Nolan bought out, then it gets nasty

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 12:34 PM ET

The bitter parting of Owen Nolan and the Maple Leafs should become official this morning, but the fight in this nasty story of neglect and doubletalk has just begun.

And nobody -- repeat, nobody -- in this case is necessarily innocent until proven guilty.

This is a tale with arms and legs and all kinds of body parts and enough blame to go around that it's difficult to even know where to begin.

Nolan is certain to have his contract bought out by the Leafs and it is then that the dispute will get uncomfortable, if it isn't already. Nolan and his agent, J.P. Barry will then respond by filing a grievance -- their second in less than a year -- questioning the medical treatment the winger received from the Leafs and the legitimacy of the buyout.

This trouble, of course, couldn't have come at a worse time for the Leafs. Today, the hockey world officially opens for business. This is the first day in which teams can buy out player contracts or offer deals to free agents who formerly played for them -- and Nolan is first on the Leafs list.

But the Nolan situation -- you can't buy out an injured player -- hovers over the hockey club like a bad locker room smell that will not go away.

At issue isn't only the state of Nolan's injured right knee, but how he hurt it, when he hurt it, what the diagnosis is, what he has done about it since, and more than even that.

The very fact that the Leafs fired their medical staff only recently, including doctors and trainers, only makes this arrangement all the more murky.

As general manager, John Ferguson has demonstrated a lack of experience in his dealing with medical issues. He has done so primarily in the signing of Ed Belfour to a long- term contract having not had the goaltender checked out physically prior to the long-term agreement.

Belfour required back surgery after signing the deal, which proved to be an embarrassment for Ferguson.

Before that, in Ferguson's first season as GM of the Leafs, many players, including Belfour, were ignoring team training staff and medical personnel and undergoing private therapy on a regular basis, and at their own cost without the team's knowledge.

Even more significant is the culpability of Nolan in this case. He was injured in March of 2004. He missed the entire playoffs even though the Leafs floated a story that he might be ready to return. After the lockout began on Sept. 15, Nolan informed the Leafs he was still injured and believed he would be paid until healthy.

But the very doctor who is performing surgery on him this week -- Dr. Tony Miniacci of the Cleveland Clinic -- cleared him back in the fall to play, and because of that he wasn't paid by the Leafs.

Barry is still grieving that matter with the NHL Players' Association, even though it was his choice of surgeons, and now contradicts himself in explaining how it is Nolan is still injured 16 months after the initial mishap.

The questions are: Why didn't Nolan have surgery months ago? And if he had, wouldn't he be healthy by now?

At issue also is Nolan's role in his own rehabilitation, or lack thereof. After that lockout, there were all kinds of hockey-world whispers about Nolan missing training sessions, not doing the proper training, gaining weight and getting out of shape to a point where one teammate said: "He was eating himself out of the NHL."

And then there is the matter of the Leafs firing their entire medical staff, which doesn't look very good at this point. How much are the former staff paying for this potential snafu -- or the fact the team ended up paying Alexander Mogilny throughout the lockout?

The answers to many of these questions won't necessarily be known for some time. But the Leafs will proceed -- as they usually do -- as though they are right. They will buy Nolan out of his contract.

And then the evidence-gathering will begin.

It will cost either $4 million US or $12 million to get rid of Owen Nolan -- an expensive piece of business for a damaged player who delivered little more than hope to the Leafs.


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