Does Eric Belanger have a 'leg to stand on' in pursuing legal actions against the Capitals?


Thumbnail image for georgemcpheecapsgm.jpgWhen word broke that Eric Belanger signed with the Phoenix Coyotes yesterday, I have to admit that I was stunned that his deal with the Washington Capitals didn’t work out. As we’ve learned today, Belanger was stunned too, as his agent Joe Tacopina lashed out at Capitals management including general manager George McPhee (seen in the photo to the right) for breaking their verbal contract.

The story might not end with mere hurt feelings, though. Belanger reportedly trusted the parties enough to get a lease on a DC-area house and enrolled his children in area schools, thinking that he would be a Capitals center once again. If that wasn’t enough, the deal he signed with the Coyotes was for $750K, more than a million less than the supposed word-of-honor deal with the Caps. His agent Tacopina discussed the possibility of taking legal action against Washington, a scenario that encouraged debate among hockey agents, writers and bloggers.

The Globe and Mail’s James Mirtle published Tacopina’s comments and also quoted a veteran rival who thinks that legal moves would go nowhere.

“They should be ashamed of how they handled this situation,” Tacopina said of McPhee and Fishman.

“We’re pursuing and evaluating our legal options in that regard.”


A contract, however, was never signed and registered with the league, an arrangement several veteran player agents said they would never have agreed to.

“They don’t have a legal leg to stand on,” one agent said Wednesday. “The entire situation is governed by the CBA. An agent and the player are obligated under the CBA to not take individual legal action or you can lose your certification to be an agent … The sole remedy would be a grievance.

“The grievance precedent is 100 per cent crystal clear: Unless you have a signed standard player contract on file, registered with the NHL, you have nothing.”

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for ericbelanger.jpgTyler Dellow – an Oilers oriented hockey blogger with a legal background – disagrees with the veteran agent’s stance that the entire situation would be governed by the CBA, though. Read the full article for a more fleshed out discussion of the legal possibilities at play here, but I think the final two paragraphs of his piece illustrate that it’s not impossible for Belanger to take some kind of action. (Even if Dellow points out that it’s plausible that his agent might be somewhat culpable for giving him poor advice, too.)

 … Tacopina takes a hammering in Mirtle’s article for his failure to get a signed deal. I have some difficulty with that. While we all know that there’s no deal under the CBA until one is signed, a lot of lawyers work on trust when it comes to their dealings with other lawyers. George McPhee is a lawyer. Don Fishman’s title is Director of Legal Affairs, so I assume he’s a lawyer as well. If you can’t trust the lawyer with whom you’re dealing, a lot of legal dealings become a lot more arduous. Lawyers will generally try to accomodate one another when they can and, where someone is told that a deal is done but that it won’t be formalized yet for other reasons, I can understand why Tacopina was inclined to let it go. You generally get to burn someone like Tacopina has been burned only once though, if it’s public enough, as this is.

In any event, regardless of the potential legal consequences, if there’s any truth to Tacopina’s account, the Capitals have acted in a pretty despicable manner, most likely to Belanger’s detriment. Doctrines like promissory estoppel arose as a response to shortfalls in contract law, as basically a way for courts to protect reasonable expectations that people form in circumstances where they’ve relied on the promises of others to their detriment. Even if there is no legal remedy here – and I’m not an American lawyer and this has been sort of stream of consciousness thinking, if you need legal advice, you should speak to a lawyer – the Capitals’ conduct is shameful. The Capitals can probably forget about ever getting the slightest indulgence again from a player, because there isn’t an agent in the world who would advise them to do so. That’s something that has a cost, even if they saved money by not signing Belanger.

What does this all mean? Well, Belanger might have a leg to stand on, even if that leg is atrophied. He can provide some tangible examples of how the broken verbal contract hurts him (house lease, kids enrolled, lost free agent negotiation opportunities) but very little in writing beyond the letter/e-mail Tacopina provided in Mirtle’s story.

Chances are that Belanger will just have a lot of hard feelings for the Capitals organization and many outsiders might find it a little tougher to root for the high octane, but perhaps ethically questionable franchise. Then again, dissenters will simply say that the Caps weren’t bound to the center and would have done the right thing if they simply were able to trade an extra player.

It’s probably been blown out of proportion a bit, but there’s little doubt that the poorly handled situation had a negative impact on Belanger. Is it enough to fuel a successful lawsuit? Probably not, but it certainly doesn’t put the parties involved in a very good light. Then again, we haven’t heard much from the Capitals side of the story, so maybe there’s more to the story than meets the eye.

Star struck: Sens chase Niemi after three goals on nine shots (Update: And now he’s back)

Milan Michalek, Antti Niemi
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Bet Antti Niemi misses playing Buffalo.

