It's all about the dough? Not so in this Burke-Lowe feud

Perhaps it's just a coincidence that two of the more prominent debates in NHL circles these days revolve around the same central issue.

That is, the issue of vulnerability.

When it comes to head shots, or hits to the head, part of the ongoing discussion is whether a player being hit is responsible for protecting himself. As long as the game has been played, "keeping your head up" has been a phrase heard in every rink around the world in which body contact is legal.

As it stands, NHL authorities still believe if a player leaves himself vulnerable by admiring a pass for one lingering second too long or by skating with his eyes on the puck while it sits between his skates, he deserves pretty much what he gets.

Off the ice, there's a similar debate, and those involved are just as passionate about their point of view, if not more.

Are teams in the NHL business partners above all else? Or are they competitors first and foremost, and thus perfectly within their rights to take advantage of an opponent's soft spots if they become evident?

This, really, is what the much-publicized Brian Burke versus Kevin Lowe verbal slap fight is all about.

Make no mistake about it, this is one entertaining confrontation, albeit one that has taken place mostly with Burke in California and Lowe in Edmonton, Alberta. These two general managers used to be pals, and made one of hockey's biggest trades in the summer of 2006 with Lowe peddling an unhappy Chris Pronger to Burke's Anaheim Ducks for a package of players.

These days, if you take Burke at his word, he wouldn't even speak to Lowe if the Edmonton GM walked into his office looking for a stapler. He wouldn't stop for Lowe at the side of the road if Lowe's motor vehicle were on fire. If Lowe were drowning, Burke would toss him a pair of newly sharpened skates.

"I have no intention of speaking to [Lowe] anytime soon," Burke said in a recent television interview.

And that's the nice stuff. Burke has also labeled Lowe "gutless" and accused him of running the Oilers "into the sewer" and then throwing a "grenade" at the other 29 teams in the form of a five-year, $21.25 million contract tendered to restricted free agent Dustin Penner last summer.

In one way, it's an attractive feud, if only because it's real. We all see the phony scraps between NHL enforcers many nights, with neither goon upset or angry but determined to "do his job." Georges Laraque, the Pittsburgh scrapper, pulled back the curtain for all to see last season when he wore a mike during a game and genially invited an L.A. opponent to drop 'em in the same tone one might use for a lunch invitation. Just before the bout commenced, Laraque said in a friendly tone, "Good luck."

Not all NHL fights are staged in this way. But a bunch sure are.

Not so with Burke and Lowe. This is real animosity, and it stems from competitive fire. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman probably doesn't love it, but you don't see him fining either guy, either.

So why is Burke so mad?

Well, he might tell you it's out of concern for the NHL industry in general, and it isn't that Lowe signed the promising Penner over the summer, but that the salary was such an exorbitant increase in pay (Penner made $450,000 last season) that it unduly and unreasonably affected the rest of the league.

A judge or lawyer, of course, might note such sentiment reeks of collusion. But that's another story.

What Burke was really bugged by? Probably that every team in the league knew that coming off his franchise's first Stanley Cup, a variety of factors had put his team in a delicate position with respect to contracts and the league's three-year-old salary-cap system.

Two of Anaheim's veteran stars, defenseman Scott Niedermayer and forward Teemu Selanne, were hemming and hawing over possibly retiring, but neither was inclined to commit to finishing his career or returning to play. Both players had contributed enormously to winning the Cup, so Burke was willing to let them think about their futures and take their time.

At the same time, however, that made it trickier for him to accommodate the salary demands of other players. Specifically, it meant if a team took a run at a restricted free agent like Penner, Anaheim would likely be helpless to match the contract, as it could under the league's collective-bargaining system.

Over the past 20 years, NHL teams have generally declined to pursue opposing players in this way. For the most part, it's been expensive and a waste of time since the club owning the player would simply match the offer. Beyond that, there was an unspoken agreement that teams just didn't do that to each other, and teams that did were regarded as pariahs, or at least not invited to belly up to the bar for a while.

Lowe, however, was in a very difficult position as he viewed Burke's predicament from Alberta.

His team had made the 2006 Stanley Cup finals, then missed the playoffs last season. Pronger and center Michael Peca, important players on the '06 club, had asked out of town. After free-agent center Michael Nylander verbally agreed to sign with the Oilers last summer and then changed his mind because his wife didn't want to go to Edmonton, Lowe understood there was a growing and dangerous perception that established NHLers didn't want to play in the city.

He also needed some talent. First, he went after Buffalo's Thomas Vanek with an enormous seven-year offer, but the Sabres weren't nearly as vulnerable as Burke's Ducks, if only because they'd lost Chris Drury and Daniel Briere to free agency. Still, the Sabres' front office was left fuming.

"What this amounted to was an exercise in futility," Sabres GM Darcy Regier said.

Then came the Penner offer, and after considering the matter, the Ducks, who had already spent money on defenseman Mathieu Schneider and winger Todd Bertuzzi, decided they could not match and instead accepted first-, second- and third-round draft picks as compensation.

Burke blasted Lowe for not giving him prior notice of the Oilers' intentions, and for the offer in general. But in the buddy-buddy world of the NHL, what he was really mad about was first leaving his team exposed and then having an opponent take advantage.
It was about vulnerability. It was about Burke being caught, figuratively, with his head down.

Hits like that don't go forgotten in the NHL, and neither will this one.

Lowe, for his part, played it cool when Burke came out firing again on the eve of the season with his remarks about tossing a grenade at the other 29 teams and the "colossal stupidity" of what Edmonton had done with Penner. Edmonton's ownership responded to the controversy by giving Lowe a new four-year contract. Oilers coach Craig MacTavish, meanwhile, was happy to wade in, calling Burke an "egomaniac" and a "blowhard."

"He reminds me of the Wizard of Oz," MacTavish said. "You comb his hair, put a white shirt on, wheel him out in front of the camera and he'll say whatever you guys want. Clearly, it's a crusade of self-promotion on his part. But what goes around, comes around in this league."

Excellent stuff, all this, particularly for the media in a sport where executives generally go out of their way not to offend the next guy. Burke, needless to say, has now positioned himself to be portrayed as a hypocrite if he makes a Penner-like raid on another team in the future.

But most believe this isn't over, not by a long shot. Moreover, other teams have watched and learned, and many will be looking for the next time a "partner" has its belly exposed.

This is no time, it figures, to get caught with your head down.

Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."