A decade ago, Lady Luck smiled on Daniel Ages.
It happened in the career office of the law faculty of McGill University when Ages, a student in his final year who dreamed of finding work in the entertainment business, dropped by to see if any new options for New York were up. Just then, a Big Apple firm — Proskauer Rose LLP — called to say it was accepting resumés. “I’d never heard of them before,” recalls Ages, who applied for — and landed — a job as a summer associate at the international firm. Proskauer Rose boasts a stellar lineup of alumni in almost every major professional sports league, including National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman and National Basketball Association commissioner David Stern. “Being at the career office at that moment was very fortuitous. It gave me a head start.”
To impress his new employers, Ages says he “worked my butt off” on the small assignments he was given on corporate accounts like the NHL. Those efforts apparently impressed his clients, because the NHL offered Ages a job as an in-house lawyer in 2000. “For a Canadian kid who grew up in Ottawa as a big fan of the [Montreal Canadiens], it seemed like a great opportunity,” says the 37-year-old, now in his eighth season with the league. “I have absolutely no regrets. This is an interesting and unique job. As a lawyer, I can’t imagine myself doing anything else.”
He’s not alone. From the handful of lawyers just a generation ago who had careers in professional hockey, there are now dozens of legal professionals who earn their livings as members or representatives of hockey organizations and players. The 20 or so practising lawyers like Ages who work in the NHL’s legal department handle the day-to-day operations of the $2.7-billion league and entertainment business that owns, among other things, a media group. It is involved in everything from merchandizing to sponsorship agreements. In addition, there are team lawyers, lawyers who act as agents for many of the approximately 800 players from more than 20 countries under contract with teams, and lawyers for the players’ union.
That doesn’t include the many trained lawyers who now hold senior executive functions that deal directly with the on-ice product. While there are no official numbers, an informal head count by one of the most influential lawyers in the history of professional hockey suggests, as of early February, nine general managers (including Brian Burke, the new hockey boss of the Toronto Maple Leafs) and 15 assistant general managers across the 30-team NHL have law degrees. “I think that gives some indication of the legal presence in the industry now,” says Don Meehan, who represents more than 100 past and present NHL players, from superstars Wendel Clark, Jarome Iginla, and Chris Pronger, to Sean Avery and Todd Bertuzzi.
According to McGill grad Meehan, it was a much different story in the early 1980s when he walked away from a promising career as a corporate lawyer with Toronto firm Blaney Pasternak, (also where now-disgraced hockey agent Alan Eagleson worked when he organized the 1972 series between Canada and Russia) and opened a player agency, Newport Sports Management Inc., with fellow agent Pat Morris. “My mom cried when I told her,” recalls Meehan. “But I did corporate law and realized I didn’t have passion for it [and] I loved the sport of hockey and I wanted to get involved. I was true to myself.”
Instead of trying to attract established players, Meehan approached young up-and-comers like Pat LaFontaine, who signed with Meehan on the eve of the 1983 NHL entry draft when he was third overall. Thanks to “absolute dedication and hard work to build up a clientele — and some luck,” Meehan says his client base grew quickly after that, with him regularly negotiating contracts. “Back then,” he says, “it was usually just two people — me and the GM — and I don’t think any of them were lawyers.”
That arrangement worked fine, he adds, at a time when top first-year players could earn only $60,000. Everything has changed with the advent of hard-fought collective bargaining agreements, free agency, and salary caps that allow each NHL team to spend up to $56.7 million in the current season. “In the current entry-level system the maximum you can earn in signing bonus and salary is $900,000, but you can actually get up to $4 million (with other bonuses),” says Meehan.
Like in other pro sports, the amounts of money now involved in professional hockey, together with the growing complexity of player contracts, has created both a need and an opportunity for legal representation on all sides — teams, leagues, players, and their union. “As a player agent, you touch on almost every discipline or area of law you can think of: contracts, anti-trust, judicial reviews, arbitration/mediation, dissemination, immigration, tax laws, criminal — you name it,” says Gordon Kirke, a longtime professor of sports law at both Osgoode Hall Law School and the University of Toronto. Kirke has represented several pro sports teams (notably, he drafted the original documents that created the Toronto Blue Jays in 1976, and is still the club’s counsel) and pro athletes. The latter include 45 NHL players, the first of whom was Eric Lindros.
According to Kirke, the world of pro hockey is “absolutely a growth field” for lawyers, provided they are both prepared and patient. “The industry is looking for and needs skilled lawyers. You need to make yourself a good lawyer, and not just at drafting contracts and understanding tax laws. You need to bring some added value to the table by learning skills that you can apply to the hockey industry.”
To do that — and to find out if it’s really what you want to do with your legal career — Kirke recommends getting as much exposure as possible to the industry, whether as an intern with a firm that is involved directly with pro sports or players, or deals with them indirectly through advertising or sponsorship agreements. “I don’t counsel trying to start out on your own,” he says. “Like with anything, you need to learn the skills and make yourself known.”
Don Baizley agrees. A Winnipeg lawyer who was doing mostly personal injury work and arbitration when, by happenstance, he became the agent for the first Swedes to play in the NHL — Börje Salming and Inge Hammerstrom, who together signed with the Toronto Maples Leafs in 1974 — says the world of pro hockey has become as competitive off the ice as it is on. “The business model has changed completely,” notes Baizley. “It’s become a very competitive business with clients from around the world. Player agents and agencies that offer really comprehensive services are recruiting and bidding everywhere now.”
As a result, Baizley tells young lawyers there are many opportunities for legal advisers in sports, “not just representing players, but with teams, leagues, media outlets, facilities management, the Olympics — they’re all in realms that are sports related. If you get in there, you’ll get exposure and the chance to meet people in the business. After that, it’s all up to you.”
For hockey lovers, the rewards can be rich. There are interesting company matters like team sales and financing; advising on and administering collective bargaining arrangements between teams, players, and referees; related matters like salary arbitration hearings and trades; international relations with other leagues; and player transfer agreements.
In addition, Ages gets to see a lot of NHL games. “There are some challenges, like getting calls sometimes from irate GMs at 1 a.m., or reading about your successes and failures in the papers every day with no shortages of opinion from people,” he says. “But it goes with the territory — and I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
When asked by law students or young lawyers how they could get into a pair of shoes like his one day, Ages tells them to focus on getting the best education and the most experience they possibly can. “I now realize that people sometimes end up in hockey by the most unlikely circumstances,” he says. “The trick is to work hard, keep your eyes and ears open, and be ready to seize an opportunity when it comes along.”