Niemi, who stopped 46 of 47 shots in back-to-back wins over the Sabres last week, was hooked during Tuesday’s game against the Senators after allowing three goals on nine shots.

In Niemi’s defense, tonight’s goals weren’t exactly his fault.

John Klingberg coughed up the puck badly on Bobby Ryan‘s opening tally…

And on Ottawa’s second goal, Jyrki Jokipakka lost a board battle moments before Milan Michalek snapped one home:

The Sens’ third marker also came on a turnover.

Update: Well, this is quite the night for Dallas netminders. Kari Lehtonen replaced Niemi, allowed a goal, then got hurt in this collision with Klingberg, which forced him from the game and Niemi back into action.

Foley aware of Seattle reports, but says Vegas is ‘proceeding as if we will play in 2017’

Gary Bettman, Bill Foley
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Bill Foley, the man behind Las Vegas’ prospective NHL expansion team, says he knows about reports claiming the league is keeping an eye on a proposed Seattle arena.

He also says he isn’t going to worry about things out of his control.

“I’m aware of what’s going on (in Seattle) but in my communication with the league, our situation isn’t dependent on third parties,” Foley said Tuesday, per the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “We believe we’re in good shape and we’re proceeding as if we will play in 2017.”

Over the weekend, a Seattle Times piece suggested the NHL had yet to award Vegas or Quebec City an expansion franchise because the league is “avoiding any expansion decision until after an upcoming Seattle City Council vote likely to decide the fate of Chris Han­sen’s proposed Sodo District arena.”

The piece also suggested Seattle could be granted an expansion club for the 2018-19 campaign.


That vote, on granting Hansen part of Occidental Avenue South for his arena, is expected by January. No one knows how it will go, only that the lead-up should be politically charged and fiercely contested.

But passing it — future legal appeals notwithstanding — paves the way for Hansen to obtain his Master Use Permit and have his arena “shovel ready” should he choose to build.

And that means, once a vote passes, it’s entirely possible the NHL could conditionally award Seattle an expansion team.

To his credit, Foley remains solely focused on his Vegas bid — not what potential rival bids could bring to the table. And while he confirmed he has yet to be invited to the Dec. 7 NHL Board of Governor’s meeting in Pebble Beach, he re-iterated his only objective is to strengthen Sin City’s case for a hockey team.

“I’m focused on trying to find a place to build our practice facility,” he said. “I’m focused on the new arena and our fans who’ve put down deposits on season tickets.”

Report: Sabres’ Lehner (ankle) suffered minor setback in recovery

Robin Lehner
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Sabres fans hoping Robin Lehner would return early from his high ankle sprain received some tough news on Tuesday — per ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun, Lehner suffered a “little setback” in his recovery.

Lehner was hurt in Buffalo’s opening game of the year and, originally, slated to miss 6-10 weeks. Six weeks have now passed, but optimism he’d be able to return in the earlier part of the timeframe has been dashed — LeBrun says Lehner’s projected return is now for mid-to-late December.

(So, closer to the 10-week estimate.)

While it’s not great news for the Sabres, it’s a positive development for the club’s other Swedish netminder, Linus Ullmark.

Recalled from AHL Rochester shortly after Lehner got hurt, Ullmark is on a really nice run in November — just check his last five games played:


The last Lehner update from the Sabres came in early November, when head coach Dan Bylsma told the News his goalie was “doing really well,” but “not close yet to getting back on the ice.”

Welcome Ryan Johansen to the trade rumor mill

Ryan Johansen

Well, this kind of seemed inevitable — there are now trade rumblings involving Columbus center Ryan Johansen.

This evening, TSN’s Darren Dreger revealed that teams have been calling Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen about the talented pivot, adding that one team classified Johansen as being “softly” in play.

More (transcribed from video):

“That doesn’t mean [Kekalainen] is calling teams, saying ‘what are you going to give me?’ However, when teams call, he’s not dismissing the interest. He is saying ‘well, what’s your offer?’

“What that tells you is there’s at least some interest in considering the trade of Ryan Johansen and, as we saw on the weekend, his minutes dropped, he was demoted to the fourth line — so if the right deal comes along, they’ll consider it.”

The incident Dreger referred to occurred during Sunday’s 5-3 loss to San Jose, in which head coach John Tortorealla limited Johansen to just 13:52 TOI — his lowest total of the season.

It’s the latest incident from what’s already been a tumultuous year; not long after getting hired, Tortorella told the reigning All-Star MVP he was out of shape.

Johnansen was then away from the team for a pair of games dealing with an undisclosed illness. During that absence, the Dispatch reported Johansen had been hospitalized this summer because of an accelerated heart rate.

All this, of course, came one year after an ugly contract dispute at the start of last season, during which the Jackets and Johansen’s representation engaged in a public spat before agreeing to a three-year, $12M deal.