Sean Tomlinson touched on the predicament of Oilers’ goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin this morning, passing along the news that he’ll spend a month in prison (half of that under house arrest), pay a fine and enter an alcohol treatment program, all without missing training camp.
That last point is the interesting one.
Last year, when Khabibulin’s legal troubles were at centre stage, Oilers blogger (and lawyer) Tyler Dellow wrote the following about the possibility of voiding Khabibulin’s contract should he be convicted:
There’s been a lot of speculation that the Oilers might be able to somehow get out from under Khabibulin’s contract if he’s found guilty of this. I haven’t really been that impressed with the idea. Morals clauses in sports contracts are notoriously difficult to enforce. Where this might get interesting is if Khabibulin is unable to report to camp or if he’s convicted and has to do some jail time during the season. In that case, the player contract is very clear and you don’t have to get into issues about whether his conduct meets some standard. The SPC provides that a team can terminate the agreement if the player fails to render his services hereunder or in any other manner materially breaches the SPC. Failing to attend games because you’re in jail (or because you’re in Phoenix at a trial) would seem to me to be pretty clear cut.
In short: a conviction probably wouldn’t get the Oilers off the hook, but missing time thanks to legal complications probably would.
Given that Nikolai Khabibulin is unlikely to find another team willing to pay him $7.0 million to play hockey for the next two years, it is undoubtedly in his interest to avoid giving the Oilers the option of voiding his contract. This raises the possibility that the primary purpose of his appeal was not to fight the sentence he received but rather to delay the sentence to a time period where he couldn’t have his contract revoked for missing games or training camp. While that timing may or may not have been a factor in launching the appeal, it certainly was a factor in Khabibulin’s decision to drop that appeal, as his lawyer admitted:
“By the beginning of July it became apparent that probably we wouldn’t have a decision from the court of appeals until sometime in August and Nikolai felt that would jeopardize training camp and he did not want that to happen.”
The next big question from a hockey perspective is how the conviction will affect Khabibulin’s ability to cross the Canada/U.S. border. Derek Zona of Copper & Blue did a superb job digging up information on that topic last August (I advise reading the whole piece) and basically found that while the conviction is going to make Khabibulin’s life difficult, he is probably still going to be able to travel with the team.
Whatever Khabibulin’s other faults, it seems likely at this juncture that he and his legal team handled things as well as they possibly could have; he minimized the opportunity for the Oilers to back away from his contract, and seems to have kept the disruption to his NHL career to the minimum possible. He may be going to jail, but this could have been much, much worse.