The situation this past week with former Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Jake Dotchin is unique unto itself. Rarely, if ever, has a player been released due to conditioning issues. Yet, that is what happened to the 24-year-old Dotchin when he showed up to camp and was deemed so out of shape by the team that they considered it to be a material breach of contract worthy of placing the young blue liner on unconditional waivers and terminating his contract.
However, conditioning is not a defined term in the NHL standard player contract. There are no clauses that dictate a certain body mass index or that demand a player meet certain levels of fitness testing. Instead, the contract only says that players must maintain good health and proper conditioning as determined by the team. The contract does state that a contract may be terminated if the player does “fail, refuse, or neglect to obey the Club’s rules governing training”.
Yet, according to Alex Killorn, the NHLPA representative for the Lightning, who spoke with The Athletic’s Joe Smith, the Lightning do not have any hard line rules governing conditioning and fitness. Killorn cites fitness tests that all players must pass on the Columbus Blue Jackets and Vancouver Canucks and states that some teams do test BMI, but that each team has different benchmarks and procedures. If a clear conditioning mandate is in place, then that is a simple determination of fault in case like Dotchin’s. However, the lack of such rules and a subjective ruling by the team is a slippery slope. What is stopping any team from issuing vague fitness rules or changing their benchmarks for the purpose of deciding that a player they no longer wish to roster is in breach of contract?
To no surprise, this scenario has caught the eye of the players’ association and Dotchin and his agent are likely to file a grievance against the Lightning that would take the case to an independent arbitrator. While, like salary arbitration, going to an independent – and unpredictable – arbitrator can be risky, Dotchin has a strong case. He would only gain more leverage if he was to sign elsewhere before the hearing. Dotchin played in 48 games for Tampa Bay last year and was on the NHL roster all season. Add that to immediately landing with another team and it may be tough for Tampa to argue that he was “materially” out of shape. The Lighting and new GM Julien Brisebois are far too smart to have made this move without thinking it through, but before an arbitrator would they have enough evidence to support a claim that this was an objective, fair decision?
The most likely outcome is a resolution between the two sides that would help to keep this sticky situation from getting more publicity and a decision that is likely to outrage one side or the other. As it stands though, the NHLPA may put the idea of clear, league-wide conditioning rules on the bargaining table for the next Collective Bargaining Agreement. Dotchin’s situation has alerted players around the league to the possibility that a team can simply decide that a player is not fit to play and terminate his contract, if they can twist the rules to do so. That simply won’t stand. This is just the beginning of a new dilemma that will need to be sorted out between the players and teams.