How KHL clubs woo NHL free agents: Gerber signs a tax-free, rent-free contract

Those that have been paying close attention to free agency this summer have noted the NHL goalie carousel that has become Atlant Mytischi, the KHL team that Martin Gerber signed with yesterday and which Antero Niittymaki was rumoured to be heading to two weeks ago.

Gerber will be taking over former teammate Ray Emery's role in Atlant, but according to a source, he received a far smaller contract of only $700,000 (U.S.) on a one -year deal — the same offer that was made to Niittymaki shortly after NHL free agency began July 1.

Niittymaki eventually took a one-year, $600,000 deal to play for the Lightning next season, but as we've heard in the past, there's more to these KHL contracts than the dollar figure.

One agent involved in signing players to KHL deals said that they are worth two and a half to three times their NHL equivalents because players do not have to pay tax on them and receive free housing, a car and most of their meals. Many are also given a cellphone and have their utilities paid for, as well as travel to and from their home country.

Niittymaki ultimately had the tax-free, incentive-laden deal from Atlant and multiple near league minimum offers from NHL teams, and opted for the paycut to play in Tampa, where he's hoping for more playing time than he would have received elsewhere. (Not a bad bet given Mike Smith continues to recover from his concussion issues.)

Some players make a different choice. One top scoring star in Europe had some interest from NHL teams but received far more lucrative deals in the KHL and ultimately signed for about $1-million. Others, such as Slovakia's Juraj Mikus, take less to try their luck in the NHL but have out clauses in their deals that allow them to return to Europe.

Meanwhile, the extreme lack of activity on the NHL's free agency market lately has had a big impact on European league players as teams hold out for the potential North American leftovers created by the salary cap crunch.

"There's approximately 100 unemployed players in Europe, and they started their on-ice sessions this week," said one agent. "If you add all the RFA/UFAs in North America, you can understand the panic among players."

He added that many GMs are waiting out the market, believing they'll get better deals as unclaimed players are more desperate for employment — on both sides of the ocean. And despite the tax-free offers in the KHL, the recession is having a major impact on hockey overseas.

"The NHL has escrow and a cap, so [the economics] will follow a somewhat predictable route when we see season-ticket renewals, but Europe is a mess. There are fewer rich owners to bail teams out when the going gets tough ... there could be bankruptcies but also 30- to 50-per-cent cuts on salaries.

"If you have a deal, you're okay because there's no collective bargaining, but guys without a long-term deal take the hit ... and most players in Europe have no financial cushion.

"It's going to be one friggin' ugly August-December. Alcoholism, divorces, etc., will follow."

Tough times all around, apparently, and it'll be interesting to see what that means for the 50 or so NHL-calibre free agents still looking for a home. You can see why the likes of Gerber and Niittymaki are accepting less to simply have regular employment, whether that's here, in Russia or elsewhere.

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