Leafs off the hook?

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:20 AM ET

The Maple Leafs appear to have won the first salary-cap dispute of the new era. At least for the time being.

All indications are that the National Hockey League will grant the Leafs a dispensation in the Owen Nolan case and as a result, Nolan's salary will not count against their cap.

In other words, even though the Leafs have not yet bought out Nolan, they will be allowed to carry on business as if they had.

There will be many more such disputes over medical matters -- and, by definition, the related salary-cap interpretations -- in the years to come.

In this one, the league made an ad hoc decision. But in the future, there will be some serious infighting following clearly established lines.

What the Nolan issue boils down to is which side can be believed. The Leafs say Nolan was cleared to play seven months ago and is therefore no longer their concern.

Nolan says he should not have been cleared to play, that the Leafs doctors, two of whom have since been relieved of their duties, were too hasty in their assessment.

Taking matters into his own hands, Nolan has undergone another operation on his knee and presumably will be able to call upon the expert testimony of the medical staff that performed the operation.

They, no doubt, will have noticed some aspects of the afflicted area that will allow them to determine just how long the knee had been in need of surgery.

If they can testify with some certainty that the injury is an old one, then the Leafs will have a dilemma on their hands. But if the indications are that this injury was recently acquired, then the Leafs will be on solid ground and will be able to buy out Nolan at two-thirds of the contract's value, and continue to refuse to pay his salary from last season.

It's safe to say that this will be the last such case of this kind. The window to buy out existing contracts expires at 5 p.m., tomorrow and after that a whole new process for handling medical disputes comes into play.

If you ever wondered why it took so long for the lawyers to hammer out all the details of the new collective bargaining agreement, consider just this one issue and you'll know.

From now on, a player who has been out of action and undergone treatment will at some point be cleared by the club doctor to return to the lineup.

But the doctor can't just tell the player he is ready to roll and give him an encouraging slap on the backside. He has to fill out the requisite form -- with a copy to the player. As soon as he hands over that copy, the clock starts ticking.

If the player doesn't accept the doctor's determination, he has 72 hours to let the club know that he wants a second opinion.

He has five days from the moment the club physician handed him the form to get that second opinion (in writing of course, with copies going to the team doctor and the team itself).

If the two opinions disagree, then the two doctors have to meet and agree upon a third doctor. This stage of this most entertaining process must be concluded within a further 72 hours.

If the two doctors can't agree on a suitable third party, then the matter will be referred to two more doctors -- the NHL Players' Association's medical consultant and one selected from the members of the NHL Team Physicians' Society.

At this point, these two are given 48 hours to select yet another physician (if there are any left on the continent who have not already been involved in the process).

Now, the player has five days to go to see that doctor whose opinion, when it comes, is final and binding.

It's a lengthy, expensive and legalistic process. But at least it should prevent the kind of dispute that is now going on between Nolan and the Leafs.


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