Double dealing: Why coaches and GMs easily escape contracts
By definition, a contract is an exchange of promises between two or more parties, a binding legal agreement enforceable in a court of law. Well, contracts are binding for most people, perhaps, but not necessarily in pro sports where fans are used to a contract not being a contract.
For example, players often sign and then hold out for new deals. And teams don't trade players, they trade contracts, sometimes forcing a player to move even if his deal contains a clause that says he can't be dealt. Players with valid, enforceable contracts are not above "requesting" trades for personal or professional reasons that force their teams, which may have had no intention of dealing them, into transactions that severely limit what can be received in return.
The NHL is no stranger to these situations. One need only refer to the ongoing attempt by
But something is changing in the NHL and it appears that coaches and even GMs are forcing their way out of contracts, something that wasn't the case even in the wild unchecked days when owners could own two teams in the same division.
"There seems to be a double standard," said a former player who recently took a managerial role and does not wish to be identified. "There was a long time there when a general manager or a coach was expected to honor his contract as long as the club wanted him to do so. It was thought to be important for the integrity or at least the perception of the integrity of the league. It seems that's loosened up a bit for administrators but not for players, at least not for players who maybe want to play somewhere else."
Contracts in management were indeed pretty much sacred (unless, of course, you got fired). In 1987, the NHL fined and banned
Is this a good thing for hockey?
There are no clear answers.
Burke had time left on his GM contract when he was "released" by the Anaheim Ducks and shortly thereafter found work as the new, highly-paid GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Collusion theorists had a field day trying to make the case that the Leafs had tampered with Burke. They pointed out that Toronto had previously hired
But what usually goes unsaid is that the NHL kept an exceptionally close eye on the Leafs' GM search for signs of tampering, and the team went so far as to hire prominent sports attorney
"Anyone who knows me knows there was no subterfuge there," Burke said in a recent exchange of voicemails. A Harvard-trained lawyer, Burke said that when the Ducks opted to release him, there was no guarantee he would get the Leafs job and he had to "go through and interview process" just like anyone else. "They made the decision to release me and go in a different direction," he said. "That was their decision and I agreed with it."
It was somewhat less transparent when Sutter, who had a year left on his deal when he petitioned Devils GM
Still, neither Vanderbeek nor Lamoriello had any on-the-record complaints and the Devils did not file a grievance. Most importantly, Lamoriello did not deny the Flames permission to speak to Sutter although he was "disappointed but not angry" in the way things worked out and believes there should be compensation, but: "It's a league rule (no compensation) and you accept it."
Lamoriello also told the
If you know Lamoriello, his "not something that is good for the game" quote is meaningful. He's a big believer in the concept of team and integrity of contracts, and while he will never say it on or off the record, it's fair to assume he felt he acted in good faith by letting Sutter out of his deal and truly was disappointed not that Sutter felt he had to go home, but that he so quickly signed with the Flames.
"Certainly when Brent left it was for the right reasons in his mind," Lamoriello told the Star. "Although we were disappointed, we weren't surprised. Then, when I did receive a call from Darryl to speak with Brent, you can go two ways on that. You look at the man and individuals and you look at the situation and do it for the right reasons."
Somewhat surprisingly, Lamoriello later jumped into a small controversy of his own by hiring Lemaire. That, too, raised eyebrows, but nothing appears to be out of line. For one thing, Lemaire made it clear that he was leaving Minnesota in April while Sutter was coaching the Devils in the first round of the playoffs. For another, it was clear to almost everyone that Lemaire was leaving because the man who hired him, GM
This kind of thing is not at all uncommon in the NHL where an owner generally wants his own people in charge. Most importantly, Lemaire did not jump a contract. His deal had expired at the time he walked away and though you could argue it was hardly a "retirement" in the truest sense, Lemaire did make a point of saying he was "leaving" but not necessarily quitting coaching. Yet, if the contract door seems to have swung open for GMs and coaches, it's not true for players.
Under NHL by-laws, players who retire or are merely looking to do so, are still obligated to the team that last employed them. For example, if
Once Sakic signs his voluntary retirement papers with the Avs, he will be unconditionally removed from their reserve and put on the Voluntarily Retired List. Should he not sign, the commissioner
So the chances of Sakic going to any other club are somewhere between slim and none unless he's an unrestricted free agent and does not sign his retirement papers. That is one reason why the NHLPA advises players not to sign them. According to people with knowledge of the PA, the union feels there is no advantage. That's hardly the case with Lemaire and certainly doesn't seem so with any coach, GM or consultant.
It's not uncommon for a coach to sign as a consultant with a team while still being paid by another club that dismissed him.
Former Ottawa GM
By league rule, Maurice, Muckler and Bowman did nothing wrong. Neither did Burke, Sutter and Lemaire. But for players, well ...
All in all, this inconsistent approach is not the best way to inspire confidence, especially with fans who still cling to the concept that a contract is a contract and that signing one is supposed to matter and be legally binding.