BUFFALO, NY (AP) – Jack Eichel has changed agents, been stripped of his captain’s job and probably played his last game for the Buffalo Sabers.
Eichel’s future, however, remains in limbo due to a deadlock on how to treat a herniated disc that has sidelined him since March.
What started with Eichel revealing in May that he felt a “disconnect” between himself and the team over the treatment of the injury turned five months later into an open sore with the opening of the new season next week. The situation this week alone has caught the attention of the highest level in the NHL, with its players and lawyers questioning whether Eichel is being treated fairly.
Without laying the blame, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman weighed in, calling the situation a “terrible situation,” during an interview on Sportsnet 590-The Fan radio in Toronto. Vegas goalie Robin Lehner, a former Saber, took to Twitter and questioned the The NHL and the Sabers by writing: “Is it good to keep a generational player out of the league?” Her body her choice. Do what’s right.
Lehner then attacked the NHLPA by tagging the union in a memo ask why the union and other players has remained silent in defense of Eichel’s freedom of choice.
The crux of the dispute revolves around whether NHL teams have the final say in the treatment of player injuries.
Eichel prefers to have disc replacement surgery. Sabers’ doctors say this procedure has never been performed on an NHL player and instead favor fusion surgery.
Unless the Sabers change their recommendation, Eichel has no choice but to undergo fusion surgery or sit while his injury is untreated.
The NHL collective agreement states that teams are required to give “serious consideration” to the choice of a player for a second opinion, but otherwise they have the final say on treatment. The ABC does not offer the possibility of settling disputes through third party arbitration.
The problem could arise if the Sabers suspend Eichel without pay. Such a decision would almost surely lead the NHLPA to file a grievance, which neither side prefers because of the precedent it could set by asserting or denying the language of the CBA.
Player rights to the treatment of injuries vary among the four major professional sports in North America.
In the NFL, the onus is on the team to show that a player’s preferred treatment is not medically necessary. The Major League Baseball clause is relatively vague in “urging their constituents to agree on a third qualified medical expert” to resolve the differences.
In the NBA, a panel of three doctors – one chosen by the team, another by the union and a third chosen by the first two consulting doctors – would arbitrate such a dispute.
The NHLPA has made some inroads over the years to change the language of the CBA. Last summer, the NHL moved to agree to allow players to seek a second opinion from specialists not on the league’s approved medical list.
Eichel’s situation is relatively unique in sports due to the nature of the injury and emphasizes the rights of the patient, said Dan Lust, a New York-based lawyer specializing in sports law.
Lust noted that disc replacement surgery was standard practice in treating such injuries, while acknowledging that the Sabers were correct in raising the fact that it had never been performed on an NHL player. Whatever the details, he said the dispute poorly reflects the Sabers and the NHL.
“They’re trying to force that down the player’s throat,” Lust said. “I don’t think there are a lot of PR wins with the Sabers. You lose anyway, right? You lose your star player or trade in your star player for pennies on the dollar. “
Trade talks have resumed since Eichel’s new agent, Pat Brisson, entered the scene last month. Brisson worked with Sabers general manager Kevyn Adams to clarify Eichel’s medical status with potential business partners.
Adams is open to commercial offers with terms enforced based on how many games Eichel could play once healthy, a person with first-hand knowledge of the talks told The Associated Press on Friday on condition of anonymity because the discussions are private.
Eichel’s trade is complicated due to the uncertainty of his health and the five years remaining on his eight-year, $ 80 million contract.
One condition could be that the Sabers take over part of Eichel’s contract to assuage a team’s salary cap issues. Another condition for Eichel would likely require the team that acquires him to accept his favorite surgery.
It’s also possible that a trade will have to wait to lower Eichel’s salary cap reached for the remainder of the season for teams at or near the NHL limit.
“What makes it fascinating is that it’s a chicken game that has already lasted longer than it should have given her medical schedule to return,” Lust said. “We have exceeded the deadline which would have made sense for both sides to do so.”
This story has been corrected to indicate that the Sabers are expected to take over part of Eichel’s contract for the duration of the deal rather than this season.
AP Basketball writer Tim Reynolds and AP Baseball writer Ronald Blum contributed.
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