By Daniel S. Greene
The Los Angeles Kings organization has had its issues recently with the off-ice behavior of their players. Last October, defenseman Slava Voynov was arrested for domestic violence (http://www.latimes.com/sports/sportsnow/la-sp-sn-kings-slava-voynov-pleads-not-guilty-20141229-story.html), while forward Jarret Stoll was arrested on felony drug charges in April (http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/nhl/2015/04/20/police-la-kings-jarret-stoll-had-cocaine-ecstasy-in-vegas/26085365/). The most recent King to get in trouble with the law is forward Mike Richards, who was questioned about Oxycodone (a prescription painkiller) when he was stopped while crossing the border into Canada (from North Dakota into Manitoba) on June 17th, about 10 days before the National Hockey League (NHL) Draft. At this moment in time, while the Royal Canadian Mounted Police are investigating the incident, Richards has not been officially charged with a crime (http://sports.yahoo.com/blogs/nhl-puck-daddy/mike-richards--border-stop-involved-oxycodone--tmz-232509765.html).
While all three of these men were members of the 2014 Stanley Cup championship team, the Kings have only attempted to terminate Richards' contract due to off-ice conduct. It was originally expected that the Kings would buy out Richards' contract, but decided on Monday to terminate it "for a material breach of the requirements of his Standard Player's Contract" (http://www.si.com/nhl/2015/06/29/kings-dodge-buyout-terminate-contract-mike-richards). It was public knowledge that the Kings were unsatisfied with Richards' recent on-ice performance. He had five years and $22 million left on his 12-year, $69 million deal that he signed in 2007 with the Philadelphia Flyers, and has not been playing as well as expected over the past few seasons, which ultimately led to him being sent to the minor leagues this past season. By buying out Richards' contract, the Kings would have received some salary cap relief, so that was the expected route for the Kings to take. However, with the termination attempt, the organization would receive significant cap relief anyway, as it would only be liable for $1.32 million over the next five seasons (http://www.forbes.com/sites/ericmacramalla/2015/06/30/the-l-a-kings-and-the-difficult-task-of-upholding-the-termination-of-the-mike-richards-contract/). Financially speaking therefore, the best route for the Kings is to try to terminate Richards' contract.
Yet in order for the Kings to terminate Richards' contract, it must do so in compliance with the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between the NHL and the NHL Players' Association (NHLPA). In this situation, the Kings have alleged that Richards has materially breached the Standard Player's Contract (SPC). Under paragraph 14 of the SPC, a franchise can terminate a player's contract if the player: "(a) fail[s], refuse[s] or neglect[s] to obey the Club's rules governing training and conduct of Players, if such failure, refusal or neglect should constitute a material breach; (b) fail[s], refuse[s], or neglect[s] to render his services hereunder or in any other manner materially breach this SPC." Further, paragraph 2(e) of the SPC (known as a morality clause) states that the player must "conduct himself on and off the rink according to the highest standards of honesty, morality, fair play and sportsmanship, and refrain from conduct detrimental to the best interests of the Club, the League or professional hockey generally" (http://www.nhl.com/nhl/en/v3/ext/CBA2012/NHL_NHLPA_2013_CBA.pdf, at pg. 318-19). It is therefore presumed that the team is claiming that Richards materially breached his contract by acting in a dishonest and/or immoral manner that is detrimental to the Kings, the NHL, and/or pro hockey as a whole. In accordance with Article 17 of the CBA, these kinds of issues between teams and players are ruled upon by an impartial arbitrator, who will decide on whether the contract was rightfully terminated (Id.).
