When Kunlun Red Star hits the ice for its first KHL game next week, it will do so with a patchwork roster made up primarily of Russian players who have been thrown together on short notice. And it will be playing about 3,600 miles west of its Beijing home base. Red Star will also be without its coaching staff from last season, two of whom are former NHL players and coaches who claim they’ve been denied hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary owed to them and are commencing legal action against the team.
The upheaval brought on by the COVID pandemic has hit the hockey world hard, but there probably was not a team in the world that was more impacted than Kunlun Red Star. The team had to leave its home in Beijing last season and was forced to play its games in Moscow until the KHL paused, then cancelled, its season. This season, Kunlun will play its games in the Moscow suburb of Mytishchi with a reconfigured roster made up largely of Russian players, coached by former Kunlun assistant Alexei Kovalev. With the team scheduled to open the season in a little more than a week from now, North American players who are on contract through this season are in the process of getting their paperwork completed and obtaining work visas, with some of them returning on reworked and reduced contracts.
But head coach Curt Fraser, assistant Steve Kasper and goalie coach Dusty Imoo will not be among them. Fraser and Kasper both claim Kunlun GM Scott MacPherson told them this summer that the team would not be able to secure work visas for either of them, despite the fact that North American players for both the men’s and women’s Kunlun team will get visas and other North American coaches such as Bill Peters and Bob Hartley received their visas with no problems. They also haven’t been paid, nor have they heard from Kunlun in months.
Fraser, who coached the team last season and signed a contract extension last January that was supposed to run through this season, said he hasn’t spoken to MacPherson since July 14 when he called MacPherson to find out plans for this season. “He said, ‘We’ve made up our mind that we’re going to go with an all-Russian staff, all Russian players and we’re changing everything and we can’t get visas,’ ” Fraser said. “And then he said, ‘I’ll call you tomorrow and organize the financial part of things.’ That’s the last time I heard from him. We all signed contracts and nothing has been honored and we want this corrected.”
To that end, Fraser, Kasper and Imoo, along with Fraser’s agent Neil Glasberg, have commenced legal proceedings against Red Star Sports and Entertainment, team owner Billy Ngok and MacPherson. Fraser’s contract for this coming season called for a salary of $450,000 (U.S.), while Kasper’s deal called for a $200,000 salary. Fraser, a diabetic, also said he spent in excess of $50,000 on medication that was supposed to be covered by the team’s medical plan for which he has not been reimbursed. Fraser said the day after he spoke to MacPherson, a story appeared in a Russian news outlet that said he had been fired by Kunlun. Another said he retired and a third claimed he stepped down because of health issues. “We did everything that Kunlun asked and went over and above with everything,” Fraser said. “We’re all kind of left out in the cold and don’t know what to do. Not good. I probably would have been OK if they had told me in March, but now they’ve gone way too long.”
TheHockeyNews.com has repeatedly tried to get in touch with MacPherson, both by phone and email, and has not been successful. Numerous phone and email messages left by TheHockeyNews.com have not been returned.
Kasper’s relationship with Kunlun goes back to 2017 when the organization had its under-18 program based in Toronto and he was hired as coach. Kasper also coached the Chinese under-18 national team to a fifth-place finish in the Division IIB World Championship in Croatia in 2018. The next season, Kasper was hired to coach Kunlun’s KHL junior team, but was fired and sent home after 14 games. “I got a little more than half, on a monthly basis, what they promised me,” Kasper said. “I made a quick decision not to rock the boat and thought getting half is better than getting nothing. I just went home quietly.”
Then midway through the 2018-19 season, Kunlun fired former NHLer Bobby Carpenter as its coach (Carpenter had replaced Mike Keenan) and hired Fraser and invited Kasper to come back as an assistant. He and Fraser coached the rest of that season and were renewed for last season. Red Star did not make the playoffs, but both Fraser and Kasper considered the season a success. Kasper said that many of the amenities both players and coaches were promised did not materialize. “We were doing a one-timer drill in practice and one player said to me, ‘Steve, I can’t do this drill because if I break any of these sticks I won’t have any game sticks,’ ” Kasper said. “We’re talking pro hockey at the KHL level and this was a disaster. In my contract, I was supposed to have a one-bedroom suite in a Marriott Hotel and all my meals were supposed to be taken care of. I get over there and it was just a regular hotel room and no meals being taken care of. They were relying on my status as a platinum Marriott member to go to the concierge lounge (for free meals, which essentially consist of finger foods).”
Kunlun, meanwhile, has a roster of 31 players, 21 of them Russian players who are playing pre-season games until the North American reinforcements arrive. The team has played three games and has a 1-1-1 record. After its most recent game, a 2-0 loss to SKA St. Petersburg in Nikolai Puchkov tournament, Kovalev said of his team, “Our situation really isn’t easy. Right now, we don’t fully understand what kind of team we will have when the season starts.”