It is a hard thing to unwillingly give up the life of a professional athlete – more so if you may be complicit in the exit.
Perhaps that is why Joffrey Lupul tossed a social-media hand grenade into what had been a Toronto Maple Leafs warm-up party for a fun NHL season. The former Maple Leaf – he may still be on the payroll but he is as far in the rear-view mirror in management's eyes as Vesa Toskala – quickly deleted his Instagram post Sunday night accusing the Leafs of cheating when he failed his physical last week. But like anything else that appears online for as much as a nanosecond, Lupul might as well have carved it in stone at the foot of Legends Row in Maple Leaf Square.
It was the first time the Maple Leafs' use of the long-term injured reserve list (LTIR) was subjected to public accusations, although there have been suspicions around the league for the past two seasons about some of the team's moves. Those moves – putting veteran players who were said to have failed their physical exams on the list, thus creating space on the roster and potentially taking their salaries off the NHL salary cap – came to be known as being sent to Robidas Island, named for defenceman Stéphane Robidas, who was exiled to the list after training camp in 2015.
On the first day of Leafs training camp last week, general manager Lou Lamoriello announced that both Lupul and fellow veteran Nathan Horton had failed their physicals. That meant both would be on the LTIR to start the season. Lupul has one year left on his contract with a cap hit of $5.2-million (U.S.), and this is his second consecutive season on the list after sports hernia surgery in late February, 2016.
There were never any questions about Horton, who did not play a single game for the Leafs after arriving in a trade for David Clarkson on Feb. 26, 2015, in an exchange of contract problems with the Columbus Blue Jackets. Horton, 32, has a degenerative spine condition and is not expected to play again.
But Lupul, 33, claimed on his verified @jlupul account in an Instagram post Sunday night that he is healthy and ready to play: "I'm ready.. Just awaiting the call.." When last week's failed physical was mentioned by his followers, he posted: "Haha failed physical. They cheat, everyone lets them." He deleted the latter post after a stream of comments from followers.
If he is indeed sincere in his accusation, there is a route back to a playing career through the National Hockey League Players' Association. He can file a grievance, and an independent medical opinion can be obtained.
If the second opinion says the player is healthy enough to play, then yet another independent physician is jointly selected by the NHL and the NHLPA to determine his status.
The NHLPA declined to comment, as the union does not discuss medical issues involving players. However, there is no indication Lupul has filed or even discussed a grievance. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly also declined comment "at this point." And why wouldn't he? People may have their suspicions, but no one made any official accusations.
A Maple Leafs spokesman said Monday the team will not comment on the matter. But when head coach Mike Babcock was asked about Lupul, he said, "I don't know nothing about Lupes. I just wish him well in whatever he's doing." In other words, sayonara Joffrey – and no, never come back.
If Lupul is sincere in his desire to play again – and several of his teammates said on Monday that he is – then he has to give up his part of this devil's bargain while his Leafs contract is in effect. In exchange for not fighting the team's ruling that he failed his training-camp physical – usually a series of exercises with benchmarks to be met – Lupul gets to collect his full salary while sitting at home in Newport Beach, Calif. By the end of this season that will be a cool $9-million (U.S.).
Otherwise, he files the grievance. If he wins, the team would probably buy him out for two-thirds of what is left on his contract. At his age and given his long injury history, it is unlikely in the extreme that another NHL team would offer him anything more than a tryout.
There's no shortage of rival executives who believe this is a creative way for Lamoriello to create some room on his playing roster for young players and cap room if he needs it. They would do the same if their owners were as willing as the Leafs to spend the money.
Despite a series of Instagram posts showing him doing everything from snowboarding to playing tennis to dining in exotic locales, Lupul's former teammates are sure that what he really wants to do is play hockey.
"Whenever you're an athlete and play at a certain level, it's not something you ever want to end," Leafs centre Tyler Bozak said. "I don't think anyone does."
So maybe late Sunday night Lupul got a little angry, a little frustrated and let loose on social media. Then just as quickly regretted it.