At this moment, we don't officially know exactly what Richards did to warrant the termination of his contract. All we know is that it involved a border crossing issue and possibly prescription painkillers. So, we truly do not know if the termination will be upheld. However, as noted by sports law expert Eric Macramalla, barring extreme circumstances, an arbitrator will rarely uphold the termination of a player's contract since, "[a]rbitrators and judges take the individual right to earn a living very seriously and do not react favorably to an attempt to deprive someone of that fundamental right simply for the sake of convenience" (http://www.forbes.com/sites/ericmacramalla/2015/06/30/the-l-a-kings-and-the-difficult-task-of-upholding-the-termination-of-the-mike-richards-contract/2/). All we can do at this point is look at what type of conduct could be a valid basis for terminating a contract and having it be upheld. As Macramalla has pointed out, while morality is open to interpretation, in order for termination to normally stand, the behavior needs to be accompanied by something like a conviction. (Id.). While something like a DUI does not seem to be grounds to uphold termination, a murder conviction would be. From what is known, Richards' situation seems to be somewhere in between, so the outcome here is unpredictable.
At least in recent memory, no NHL franchise has ever attempted to terminate a player's contract on similar grounds. Even such incidents like former Atlanta Thrasher 50-goal scorer Dany Heatley's vehicular homicide incident (in which he ended up pleading guilty to four misdemeanor charges in exchange for the charges of first-degree vehicular homicide and reckless driving being dropped) in 2003 (http://www.nytimes.com/2005/02/05/sports/hockey/heatley-sentenced-to-3-years-probation.html) and former Toronto Maple Leaf forward Mark Bell's DUI and hit-and-run incident in 2006 (http://www.thestar.com/sports/hockey/2007/08/16/leaf_bell_blew_25_times_legal_limit.html), neither franchise attempted to terminate the player's contract (but were both ultimately punished by the NHL and the court).
Some precedent has been set by Major League Baseball (MLB), which has a similar process for when teams try to terminate a player's contract. In 1987, a situation with (presumably) similar facts to Richards'occurred when former Cy Young Award-wining pitcher Lamarr Hoyt was arrested and sent to prison for trying to cross the United States-Mexico border with approximately 500 pills. While the San Diego Padres terminated Hoyt's contract, an arbitrator reversed the termination (http://articles.latimes.com/1987-07-01/sports/sp-717_1_lamarr-hoyt). However, when pitcher Shawn Chacon had his contract terminated in 2008 for grabbing Houston Astros General Manager Ed Wade by the neck and throwing him to the group during an argument, an arbitrator upheld the termination (http://hardballtalk.nbcsports.com/2010/08/17/shawn-chacons-grievance-versus-astros-denied-by-arbitrator/comment-page-1/). However, just because a player grabs a team official by the neck, does not guarantee that the player's contract will be terminated. When the National Basketball Association's Golden State Warriors attempted to terminate the contract of Latrell Sprewell for choking head coach P.J. Carlesimo in 1997, an arbitrator overturned the termination (http://mobile.nytimes.com/2010/01/19/sports/basketball/19arenas.html?referrer=&_r=0). Obviously, rulings in other sports are not binding to the NHL, but that is not to say that the arbitrator in Richards' situation will not look at these facts as any different from Hoyt's situation.
What should we expect next? The NHLPA will most likely challenge this termination and argue that the Kings are taking this action because of Richards' on-ice performance, and that the team wants to save money. In doing so, it would invoke Article 17 of the CBA within the next 60 days and have the case decided by an impartial arbitrator if the parties cannot resolve the situation on their own (http://www.nhl.com/nhl/en/v3/ext/CBA2012/NHL_NHLPA_2013_CBA.pdf, at pg. 109). As previously noted, arbitrators are likely to take the side of the employee/player. It is very important that the NHLPA challenge the termination because of what it could mean to players in similar future situations. "The NHLPA is likely worried about the precedent of a team voiding a player's contract when that contract is drafted in way to be considered 'guaranteed,'" said professor Michael McCann, director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire. "The NHLPA is probably concerned that if the Kings can void Richards' contract for yet-to-be revealed reasons, could other teams escape their unwanted contracts by doing the same?" (http://www.latimes.com/sports/kings/la-sp-kings-mike-richards-20150630-story.html). McCann also notes that Richards must pursue his claim under the CBA before bringing his grievance to court, and even if he brings his claim to court, courts usually uphold arbitration awards (Id.).
This will be an interesting process, especially when all of the facts of the border incident come out. While we don't know what the result of this situation will be, we do know that this is definitely the end of Richards' stint with the Kings, and possibly the conclusion of his NHL career.