Next labor skirmish: Play or pay?

Updated: September 28, 2004, 8:14 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

National Hockey League owners may be losing less money by locking out the players, but many teams will still end up forking over millions of dollars to some of the game's top names this season.

Ed Belfour, Ed Jovanovski, Rob Blake, Owen Nolan and Alexander Mogilny are just some of the marquis names on a long list players who are currently recovering from injuries incurred last season or during the recently completed World Cup of Hockey. If they're deemed physically unable to play on Oct.13, the scheduled start of the 2004-05 season, they would be entitled to collect a full salary until they are medically cleared.

Although the mechanism for paying injured players is spelled out clearly in the standard playing contract, and was implemented during the 1994-95 lockout, many agents don't expect owners will sign those checks without a fight -- or at least a third opinion.

According to the player's contract, if a team doctor determines that a player is healthy enough to play but the player disagrees, it is incumbent on the player to produce a doctor with a dissenting opinion. Once the stalemate is reached, both doctors will be required to agree upon a third doctor whose assessment will be binding.

If the player is cleared, he'll either be locked out or, in the case of many players on entry-level contracts, be required to report to the NHL team's minor-league affiliate. If the player is not cleared, he must continue his rehabilitation as prescribed by team physicians, which may include use of the team's facilities otherwise unavailable to locked-out players, while being paid his full salary.

Teams whose players were injured during last season will end up paying out of pocket until insurance policies kick in, generally once a player has missed 30 consecutive games with the same injury. (Some teams have amended policies or contract clauses for players with chronic injuries.)

The situation applies only to those injured players currently under contract.

"Players without contracts are out of luck," a top league source said.

Some agents predict that many cases will require a third doctor's assessment that a player is unable to play before he is paid.

"Unless the guy's in a wheelchair or walking on crutches, they'll do their best to clear the player," said agent Pat Morris whose clients include Jovanovski, who was injured in Canada's first World Cup game against the United States.

Morris said the Vancouver Canucks have been "nothing short of classy" since Jovanovski suffered a cracked rib and sprained MCL in his right knee.

If the defenseman isn't cleared to play by Oct. 13, Morris is expecting the Canucks will pay Jovanoski's salary and will then recoup that money from insurance provided by the tournament organizers, the NHLPA and the NHL.

Likewise, the Detroit Red Wings will use the World Cup insurance policy to pay defenseman Jiri Fischer, who separated his shoulder during the Czech Republic's overtime loss to Canada in the semifinal.

However, teams with players who weren't injured during the World Cup may not be as obliging. And without practices and games to gauge when players are ready to return, the door to disagreement may be thrown wide open.

"I'm sure the owners aren't going to be excited about paying players during the lockout," added Ron Salcer, the agent for Blake and Belfour who would earn more than $16 million this season combined. "Hopefully things go smooth, but not much has gone smoothly so far."

Belfour was to have been part of Canada's entry in the World Cup but withdrew at the last minute and surprised many, including his bosses with the Toronto Maple Leafs, by having surgery on a bulging disc in his chronically aching back. Following surgery in late August, Toronto coach Pat Quinn said Belfour wouldn't be ready to start training camp but would be ready "a very short time after that." What that means in terms of how much the Leafs might end up paying for Belfour's rehabilitation remains to be seen.

Likewise, the Leafs will be waiting to see how doctors assess Nolan, who missed all of the playoffs last spring with a knee injury that required arthroscopic surgery in June.

Nolan's situation is interesting both in terms of his readiness to play and the length of the lockout. While a member of the San Jose Sharks, the power forward signed a controversial contract that includes a clause which allows him to renew with the Leafs for the 2005-06 season for his current $6.5 million salary if the 2004-05 season is limited to 40 games or less.

Mogilny, whose current contract would pay him $5.5 million, continues to nurse a wonky hip that may require a second surgery. Tie Domi, who also underwent offseason hip surgery, may also prove to be a drain on Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment coffers during the lockout. Domi is set to make $1.9 million this season.

About 40 players received part of their salaries through injury rehabilitation during the 1994-95 lockout. A top league source projects that number will be about 30 during the current labor impasse. However, one NHL team source with managerial experience said the number reach as high as 100. Considering the lockout threatens to cancel the entire season and, in turn, an entire season's salary, players may be less inclined to overlook lingering injuries.

Blake suffered a shoulder injury in Game 3 of Colorado's second round playoff series against San Jose. He was named to Canada's World Cup of Hockey roster but withdrew when it became clear he wouldn't be healthy enough. It's still not known whether he will be ready for what would be the start of the season.

"It's just a matter of saying how he is on the 13th," Salcer said.

If only it were that easy. When it comes to the subjective issue of pain, it's difficult to determine how much a player has and when it has gone away when there is no practical way to test the injury.

Recovery from concussions may also be problematic given the sometimes subjective element of post-concussion symptoms like headaches, dizziness and nausea. Philadelphia Flyers forward Jeremy Roenick created a minor firestorm when he told a Philadelphia reporter during the World Cup he wasn't sure he'd be ready to play if there was a season given what Roenick described as a concussion suffered during the Eastern Conference final against Tampa Bay. Roenick continued to play in the series and was medically cleared by Flyers doctors during end-of-season physicals.

Stephen Weiss's situation presents yet another potentially contentious situation. The Florida Panthers forward broke his ankle late last season and was recently reassigned to the team's American Hockey League franchise in San Antonio. Because he was injured while playing in the NHL, Weiss would collect his NHL salary until his clearance, upon which he'd receive his AHL salary.

Although Weiss has been projected to be healthy enough to play, he is still skating with pain said Morris who represents Weiss.

Whether he can play on Oct. 13, when the AHL season also opens, remains to be seen.

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.