Just when you thought that Dany Heatley's dispute with the Ottawa Senators had faded mercifully into the history books comes the news that his ex-team now wants their former star forward to repay the $4-million (all currency U.S.) bonus they paid him back on July 1.
Not sure how this grievance is winnable from the Senators' perspective, on any level.
Yes, they can argue that they paid a lot of money to Heatley on that $45-million contract he'd signed two years previously and weren't duly compensated by his performance on the ice. Yes, they can complain that it was Heatley's intransigence - refusing to waive his no-movement clause to accept a trade to the Edmonton Oilers - that left the Senators on the hook for that bonus payment, because of the way they'd originally worded the contract.
Though both positions are eminently defensible, legally, they sound like wobbly starting points.
If Ottawa had wanted to desperately to recoup that $4-million before they traded him, they should have made the San Jose Sharks absorb a contract they wanted to unload. Every team has them these days; and often, the willingness of a trading partner to take on an unattractive contract is the tipping point in a deal. Why do you think Tom Preissing gets traded so often? Or Brad Lukowich?
Given how difficult it was for the Senators to get value back for Heatley because of his $7.5-million annual salary-cap charge, an arbitrator would look at the deal and say the dollars the Sharks saved on the contract might have been the reason they went forward on the trade that sent Milan Michalek and Jonathan Cheechoo to Ottawa. One way or another, Heatley was going to get his money from somebody.
Naturally, the larger issue is the timing of the grievance. Originally the Senators filed the complaint against Heatley in the summer and asked for an expedited hearing. That was turned down. So now, here is the NHL Players' Association, likely at rock bottom in terms of its strength as a union because of another round of resignations and departures, and the Senators brightly determine that they want to continue the fight. Well, why not? Kick 'me where they're down, right?
Publicly, the NHL's position - on the rare occasions when commissioner Gary Bettman will discuss the NHLPA's trials and tribulations - is that the league believes a strong union is good for business.
Deep down, it is hard to imagine they truly believe that. Otherwise, would they have not have discouraged Sens owner Eugene Melnyk from filing a complaint that seems like a sure-fire loser, given that Heatley - whatever you may think about him asking for a trade after negotiating a no-movement clause - did not technically breach his contract.
In the end, all these grievances go before an independent arbitrator. The NHLPA has appointed as interim legal counsel, long-time association attorney Roland Lee to handle matters in the short term.
Even as the union self destructs, the one thing you can be sure of is that even if they need to look outside their ranks for help, they can always find a sharp lawyer somewhere willing to mount a defence on Heatley's behalf.
In some ways, the NHL has inadvertently done the players a favour by heading down this path. Just in case the players association required further evidence of the need for strong leadership heading into the next CBA talks, this pre-emptive shot across the union's bow can only reinforce that belief.
And the NHLPA does have one card to play - the option of extending the CBA to 2012, or for an extra year beyond the original six-year term, to prepare for the battle that lies ahead.
That extension, you'd think, is as good as done - or it will be, as soon as they put someone in charge who is actually empowered to make a decision.