Skip to main content

Los Angeles Kings forward Mike Richards was arrested attempting to cross the Canadian border in Emerson, Man., and was eventually charged with possession of a controlled substance (Oxycodone) by the RCMP.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

So the sad, strange case of Mike Richards and the Los Angeles Kings is finally resolved.

But the NHL's rather clandestine settlement – which leaked out in part over the weekend – brings more questions than answers.

The details we do know are troubling.

In mid-June, Richards was arrested trying to cross the Canadian border in Emerson, Man., and was eventually charged with possession of a controlled substance (Oxycodone) by the RCMP. Days after learning about the arrest, the Kings – who had desperately been trying to unload Richards in a trade – terminated his contract, which had five years and $22-million remaining.

That forced a grievance from the NHLPA, which led to the settlement – a settlement that gives the Kings much more preferable terms against the cap than a buyout.

The exact terms aren't available. It's believed, however, the agreement will save them $5-million against the cap in the next five seasons.

Everyone involved in this case is quick to point out the settlement does not set a precedent because, well, it says so right in the legal language of the agreement.

This is considered a "one off."

But if you're wondering why other teams aren't contesting the deal, perhaps it's because it effectively gives owners and general managers a powerful trump card to keep players in line.

Especially those on unwanted deals – of which there are many these days.

Richards's play has been in decline for years. A former Selke runner-up and all-star who was a key member of the Kings' first Stanley Cup team 3 1/2 years ago, he was waived through the league and sent to the minors last January.

He was 29 years old.

Given what we now know, a substance-abuse issue may have contributed to his decline. While Richards had a reputation as a partier in Philadelphia, he has also had concussion issues and played through myriad injuries in his career, with his physical style taking a significant toll on an undersized frame.

There's no indication – and certainly not after the arrest – that the Kings tried to help Richards with his problem.

And had he been performing at a higher level, on a more reasonable contract, it's unlikely the team would have been so quick to nullify his deal.

(Especially given there was talk this summer that the Kings were considering welcoming defenceman Slava Voynov – who pleaded no contest to domestic assault in July – back into the fold had he not returned to Russia amid immigration issues related to his jail time.)

This doesn't become a grievance if Anze Kopitar is involved.

Kings GM Dean Lombardi offered his version of events in an emotional letter to the LA Times on Friday, explaining – without offering specifics – that Richards had abused his trust and entered "a destructive spiral" that affected his play.

"Without a doubt, the realization of what happened to Mike Richards is the most traumatic episode of my career," Lombardi wrote. "At times, I think that I will never recover from it."

Lombardi portrays himself and the Kings as the victim. He explains he wanted Richards to become his "Derek Jeter" – his own version of the beloved Yankees captain – and that when Richards didn't live up to that ideal, it was a personal disappointment.

Lombardi doesn't mention attempting to get Richards help for off-ice issues, only that there had been rumours that went ignored.

"I refused to believe that they were true despite some obvious signs," he wrote.

It's a disturbing response to the situation, especially considering NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly's recent admission that illicit drug use is on the rise among players.

Powerful, addictive pain medications such as Oxycontin have also become a huge problem, with enforcer Derek Boogaard's death in 2011 directly linked to abuse of painkillers that are frequently given out by team physicians.

Then there are sleep drugs such as Ambien, which former Leafs trainer Matt Nichol called the "No. 1 substance-abuse problem in pro sports" last week.

There's growing evidence that Richards's struggle is part of a trend. What the resolution here does is reward a team for ignoring the warning signs. It also highlights the potential for a two-tiered solution.

Players considered valued and cost-effective – like Montreal's Zack Kassian – are suspended and placed into treatment.

Players who have outlived their usefulness are punitively dumped and forced into a grievance process to recoup their contracts – if teams believe they can get better terms there than on a buyout.

It's an outcome that will only breed distrust rather than help these players, who will be less likely to come forward with their issues if they risk a lucrative contract being annulled.

It's an outcome that won't prevent future destructive spirals.

These aren't problems that are going away for the NHL. Even if there's a creative, convenient way to make unwanted contracts do just that.