Will the Russian Hockey Player Soon Be Extinct in the NHL?
AUGUST 5, 2013 — In recent years the number of Russian players featuring in the NHL has shrunk significantly, leading one to wonder whether the NHL may one day feature not even a single player born in Russia.
While after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 this thought may have been unthinkable as Russian players were coming over to the NHL in droves, the reality is that now players from Russia are more inclined to stay home than ever before. After reaching a record high level of 42 Russians drafted during the 2000 NHL Entry Draft (14.33% of all players drafted that year), the number of Russians drafted in the 2013 dwindled to a lowly eight, only 3.8% of all draftees. The Russian presence on NHL rosters has dropped considerably since as well, dropping from 68 during the 2000-2001 season to 27 during 2012-2013.
This dramatic drop of Russians in the NHL can be largely attributed to the rise of the KHL. The KHL began in 2008 with 24 teams based out of Belarus, Kazakhstan, Latvia, and Russia, and is now expanding rapidly across Europe, with 28 teams from Belarus, Czech Republic, Croatia, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Ukraine, Slovakia scheduled to play during the 2013-2014 season. The league is not planning to stop expanding at 28 teams though, with further expansion plans for teams from Finland, Italy already scheduled.
This expansion has helped give the league a much larger presence than ever before and resulted in multiple Russian players going to the KHL, including such high end talents as Alexander Radulov and Ilya Kovalchuk. In addition to helping bring players back home, the new found resources afforded by the KHL have helped keep Igor Mirnov, Sergei Mozyakin, and others from going over to the NHL teams who drafted them.
More than just a larger presence and upgraded quality of play, what really is keeping these players at home is the massive amount of money that teams in the KHL are willing to spend to keep players home. Teams in the KHL can offer these players salaries as high as $15 million, which Ilya Kovalchuk will receive annually from SKA St. Petersburg, and offer it with a very low tax rate. When put into consideration that Alexander Ovechkin is only player in the NHL who even averages a salary over $9 million, it is easy to see how this bump in base salary alone can be very enticing for Russian born players.
The added benefit of paying a very low tax rate while playing in the KHL may be nearly as enticing as the higher base salary that Russian players will earn. While in the United States and Canada the tax rate can range from anywhere between 30-40%, Russia has a flat rate of 13% for all of its citizens. With contracts often in the millions of dollars, this difference in tax rates can be the difference of hundreds of thousands, or even millions of extra dollars in a persons pocket each season. This extra money from savings on taxes is only another enticing prospect to for Russian born players to consider from the KHL.
To go along with the massive amount of money that Russian players can get by staying at home, they are also given the comfort of living near their families and friends. While many North American hockey fans and personalities will say that this should not be more important than playing for the Stanley Cup, the best trophy in sports, the value of happiness can not be understated. If a player is not happy, chances are that human nature will prevail and that he will under perform at some point. This has been the case for a number of European players, including superstars such as Ilya Kovalchuk, who have enjoyed immense success in the NHL but left the customer believing they had a little more to offer.
“I’m not going to the moon, China or Japan. I’m going home, where my mother, sister, my friends live. I’m more comfortable in Russia,” Kovalchuk told SovSport.ru about returning home to play in the KHL. “I am happy. I wanted it myself.”
When you combine these unthinkable salaries with the comfort of living at home near family and friends it begins to make sense why Russian players would want to play in the KHL. They can continue to play a high level of hockey, while not putting themselves out of contention for international events, such as the World Championships and the Olympics. In fact, the Russian Olympic Camp Roster for the 2014 Olymipcs includes 17 players from the KHL out of the 35 on the list.
NHL teams have noticed that Russian players are generally happier at home and realized they can truly do nothing about it. With a strict salary cap in place for the NHL, teams are unwilling to give one player an amount of money that will hamstring them from upgrading their roster in other areas. Teams are especially careful of doing this to Russian players that some general managers and coaches believe are a high risk of leaving at any moment to go home and play in the KHL. After all if the KHL can lure back a player as successful as Ilya Kovalchuk, who has scored the most goals and has the fourth most points in the NHL since 2001, then anyone could be at risk of leaving. The fear that Russians will leave a franchise at any time has resulted in fewer and fewer Russian born players being drafted in the NHL draft each year, meaning the pool of Russians who could play in the NHL is getting smaller and smaller each year.
One day this could mean that the Russian player will be extinct from the NHL.