As reported by James Mirtle of the Globe and Mail, Eric Belanger’s agent, Joe Tacopina, a high profile New York defence lawyer and new player agent, is threatening legal action after he says the Washington Capitals backed out of an agreement they made to sign Belanger to a 1 year/$1.85 million dollar contract.
No contract was ever signed.
While the Caps and Belanger didn’t have a written or verbal contract, Tacopina is alleging that they had an agreement and that the Caps should honour that agreement. Caps GM George McPhee told Tacopina the deal would be made official once a trade was completed. That never happened, and 5 weeks after Tacopina alleged the parties agreed to a deal, Belanger was told to look elsewhere for employment.
Tacopina argues that the Caps acted like the parties had a deal. They helped Belanger with his move to Washington by scheduling a move. The Caps also set Belanger up with a real estate broker, which resulted in a lease being signed, sent the player a pre-training camp manual and a schedule, and coach Bruce Boudreau called Belanger and told him he was excited to have him on the training camp roster. All this supports the position that there was an agreement in place.
Once problem though – the NHL CBA says there is no contract.
Article 11.3 of the CBA provides that a contract is only enforceable if it’s registered and approved by the NHL:
no SPC [player contract] shall be valid or enforceable in any manner whatsoever unless and until it has been filed with Central Registry and approved by the League
Unfortunately for Tacopina and Belanger, there isn’t any grey here. It’s pretty black and white: no contract unless it’s registered and approved by the NHL.
Now what about the lease, moving expenses, Boudreau’s call, etc.? Shouldn’t that count for something.
Generally speaking – yes. It is a basic legal principle that even if there is no written or verbal contract between the parties, you can still imply a contract by relying on the actions and conduct of the parties. Basically, if the parties act like there’s an agreement, then maybe there is one.
This is called an implied contract at law.
Given the facts of this case, there would be a pretty good argument that there was an implied contract in place. The parties acted like there was a deal.
One problem though – the CBA rules the day. The CBA says you don’t have a contract unless it’s registered and approved by the NHL. Whatever legal principles may apply outside the CBA, including the law of implied contracts, they don’t apply in the CBA. The CBA has its own rules, and judges will defer to the CBA.
So it looks like Belanger is out of luck. Even if Belanger could sue the Caps successfully (which he likely can’t because there is no contract to begin with as per the CBA), he couldn’t force the Caps to sign him. If he sued and won, he would get money and not an NHL contract.
Maybe the Caps could have handled this whole situation a bit better. However, in keeping with the letter of the law under the CBA, there was never a contract. Unfortunately, if Belanger is disappointed, he may want to look to his agent for answers.