By Jim Kelley
July 23, 2009

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 Dany Heatley to force his way out of a recently-signed long-term deal with the Ottawa Senators, one that included a huge bonus and no-movement clause (which he exercised when the Senators tried to trade him to Edmonton earlier this offseason). It's a contract designed to make Heatley a Senator for the rest of his career.

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 Pat Quinn after he accepted $100,000 to sign as president and GM of the Vancouver Canucks while still under contract to the coach the Los Angeles Kings. Quinn argued that the Kings had freed him by missing a deadline in his contract. Then-commissioner John Ziegler ruled otherwise. Now, in less than a calendar year, Brian Burke and Brent Sutter, both of whom were under contract, were able to move to new teams. A third, Jacques Lemaire, retired as coach of the Minnesota Wild only to unretire weeks later to become coach of the New Jersey Devils.

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 Dave Nonis, who had a clause in his Anaheim contract that allowed him to leave even for a lateral position. Nonis was Burke's chief aide when Burke was an NHL administrator in New York and GM in Vancouver and Anaheim. The Leafs also hired Burke's longtime friend and former college teammate, Ron Wilson, as coach before Burke was brought on as GM. Hiring a coach and a hockey department employee, especially one with GM experience (which Nonis had with Vancouver) while seeking a new GM is not usually the way things are done, not even in hockey.

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 Gord Kirke to make certain they didn't violate any rules. It also goes generally unnoticed that Burke was completely up front and transparent in his dealings with the Ducks, telling them he would honor his contractual obligations to the letter, but would not sign a proposed extension.

"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 Lou Lamoriello for an early exit so he could be closer to his family in Red Deer, Alberta. Sutter was given his release only to surface weeks later as the new coach of the Calgary Flames, working for his brother Darryl, the GM. Lamoriello was aware that Brent had "family issues" and wanted to return home, but he is on record as being "surprised" when Darryl called to ask for permission to interview Brent. Worse, Devils owner Jeff Vanderbeek was quoted as saying the entire affair "leaves a bad taste in your mouth."

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 Newark Star-Ledger, "It's not something that is good for the game. You look at the commitments, but in this situation extenuating circumstances prevail. The thought was to allow them to speak (to each other). I didn't know what the result would be, but I knew there was a chance (Brent would sign with the Flames)."

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 Doug Risebrough, was going to be replaced by new team owner Craig Leipold. There was also speculation that Leipold wanted to bring in David Poile who was (and still is) the GM of the Predators. Leipold once owned that franchise, but according to reports in Nashville, hiring Poile away was expressly prohibited in his agreement of sale. The Preds' new owners wanted to make certain Poile was a retained asset beyond the year left on his contract.

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 Joe Sakic, who recently announced his retirement after a 20-year career with the Colorado franchise, wants to play again, but with his hometown Canucks instead of the Avalanche, he will have a challenge of monumental proportion.

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 may (emphasis mine) serve notice that Sakic must do so within five days of receipt of a double-registered letter. If he refuses, league by-laws state the commissioner can assign him to the Voluntary Retired List. In either case, Sakic must sit out a year at any level of pro hockey in North America or abroad unless he receives permission from all 30 teams to return. Even if he's out a year, his right to return, with few exceptions, is controlled by his last contracted club for at least the first three years after his retirement. That holds true even if he seeks to regain his amateur status.

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. Paul Maurice, fired before the start of last season by Toronto resurfaced as coach of the Carolina Hurricanes after the 'Canes agreed to "lighten the load" for the Leafs financially. The Leafs owed him a full year, so in essence he was paid by two teams when he directed Carolina to the third round of the playoffs last spring. Maurice also coached a regular season game against the Leafs, a situation that would normally inspire a host of conflict of interest charges, but there was barely a whisper of dissent.

Former Ottawa GM John Muckler recently took a consulting job with good friend Wayne Gretzky and the Phoenix Coyotes, reportedly while still being paid by the Senators. Scott Bowman announced his retirement after his Detroit Red Wings won the Stanley Cup in 2002 and immediately became a consultant to the team. He was still in that role when he was approached by the Maple Leafs for a GM job that he did not receive. In 2008, he jumped to the Chicago Blackhawks as Senior Advisor of Hockey Operations and assisted them in the playoffs against Detroit this year.

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.

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