NHL seeks resolution to Zherdev dispute

Right winger Nikolai Zherdev made his NHL debut with the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday night. How many more games he plays remains to be seen.

NHL executive vice president Bill Daly is attempting to prevent what could be a nasty arbitration battle with far-reaching implications by bringing together all the parties Thursday in an attempt to resolve the dispute surrounding Zherdev's NHL eligibility. If Daly is unsuccessful, the case could go to international arbitration.

After signing Zherdev to a three-year contract in August, the Blue Jackets paid the $100,000 transfer free to the International Ice Hockey Federation as required in its agreement with the NHL. However, the Russian Ice Hockey Federation and the Central Red Army team (CSKA) maintain that Zherdev "fled" from his team and the country before fulfilling his mandatory year of military service, making him ineligible to play for the Blue Jackets.

Though payment has been made, the IIHF said it has not approved Zherdev's transfer and is investigating a claim made by the Russian federation that Zherdev jumped leagues in an effort to avoid his military obligation -- something that is clearly prohibited in the NHL's agreement with the IIHF, which expires after this season.

However, Daly said he has not seen any military documentation that would rule Zherdev ineligible to play in the NHL.

According to its Web site, the IIHF has asked the Russian federation if it will request an arbitration regarding Zherdev's status.

If the Russian federation decides to file a grievance on the part of the CSKA, an arbitration hearing could be long and contentious.

The first matter will be determining whether or not Zherdev, 19, is even Russian.

Zherdev was born in Kiev, Ukraine, a part of the former Soviet Union, but a separate and independent state today. Zherdev moved to Moscow when he was 13 to further his hockey career in Russia's elite league, but it remains to be determined if he faces a military obligation as a result.

The second matter is determining what constitutes military service in Russia.

The Russians claim Zherdev was inducted to fulfill his military obligations in April. But Zherdev has told the Blue Jackets he never took an oath and that he was merely appointed to the CSKA team, a natural progression in his rise through the system. While CSKA is a military team, playing hockey no longer automatically qualifies as being a conscripted soldier.

However, if Zherdev was indeed a soldier while playing for CSKA -- he played his last game Nov. 24 and was a healthy scratch on Nov. 29 -- why doesn't his 2002-03 season with the team fulfill his one-year obligation?

Daly was not immediately reachable for comment, but Tuesday he told the Columbus Post Dispatch: "To this point the (Army) question has not been resolved to my satisfaction.

"There is some documentation from the Russian Ice Hockey Federation that we are trying to get a handle on, but I can't tell right now whether it's going to be sufficient for me (to make a ruling) ... at this point I don't have a basis on which I'd rule him ineligible."

If Zherdev was indeed a soldier, he would have been issued a military passport and wouldn't have been permitted to leave the country while on active duty, especially given his status as a well-known hockey player. Instead, his passport was validated when he left Russia.

Sources told ESPN.com that the Russian government had four opportunities to stop Zherdev if he was actually deserting -- when he was leaving Russia, when his flight arrived in Toronto and he cleared customs there, at the U.S. Embassy when he was seeking documentation to enter the country, and at customs while entering the United States.

Unless they are told otherwise, the Blue Jackets will continue to play Zherdev while the NHL handles the legal wrangling.

"We'll deal with the NHL and let them go through the channels," Columbus GM and coach Doug MacLean added. "We signed the player in August. At that time, the Russians knew that and made no mention of a military obligation. We talked to them again in October (in an attempt to gain his release via payment of the transfer fee), and they made no mention of it then. Now, there it is.

"We'll deal with it through the proper channels."

This is not new territory for the NHL, the IIHF and the Russian federation. When it became public knowledge in Russia that Alexander Svitov of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Stanislav Chistov of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, both first-round picks in 2001, signed NHL contracts, both were immediately hustled off from their club team in Omsk to military outposts. They were eventually transferred to Moscow to play for CSKA. The Russian federation prohibited them from playing for CSKA but allowed them to participate in the 2002 World Junior Championships.

Both men eventually gained their release; however, sources told ESPN.com that the NHL teams paid additional funds to the club teams that held their rights. The implication was that the IIHF and the Russian federation were in agreement with the exchange of the negotiated fee with the NHL, but that the clubs wanted a bigger cut. That's not an unheard of practice in Russia, where many hockey officials argue that increased fees are the only way to slow the exodus of talent to the NHL, a process that Russian clubs claim is destroying their nation's hockey program.

So where does it all end?

Given that CSKA is a military team, the Russian federation will likely press the case with the IIHF, which has a legal obligation to respond. The NHL would likely welcome the confrontation in an effort to put an end to the backroom shadings of such deals and to restrict the cash flow to what is dictated by the agreement. The NHL also seeks a legal definition of what constitutes a military obligation in Russia and what documents are necessary to prove it.

Win or lose, the Russian federation will likely put pressure on the IIHF to increase the transfer fee in the next agreement with the NHL. Quitting the IIHF in protest is a radical step that would cost the Russians far more than it would be worth to make a point, as the IIHF controls Olympic participation. However, the Russians could enlist the support of other countries, whose officials are concerned about losing too many stars to the NHL instead of reaping the rewards of developing them.

Negotiations on a new agreement will be even more contentious if Zherdev does not play for Russia in the World Junior Championships in Finland later this month. Russia is the two-time defending champion, and before landing in North America Zherdev had been named its captain.

MacLean said he is not opposed to releasing Zherdev for the tournament if the player wants to go. However, it's likely the team would want assurances that Zherdev will be allowed to return to Columbus and won't be forced back to Moscow.

All and all, it's a complicated fight, but one Daly is ready to take on.

"The Svitov and Chistov cases were the first time we'd had any issues at all in the entire history of the transfer agreement," Daly told the Dispatch. "Their military service claims were ultimately resolved, but it caused us concern with respect to this being a loophole that could be exploited."

Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.