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.
As far as the Stars are concerned, they lived up to their part of the NHL-IIHF agreement. When the Stars found out about the suit--after Turek had been served in North Carolina--the team says, it notified the NHL offices in New York, the IIHL's home office in Switzerland, and Turek's Canadian agent, Rich Winter. According to the Stars, the IIHF concluded that Turek's signing by the Stars adhered to the agreement between the leagues, and the IIHF contacted Nurnberg about dropping the suit voluntarily.
IIHF officials couldn't be reached for comment, and Andy McGowan, director of public relations for the NHL, says the league will not discuss pending litigation. Mike Fox, the head of media relations for the National Hockey League Players Association, said when contacted last week that no one in his office was even aware of the federal suit.
The Stars' attorney, Ray Guy, is more than happy to comment. "We did not intend to interfere with anyone's contract," he says, insisting the team is going to "vigorously" defend itself against the Germans. "The Stars believed they were authorized to sign Turek."
Nurnberg wasn't buying it, claiming then and now in legal documents that the team "is not and never has been party to any agreements between the NHL and the IIHF regarding player transfers, and is not bound by any agreements between the NHL and the IIHF regarding such player transfers." The Ice Tigers' North Carolina attorney, Faison Hicks, will not comment.
So it remains unclear why the Ice Tigers waited so long to file a suit against the Stars. After all, Turek had been signed to Dallas for a year and a half before Nurnberg ever pursued legal action. And according to documents filed by the Ice Tigers, Turek was the team's prized possession--hell, in documents filed in Dallas court, the Ice Tigers insist he was the team's best player, the whole blessed franchise.
According to a time line set out by the Ice Tigers, Turek had been "discovered" by Nurnberg's general manager Rudolf Schnabel in May 1995, when Turek and the Czech Republic team were playing in the IIHF's World Championship game in Stockholm, Sweden. Schnabel was impressed enough by Turek, who'd been voted to the 1995 IIHF All-Star team, to want him for the Ice Tigers, then a rather mediocre team in the German Ice Hockey League.
At that point, Turek was under contract to Czech Budejovice in the Czech League, but the team couldn't afford to re-sign Turek for the next season. Nurnberg worked out a deal with Turek's agent in Prague and signed him on May 19, 1995, to a deal that made him the Ice Tigers' property until the end of the 1996-'97 season. According to the Ice Tigers, on June 13, 1995, Turek and his new team also entered into an agreement that prohibited the goalie from "signing any employment contract with any NHL team prior to the written consent" of the Ice Tigers. If Turek were to breach the contract, the German team was to be paid 300,000 Swiss francs in compensation--or $260,417, the conversion rate at the time. Turek admits to signing the agreement, but Ray Guy says that the document was written in English--which Turek didn't speak at the time.
The Germans insist that they came up with such an agreement because they worried that some NHL vulture would swoop down and steal away one of its "exceptional players." At the time, the Ice Tigers explain, Turek was by far the highest-paid player in the franchise's history.
The Germans say he was worth it: The Ice Tigers "immediately became the subject of tremendous local and national media attention with the signing or Turek" and "made all of its player selection decisions and built its team for the 1995-1996 and future seasons around Turek." And indeed, in a single season, Nurnberg was transformed from a team with a losing record into a playoff team, and Turek would once more play in the World Championships, helping his Czech national team to a second-place finish and garnering the goalie All-Star honors once more.
But a year later, Roman was off to the good ol' U.S. of A.--playing for Tom Hicks' Dallas Stars. The kid from the small town of Pisek was more than happy to leave behind European hockey for the chance to play in the NHL.
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Turek was originally named as a defendant in the lawsuit, but he was dropped on August 31. The Ice Tigers were concerned that the U.S. federal courts would dismiss a suit pitting a German hockey club against a Czech Republic-born hockey player. So now it's the Dallas Stars v. the Nurnberg Ice Tigers in a grudge match, the date of which has yet to be determined. Ray Guy says that there have been some settlement talks--"it's in the air"--but that nothing has been resolved.
But according to one source familiar with the dispute, the suit has become quite a nuisance for the NHL. The Stars want the league to get involved and settle the matter with the IIHF. After all, if this German team--which is supposed to be part of the NHL-IIHF agreement--can claim it's not bound by the document, what's to stop another European team from suing an NHL team when its star player makes the leap to the majors?
"If the contention had been raised by the Ice Tigers or other German clubs and communicated to the NHL office, then there would have been a list" of teams not to deal with, Guy says.
The Stars found out the hard way. And meanwhile, Roman Turek keeps having a great season. And he'd better--the guy has to prove he's worth all this trouble.