Legal Look: Could NHLers be fired if they get hurt playing?

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Eric Macramalla, TSN Legal Analyst
10/31/2012 9:28:42 PM
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To date during the lockout, about 200 NHL players have gone abroad to play hockey. Players like Claude Giroux (German Elite league), Evgeni Malkin (KHL) and Matt Duchene (Swedish Elite league) have gone overseas.

We are, however, also seeing players get hurt. Guys like New Jersey Devils defenceman Anton Volchenkov, Boston Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask and Philadelphia Flyers forward Jakub Voracek have suffered injuries.

So here's the question: is there a risk that players could effectively be fired by a team if they get seriously hurt?

The answer is yes.

When players agree to play for an NHL team, they sign what's called a Standard Player's Contract - or SPC. Section 14 of the SPC provides that a team may terminate a player's contract if the player shall "fail, refuse or neglect to render his services hereunder or in any other manner materially breach" his contract.

So if a player suffers a career ending injury while playing abroad and that player therefore fails to deliver his services, a team could rely on Section 14 to cut him (or terminate his contract). If the team successfully terminates the contract, it wouldn't have to pay out what's left on the player's contract.

What if a player gets hurt playing overseas and misses some of the NHL season but is ultimately able to come back and play? In keeping with Section 5 of the SPC, a team can suspend him without pay until he's ready to play.

A team's ability impose penalties on players who get injured playing during the lockout is not a surprise to the NHLPA. The NHLPA addressed this by way of a Q&A memo to players in September:

Q: If I am currently under contract to an NHL Club and am injured while playing in another league during a lockout, how will my SPC be treated after the lockout is over?

A: We expect that your NHL Club would suspend you without pay until you are fit to play. There also is a possibility that the Club might take other disciplinary action. The NHLPA may be able to dispute such suspensions and disciplinary actions under the grievance and arbitration procedure.

By "other disciplinary action", the NHLPA, in part, is presumably referring to terminating a player's contract.

The NHLPA would vigorously fight any attempt by a team to terminate a contract. It would also contest an unreasonable suspension. That's why in the Q&A, the NHLPA said it could go the way of "grievance and arbitration" to fight for a player and his contract.

So given the risk of injury, the NHLPA, in that same Q&A, recommended that players get their contracts insured: "if you intend to play for a club in another league during a lockout, we recommend that you ask that club to insure the value of your SPC against injury. If the club is unwilling to do so, we recommend that you purchase disability insurance on your own."

And that's what players have been doing. It's a rough estimate, but it can cost somewhere between $10,000 to $25,000 per $1 million to insure a player's contract. So a player with a $5 million contract might have to pay $100,000 in insurance.

Overall, there is serious risk associated with NHL players playing abroad during the lockout. However, if they are properly insured, some might be able to mitigate that risk. Still, though, the situation is far from ideal.

Eric Macramalla is TSN's Legal Analyst and can be heard each week on TSN Radio 1050. You can follow him on Twitter @EricOnSportslaw.

Salvador and Volchenkov celebrate (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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