Three coaches are suing the Kunlun Red Star, the KHL team based in China, for more than $1 million in compensation, they told ESPN.
Head coach Curt Fraser, assistant Steve Kasper and goaltending coach Dusty Imoo were all under contract with Kunlun for the 2020-21 KHL season. However, when last season was cut short in March by the coronavirus pandemic, all three coaches returned home to North America. Fraser said he has not received a paycheck since.
The KHL operated as usual — teams made trades and signed players to contracts — while Fraser said he spent the past five months at home in Dallas, preparing for the upcoming season, including regular Zoom calls with his staff and players. On July 14, Fraser said he called Red Star GM Scott MacPherson to ask about missed paychecks.
“He told me they couldn’t bring us back because of visa problems,” Fraser said. “Then I talked to [fellow North American-born KHL coaches] Bob Hartley and Bill Peters and they were like no, no, everything is good for us. No visa problems for them.”
For the 2020-21 season, Kunlun is temporarily relocating to Mytishchi Arena, which is in a suburb of Moscow. Though the team later told Fraser that it wasn’t able to get him a Russian visa because they are owned by a Chinese company, the Red Star were able to obtain a visa for at least one American-born player, Jake Chelios, for 2020-21.
The KHL’s Chinese-based women’s team, the KRS Vanke Rays, is also relocating to Russia this season. They also were able to secure visas for North American-born players, according to sources.
Kasper, who has been part of the organization since 2017, said he had been told to be ready to leave for training camp around July 15.
“We kept calling the team asking about travel and they’d say, ‘Oh, we’ll send you info next week, next week,'” Kasper said. “Then they told us they are moving to Mytishchi, Russia, for the season, sent me a video of the rink, everything looked great. And then, nothing, nothing, nothing. All of the sudden, July 14 I get a call and they say, ‘We’re not bringing you back.'”
Fraser said he received a letter at the end of July from Kunlun Red Star human resources, which cited a force majeure clause for their termination. Fraser, however, did not have a force majeure clause in his contract. Neither do Imoo or Kasper.
Multiple attempts to reach MacPherson were unsuccessful.
The Kunlun Red Star joined the KHL in 2016 in the hopes to expand the Russian-based hockey league’s reach — but also serve as a launching pad for the Chinese national team in advance of the Beijing 2022 Olympics.
In 2016, IIHF president Rene Fasel expressed support, saying China represented “huge growth, huge opportunities” for the sport, and that bringing a professional team to China would help develop homegrown talent.
Last season, there were 12 Chinese heritage players who suited up for Kunlun. This season, there is just one Chinese heritage player (forward Tyler Wong) listed on the team’s official roster.
The Red Star’s roster is now filled with predominantly Russian-born players. Russian-born Alexei Kovalev, a longtime NHL player, was promoted to be the head coach for 2020-21.
“In Kunlun, they were basically telling everyone they were going to be the feeder for the Olympic program,” said Kasper, who because of his affiliations with the club, coached the Chinese U18 national team at the Division IIB World Championships in 2018. “And it feels like they totally punted on that. Maybe it’s easier for them to put out a Russian team right now because of business interests, I don’t know. But if they’re not developing players, at least at the KHL level, what type of team is China going to field for the 2022 Olympics?”
The coaches sent a demand letter to the Red Star for their lost compensation from lawyers in Toronto, though the lawsuit is being filed in Hong Kong.
“I’m hoping they feel pressure to do the right thing,” Kasper said. “Because right now they have no conscience. A lot of promises were made, and the rug was pulled out at the last minute.”
The coaches say that many players on the roster were asked to take pay cuts of up to 50% this season, though that was not offered to them. Kasper, a longtime NHL player and former coach of the Boston Bruins, said this isn’t his first mistreatment from Kunlun management. He was sent home just 14 games into the 2018-19 season and offered only 50% of his contract, only to be brought back later as an assistant — under his new reduced rate.
Fraser, a diabetic, said he paid $50,000 out of pocket for medication that was supposed to be covered under Kunlun’s medical plan. However, Fraser — who is also a longtime NHL player, and former coach of the Atlanta Thrashers — said it’s the timing of their divorce with Kunlun that stings the most.
“I know there’s a couple guys on our staff who could have found other jobs easy, and they got offered two or three jobs but turned them down — because we had a really good group, and everyone was committed to the building process, building toward the Olympics for all of these players,” Fraser said. “Then all of the sudden it came to a grinding halt, and everyone is in a tough spot. I also think of these kids, who were great kids, working their tails off to help hockey in China, and help put a team on the ice for the Olympics. They’re now left with nothing. There’s nowhere for them to play. What are they going to do?”
Over the past two months, stories have appeared in Russian news outlets saying Fraser had either retired or stepped away because of health reasons. Fraser said those stories are untrue.
“We’re hockey coaches and players. All of this legal stuff this isn’t something we’re used to,” Fraser said. “All we know is how to put in the work, provide a service, and management is supposed to look after us with their responsibilities with compensation. I don’t understand why they’re being like this. It’s not like we’re bad people or did a bad job. We did everything they wanted, everything they asked for, and they were happy with everything. If you read the article when they re-signed me [in] 2019, they were as happy as can be with the coaching staff and the players. And now they’re trying to just turn the page and walk away. That just isn’t right.”