Nail Yakupov could be forced to return to the Ontario Hockey League if he wants to continue playing during the NHL lockout.
The flashy forward was suspended by the Russian-based KHL on Wednesday after it was revealed he didn't secure a transfer card to join Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk. The International Ice Hockey Federation ruled he played illegally when he suited up for his hometown team in two games earlier this month, casting doubt over the immediate future of the NHL's most recent No. 1 pick.
At issue is who controls his playing rights.
Hockey Canada, which refused to sign off on Yakupov's transfer, and the Canadian Hockey League both believe he belongs with the Sarnia Sting. That issue was raised to the IIHF this week during its general congress in Tokyo, according to CHL president David Branch.
"Some of us were a little surprised when Yakupov appeared in a couple of games on the weekend in the KHL without any prior knowledge of anybody with Hockey Canada, the CHL and/or the Sarnia Sting," said Branch.
Hockey Canada insists it is simply acting on behalf of the OHL team. Yakupov spent the last two seasons with Sarnia and is said to have committed to the Sting through the 2012-13 season.
"(We) cannot sign the international transfer card for Nail Yakupov until the Sarnia Sting club releases this player from his contract," said Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson. "If Sarnia advises Hockey Canada that it has released the player, Hockey Canada will sign his transfer card."
Yakupov believes he would be better served to square off against men than teenagers during the lockout.
Rather than reporting to Sarnia when the Edmonton Oilers assigned his rights to the junior club on Sept. 15, he boarded a plane for Russia. That came as little surprise since he had told reporters at the end of August the only reason he'd go to Sarnia this year was "just for a visit."
On Wednesday afternoon, Yakupov posted a message to his Twitter account in Russian that said he believes he'll be able to continue playing for his hometown team in the KHL and that "everything will be worked out in the near future."
Phone calls to Yakupov's agent, Igor Larionov, and Sting general manager, Jacques Beaulieu, by The Canadian Press weren't returned.
It appears the IIHF will ultimately end up having to make a ruling in the case. On Tuesday, the sport's governing body levied a fine of 5,000 Swiss francs (C$5,200) against the Russian hockey federation as punishment for allowing Yakupov to play in the KHL without proper documentation. It also warned of stiffer penalties for both the player and federation if it happened again.
"Playing without an approved (transfer card) following an international transfer request is a breach of IIHF transfer regulations," said spokesman Szymon Szemberg.
The Russian federation has until Oct. 1 to form a response on the matter.
Yakupov's case is unique because the 18-year-old Russian was drafted as a North American-based player. He signed an entry-level deal with the Oilers over the summer and those contracts include a clause that states junior-eligible players may only appear in the NHL or Canadian Hockey League.
Yakupov was a dominant force during his time in the OHL, scoring 80 goals and 170 points in 107 career games for the Sting. He was held without a point in his two games with Neftekhimik last week — appearances that caught the attention of administrators back in North America.
"Suddenly it came to our attention that he was playing," said Branch. "Hockey Canada put forward a request from the IIHF as to how this could occur without the proper process being followed."
Those might end up being the only two games Yakupov plays as a professional before the NHL's lockout ends. Without a transfer card, the only option left to him appears to be a return to Sarnia.