Taking shots

A German hockey team claims that Stars goalie Roman Turek is its property

Dallas Stars backup goaltender Roman Turek is having the best season of his National Hockey League career. He won 11 games all of last season; already, less than halfway into the 1998-'99 campaign that finds Dallas owning the NHL's best record, Turek has seven wins. In the 12 games he's played this season, he's given up only 20 goals; only Ottawa's Ron Tugnutt has a lower goals-against average. And he has stopped 92 percent of the shots taken at him, tying him for second in save percentage in the league--behind the likes of Tugnutt, Buffalo's superstar Dominik Hasek, and Los Angeles' Stephane Fiset.

It is a season that stands in marked contrast to last year, when the 28-year-old Czech went down with a groin injury, spent some rehab time in the minors, lost five games in a row to end the season, and sat out all of the playoffs when coach Ken Hitchcock put his team's fate in the glove of hotshot Ed Belfour.

Finally, the Stars' 1990 sixth-round pick is playing like the man who didn't lose a single game in the 1996 World Championships--he went 7-0-1, including a 5-0 shutout of the United States team--and helped win the Czech Republic team a gold medal. He is playing like the beloved all-star he was in Europe during the early 1990s--the kid who won the Czech League's most valuable player award when he was just 23, the boy with the golden stick.

The guy's good--so good, in fact, that right now the Dallas Stars and a German hockey team are fighting over Turek in Dallas federal court. It's the unreported puck-you battle of the season: Germany v. U.S.A.!

Quick, someone call The Hague.
On January 3, 1998, Turek discovered he was the subject of this legal tug-of-war when the Stars went to Greensboro, North Carolina, to play the Carolina Hurricanes for the first time in that young franchise's history. The night of the game, Turek was served with papers notifying him that his old team, the Nurnberg Ice Tigers of the German Hockey League, was alleging he had breached his contract.

The young Czech didn't know what hit him. Poor guy didn't even hire a lawyer.

The Ice Tigers are claiming that when Dallas Stars general manager Bob Gainey signed Turek to a contract in early 1996, he and the team engaged in "intentional, willful, wanton, and outrageous conduct" by interfering with the Ice Tigers' rights to the net-minder. In legal documents, the Nurnberg franchise accuses the Stars of all manner of illegal activity, from contract-tampering to violating the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act.

In short, the German club claims that Gainey and the Stars nearly ruined the Ice Tigers franchise, turning a playoff team into a mediocre one--and decimating sales of Turek merchandise, including keychains and jerseys and even figurines. Turns out Roman Turek was a bona fide superstar in Germany, not just a bench player. So the Ice Tigers are seeking unspecified damages against the Stars: If they can't have Turek--and they still want him--at least they want a lot of money to make up for the loss of their franchise player.

The Stars and their attorneys, of course, aren't willing to pay a single cent to Nurnberg, convinced the law is on their side. After all, an agreement exists between the NHL and the International Ice Hockey Federation allowing NHL teams to sign members of European teams without the permission of that player's franchise.

According to the agreement, signed by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and IIHF president Rene Fasel in 1994 and again in 1996, any player already under contract to an IIHF team may indeed be signed by an NHL team by July 15 "of the year in which he will begin play in the NHL." That means an IIHF player must be signed by July 15, 1998, if he's to play for an NHL team during the 1998-'99 season.

Even though the Stars drafted Turek in 1990, they didn't sign him until June 6, 1996, while the goalie was playing for the Ice Tigers. Turek would play his first game--and notch his first win--in a Stars uniform on November 20, 1996, against the Calgary Flames.

According to the agreement, as soon as an NHL team signs a player in the European league, the team is supposed to "promptly" notify the IIHF office. At that point, the IIHF team to which the player is signed is supposed to "immediately release" the player from his contract and keep hands off during the player's time in the NHL.

In other words, it's a nice, clean severing of ties between the player and his old IIHF team.

And for the NHL, it's a very sweet deal.
In exchange for letting the NHL pluck--OK, plunder--European players from the International Ice Hockey Federation, the NHL has agreed to pay the IIHF a certain amount of money each year to "support the development of hockey outside North America." (Smells like hockey's version of Manifest Destiny.) According to an agreement signed September 1994, the NHL was supposed to pay the European league $4.72 million this season--which comes out to a mere $175,000 per team, half of which was due in September with the balance due next month. The IIHF teams draw from that fund when their players defect to the NHL, though just how much they get isn't specified in the agreement.

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