. The ruling, which did not affect Malkin's status in the United States, apparently was based on Russian Sports Law rather than the Russian Labor Code.
Malkin remained with the Penguins and has played in every game after missing the first four this season because of a dislocated left shoulder.
On Oct. 18, Magnitogorsk filed its lawsuit in U.S. federal court.
Neither Berkovich nor Daly would reveal the details of their filings in the case, but Daly gave a hint of the NHL's position.
"The fundamental issues for Malkin are: one, that he properly terminated his contract under Russian law and, two, the contract relied on by Magnitogorsk was procured only through duress," he said.
Berkovich said by allowing its teams to sign the players, the NHL is trying to get Russia to follow the lead of other major hockey-producing countries outside of North America.
"We are very concerned with what the NHL is doing," he said. "The NHL is playing hardball to force Russian clubs to sign the [transfer] agreement."
The case is, for the most part, different from that involving Washington Capitals winger Alex Ovechkin, who was drafted first overall in the 2004 NHL draft, one spot ahead of Malkin, and won the Calder Trophy as the NHL rookie of the year last season.
Moscow Dynamo filed suit against Ovechkin in 2005, claiming rights to him.
Ovechkin left Dynamo in April 2005 after leading that team to the Super League title, and signed with rival Avangard Omsk. That contract contained an "out" clause, and Ovechkin exercised that in July 2005 to sign with Washington.
Dynamo, though, made an offer matching Ovechkin's $1.8 million contract with Omsk, and a Russian arbitration committee ruled that the qualifying offer entitled Dynamo to Ovechkin's rights.
The case went to U.S. District Court, and the ruling was in Ovechkin's favor.Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
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Shelly Anderson can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1721.