Battleground Belarus

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Ever since the Russian Sbornaya was knocked out of the home-ice Sochi Olympics, a massive turf war has been brewing between the KHL and the Russian Hockey Federation. And now, a neighboring nation has been caught in the crossfire, leaving many players across the KHL with their future uncertain.

For the 2014/15 KHL season, the league added exemptions for the first time. Belarusians and Kazakhs (along with Armenians and Kyrgyz, neither of whom have any players even close to KHL-quality; this is due to their membership in the Eurasian Economic Union) were not counted as “legionnaires,” or foreign players. This means that any Russian KHL team could pack their team full of Belarusians and still have their import slots open. Players such as Kevin Lalande (CSKA Moskva), Vadim Krasnoslobodtsev (Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod), and the Kostitsyn brothers (Sergei with Ak Bars Kazan and Andrei with Traktor Chelyabinsk and later HK Sochi) were able to sign anywhere and pose no liability towards their team if they wished to pursue a player from North America or central and northern Europe.

Going into the 2015/16 season, it looked fairly uncertain for these players ahead of Russia’s 2016 World Championships. Despite this, some teams carried on business by last year’s rules; Dmitry Korobov and Andrei Antonov joined Spartak Moskva (who already had five non-Russian players), while the Kostitsyns reunited at Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod (who had four at the time, then added American defender Dan Spang). Ilya Shinkevich left Dinamo Minsk for Vityaz Podolsk, where he looked set to be a minute-munching top-four defenseman. Just a week before the season, the KHL announced that Belarusians and Kazakhs would not be legionnaires for 2015/16.

However, that wasn’t the case.

On August 27, three days after the first game of the season, the Russian Ministry of Sport overruled the KHL, saying that Belarusians and Kazakhs would count as foreigners.

All of a sudden, Korobov, Antonov, and Shinkevich were out of work, and Torpedo admitted they’d have to dump one of the Kostitsyns and perhaps even both. Lokomotiv prepared ahead of time, cutting Geoff Platt, who later signed with CSKA.

Now, the agents of these players are threatening legal action, as is the KHL Players’ Association, which has grown in power since Andrei Kovalenko took power. The Belarusian Hockey Federation was so incensed that Chairman Igor Rachovsky questioned whether or not Dinamo Minsk, the nation’s lone KHL representative, should even participate in the league next season. The coach of the biggest club in Belarus’s Extraleague, Yunost Minsk, believes that this situation wouldn’t be as bad if Belarus had a second KHL club; however, it is unlikely the KHL would resort to this measure, especially after two members of Dinamo’s front office were arrested this offseason for embezzlement and other corruption-related crimes. Furthermore, the Belarusians claim that Vitaly Mutko, Russian Sports Minister, told them at the World Championships that Belarussians would be exempt for another two years.

This is just a microcosm of the larger turf war between the KHL and Russian Hockey Federation in the aftermath of the 2014 Olympics. The KHL wants what’s best to help the league compete with the NHL, and that includes more high-quality import players. The FHR, however, wishes to develop the Russian national team to be the best possible, and that includes giving young players more ice time. Belarussian exemptions, they claim, would hamper that ability to give young players time to develop.

It’s about to get ugly.

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