Kovalchuk and Ovechkin

Ask a Lawyer: Could Ovechkin and/or Kovalchuk legally get out of their NHL contracts?


With all the rhetoric emanating from each side of the NHL’s labor dispute, we’ve decided to bring in an actual lawyer to answer a series of questions. Hopefully it will prove useful to you, the reader, because it’s costing us $500 an hour. Please welcome to ProHockeyTalk, sports legal analyst Eric Macramalla.

PHT: Greetings, Eric. Both Alex Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk have threatened to stay in the KHL should a new NHL CBA effectively reduce salaries on current contracts. Ovechkin thinks “it would be possible to annul [his contract with the Capitals] through the court.”

Could these guys actually legally get out of their contracts?

EM: Not really — but sort of. (And yes, it is these types of nonsensical answers that make people hate lawyers.)

First, as I covered here, if the players and owners agree on a rollback and that agreement is dropped in the CBA, then that pay reduction is lawful. So that means Ovechkin or Kovalchuk wouldn’t be able to say that their cut in pay is somehow unlawful, and by extension, grounds to invalidate their contracts. However, they might still be able to get out of them.

An NHL contract, which is called a “Standard Player Contract” or an “SPC”, provides at Section 14(b) that a team has the right to terminate a contract if that player shall “fail, refuse or neglect to render his services hereunder or in any other manner materially breach this Contract”.

Not rendering services would include not showing up for work. So while Ovechkin and/or Kovalchuk wouldn’t be in a position to challenge the validity of their contracts, they could elect not to return to the NHL, thereby setting in motion a series of events that would end with their clubs terminating their contracts.

Before termination, that same SPC at Section 4 says that a team can suspend a player without pay for not discharging the obligations under his contract. Again, that would include not playing for the team.

Their teams could also look to sue for breach of contract, which would entitle them to an award of monetary damages. They wouldn’t, however, be able to sue to force the players to come back and play.

There is one more issue. The NHL and the KHL have an understanding that each league will honor the contracts of the other league.

“[NHL deputy commissioner] Bill Daly confirmed in writing what our practice has been, namely, we respect their contracts and we expect them to respect ours.” commissioner Gary Bettman said.

So there would be pressure on the KHL not to allow Ovechkin and/or Kovalchuk to play in its league. However, it would just be that – pressure. As it stands, there would be no real legal recourse for the NHL if it wanted to force the KHL to bar the players from playing.

In conclusion, if Ovechkin and/or Kovalchuk were really disenchanted with the new CBA, they could take steps to walk away from the NHL.

Something tells me, though, that’s not going to happen.

Eric Macramalla is a partner at a national law firm and TSN’s sports legal analyst. He has covered the legal side of all major sports stories, including the NFL and NBA lockouts, the Saints Bountygate, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens perjury trials, the Ilya Kovalchuk dispute and the Jerry Sandusky case. You can follow him on Twitter at@EricOnSportsLaw and his sports law blog is located at www.OffsideSportsLaw.com.


Ask a Lawyer: Would the NHLPA ever try to decertify to end the lockout?

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.

‘John leaves a lasting mark’: NHL announces Collins’ departure as COO

John Collins
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One of the driving forces behind the NHL’s growth over the last decade is moving on.

John Collins, who’s served as the league’s chief operating officer for the last seven years, will be leaving his post to embark on a new business opportunity.

More, from the League:

Collins, who joined the NHL in November 2006, had been COO since August 2008.

“John leaves a lasting mark,” said Commissioner Bettman. “His energy, creativity and skill at building strategic partnerships helped drive significant revenue growth for our League. We are grateful for his many contributions and wish him the best in his new endeavors.”

Said Collins, “I’m grateful to Commissioner Bettman for his leadership and friendship over the past nine years. He had a vision for extending the reach of the NHL and supported us completely as we set out to make the game as big as it deserves to be.

“The NHL’s future is filled with promise and potential and I will admire and cheer the League’s successes to come on the global stage.”

Collins, 53, was regarded as one of main presences behind a number of the NHL’s most successful initiatives, including the Winter Classic and Stadium Series, the HBO 24/7 collaboration, the relaunched World Cup of Hockey, Canadian and American television deals and partnerships with companies like SAP, Adidas, Major League Baseball Advanced Media and GoPro.

During Collins’ tenure, the NHL was twice named “Sports League of the Year” by the SportsBusiness Journal and SportsBusiness Daily — once in 2011, and again in 2014.