- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 22, 2015

MOSCOW — Canadian goaltender Mark Dekanich wanted “to see the world” while playing in the Russia-based Kontinental Hockey League, but now he’s cooling his heels back home in Vancouver as he waits for unpaid wages.

The KHL has ambitions to draw European hockey fans away from the NHL and boasts former stars such as Ilya Kovalchuk, but life in the league can bring unpleasant surprises for foreign players.

The Russian government can change KHL roster rules on a whim, suddenly forcing foreign players to leave teams. Financial instability means wage stoppages are common.

Dekanich is one of 15 players demanding unpaid wages dating back months at Croatian club Medvescak Zagreb, one of 28 teams from seven countries in the league. He’s now in training camp with the Washington Capitals, with whom he signed earlier this month.

“They owe me over two months of unpaid salary, as well as compensation for not meeting the equipment portion of my contract,” he wrote in an e-mail. “My wife and I are planning to start a family, and not having money that I have rightfully earned and am owed has certainly had an impact on our financial decisions in the present and the upcoming future.”

Medvescak does not dispute that Dekanich and other players are owed money even as it pays current players’ wages in full. Dekanich says he rejected a payment plan proposed by the club that would only see the missing wages paid in full by July 2016, more than a year after they were first due.

Dekanich doesn’t harbor resentment against the league, “only with my past employer,” but acknowledged, “I guess I can’t call them that if they don’t pay.”

The 29-year-old Dekanich is typical of many North Americans in the KHL: a veteran of college hockey and NHL farm teams now looking for success abroad. His time in the NHL was limited to 50 minutes for the Nashville Predators in 2010.

Foreign players were also caught up in a wage stoppage last season at HC Sochi, a key element of Russia’s sports legacy from last year’s Winter Olympics. Two Americans and two Canadians were on a roster which went unpaid for several months from January. The issue was only resolved “sometime in July,” according to KHL Players’ Trade Union head Andrei Kovalenko.

The problems in Sochi, which had some of the league’s highest crowds last season, highlight another problem dogging the KHL.

Being popular often isn’t enough to pay the bills in a league where many clubs, even those from outside Russia, rely heavily on Russian government money, whether via state-run companies or regional governments. Without that funding, many clubs would be financially unstable, since KHL wage bills are routinely far in excess of club earnings.

Czech team Lev Prague withdrew from the league citing financial problems last year, shortly after reaching the Gagarin Cup finals and attracting league-record crowds.

Wages at Russian clubs, which make up 22 of the league’s 28 teams, are paid in rubles, the Russian currency which has lost almost half of its value against the dollar in the last 18 months.

The strong Russian government influence over the KHL has made the league susceptible to demands to change the rules to help the Russian national team.

Fixtures are routinely arranged to give Team Russia a window to prepare for international games, and the number of foreign players at Russian clubs is strictly limited by law in the belief that this will help homegrown talent to emerge.

It became a political hot topic after Russia’s failure to medal at last year’s Olympics, when President Vladimir Putin suggested foreign players had taken ice time from young Russians in the KHL.

Last month, less than a week before the start of the current season, the Russian Sports Ministry suddenly decreed that players from Belarus and Kazakhstan, Russia’s neighbors, would count as foreigners, unlike in previous seasons. That forced several Russian clubs to release foreign players in order to comply with the limit. Many have found new teams, but not all.

Kovalenko, a former Edmonton Oilers forward, and his KHLPTU unsuccessfully tried to appeal the ruling and are now monitoring to see that all compensation to players is paid in full.

“The players weren’t leaving the clubs of their own accord. It was the clubs ripping up the contracts with the players on their own initiative,” he said.
Despite the unpredictability, it’s not all bad for foreign players.

Kovalenko said that foreigners in the KHL can also live a life of luxury unavailable to locals — “better cars, better apartments” and “exceptions from training” are traditionally all available.

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