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

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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.

Related:

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

Milbury, Jones: Tkachuk walked the walk; Kings’ response was embarrassing

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The Los Angeles Kings got revenge on Matthew Tkachuk and the Calgary Flames on the scoreboard on Wednesday. But was that 4-1 win enough?

Mike Milbury and Keith Jones provided a lengthy “overtime” segment on NBCSN that brought about some really fascinating takes on the situation between Tkachuk and the Flames versus Drew Doughty and the Los Angeles Kings.

Watch the full video above, as it’s worth your time.

A few interesting lines if you’re (tsk tsk) skipping it:

Milbury: Believes that Doughty didn’t “do enough,” noting that star players sometimes have to stick up for themselves. On the other hand, Tkachuk showed that he can “walk the walk.”

He also gave the Kings a “C-, D+ if not worse” for their overall response. “Fight your own battles,” Milbury said of Doughty.

Jones disagreed to some extent, believing that Kings teammates won’t look at Doughty differently. But Jake Muzzin? He believes that Muzzin’s frequent defensive partner (at least over the years, maybe not this season) backing down from a fight was an embarrassment.

Spicy stuff.

For what it’s worth, Drew Doughty has one career fight (against Joe Thornton [!] in 2011-2) while Jake Muzzin’s lone bout came against Andrew Desjardins in 2012-13, according to Hockey Fights. Does that mean they shouldn’t have dropped the gloves on Wednesday? Milbury and Jones seem to believe that they should have answered the bell.

For more, check out a collection of the early violent moments and Tkachuk’s attempted shot at Doughty. The Kings win is summarized in greater detail here.

Measure of revenge: Kings delay clinching efforts for Flames, Blues

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Deep down, the Los Angeles Kings probably realize that their season will end on game 82. Still, they kept their slim playoff hopes alive on Wednesday night … and managed to spite a team they’re growing to hate.

OK, maybe the hate is almost totally focused upon Matthew Tkachuk, yet the disdain for that talented-but-tormenting rookie was palpable.

It didn’t feel like the Kings exacted physical revenge on Tkachuk, but beating his team 4-1 ranked as classic scoreboard vengeance. With that, the Calgary Flames (and by extension the St. Louis Blues) will need to wait to clinch a playoff berth.

Now, as much as tonight was about Tkachuk, the focus was also on a pugnacious player who once dazzled for the Flames: Jarome Iginla.

In what might be Iginla’s final visit to Calgary – at least as an active NHL player – he was one of the best players on the ice. His fitting curtain call included a “Gordie Howe hat trick” with a spirited fight, an assist and a goal.

Seriously, that fight with Deryk Engelland:

That goal included a bit of luck, but hey …

Iginla was named the first star of the contest, and cameras captured his big smile in enjoying a special night. For all the nastiness of that game, it was refreshing to see such a heartwarming moment.

For more on the violence, check out this post on the early stuff and this one on Tkachuk’s missed missile launch on Drew Doughty.

Kings and Canucks will square off in first NHL exhibition games in China

graphic via NHL
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It’s official: the NHL will hold preseason games in China before next season.

The league made the announcement on Wednesday night: the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks will play two exhibitions: one on Sept. 21 (Shanghai) and Sept. 23 (Beijing). How cool is that?

“It is a privilege and an honor for the L.A. Kings to represent the National Hockey League in China as part of these two games against the Vancouver Canucks,” Kings president Luc Robitaille said. “Growing the game of hockey is something we take great pride in and it is a big priority for our hockey club and AEG as a whole. This will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for our players and our staff, and we are looking forward to the games taking place in two tremendous facilities in two remarkable cities.”

The press conference inspired some jokes tonight.

Some of the best bits came in roping in … Kobe Bryant and David Beckham?

Alrighty then.

Click here for more details.

 

Video: Drew Doughty (mostly) avoids massive Matthew Tkachuk hit

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Hockey is such a fast sport that it’s probably not so easy to make someone your “target.” Instead, a big hit often comes down to the right combination of circumstance and timing.

Still, there’s no denying that Matthew Tkachuk is gunning for Drew Doughty (and the Kings are gunning for Tkachuk) on Wednesday.

Doughty isn’t oblivious to that notion, either, as you can see him avoid what looked like a pretty terrifying hit above.

We’ve already covered the early violence in this game, and it’s quite possible that there will be more carnage going forward. Stay tuned.