The champs’ champion

The champs’ champion
He comes across as mild-mannered, but sports lawyer Gord Kirke is tough when it counts – when tempers flare, Kirke is famous for bringing sanity and a much-needed sense of fair play to the multi-billion-dollar sports industry.

Imagine, for a moment, the colossus of Bret “The Hitman” Hart, who is a six-foot, 235-pound Norseman with Popeye-sized biceps, noted for pink spandex costumes, wrap-around sunglasses and a surly don’t-even-think-of-screwing-with-me attitude.

Undoubtedly, that outlook was culled from years of being tossed around the family gym by his wrestler father, followed by a career that involves whipping the bejeezus out of roid-raged goliaths in wrestling rings around the world.

Now envision Hart’s lawyer, Gordon I. Kirke, who resembles a middle-aged Smurf. At a mere 5' 10", Kirke is rather pear-shaped and given to neatly pressed open-collar shirts and sports jackets. His manner is that of a kindly chaplain basking in the warm embrace of elderly widowed parishioners. So what would possess Kirke to bait Hart a few years ago by questioning the size of the wrestling king’s cohonas? And doing so by lobbing potential grenandes like: “Bret, I think you’re a coward. You’re afraid of me. You know I could take you.”

When Hart finally snaps, it’s not a pretty sight. Slamming down his Jack Daniel’s, he leaps to his feet and shouts, “That’s it, let’s do it.” At that point the thought crossed Kirke’s mind — one slightly addled by red wine, to be sure — that he may have poked the bear a few too many times. Which was rather alarming given that this particular bear was the newly crowned champion of the World Wrestling Federation, the biggest freak show of violent, juiced-up meatheads on the face of the planet.

It was deep into the evening of November 19, 1995 and Hart and his family and friends were sucking up the glory of Hart having just bested a 340-pound Sasquatch named “Big Daddy Cool” Diesel during a “Survivor Series” brawl in a Landover, Maryland, arena. Hart and his entourage — including Kirke — were partying it up in a spacious Washington, D.C. hotel suite. Which is when, perhaps emboldened by all the testosterone lacing the air, Kirke set himself up for Hart’s patented Sharpshooter “submission” hold — one so painful Hart had always refused to use it on Kirke.

“Ordinarily I would turn you over my head and slam you to the ground,” growled Hart, standing over a now-uncertain Kirke. “Want to start with that?”

“We’ll skip that part,” said Kirke hurriedly and lay down on the hotel room floor, Hart’s entourage looking on. Hart proceeded to lock Kirke’s legs up, making him squirm. “You know Bret, this is confining and if I had claustrophobia it might be a problem, but I don’t feel any real pain,” Kirke said from the carpet.

“That’s because this is only the first part,” replied Hart. With that he gave Kirke’s legs a twist, sending the lawyer shooting into the air. Seconds later, Kirke hit the floor with a sickening THUNK! Now Hart was almost sitting on Kirke’s back, pulling his legs towards him, with the lawyer bouncing up and down like a gasping fish on dry land. In fact, it was not long before tears of anguish began streaming down Kirke’s face.   Which, naturally, made the onlookers hoot with laughter. “Oh my God, this is the position every client would like to have their lawyer in,” shouted Hart’s wife Julie. “Let me get a picture of this. Can you hold that?” Eventually, after many agonizing moments, a picture was snapped and Kirke released, although to this day he prays the photo has gone missing and will never come back to haunt him.

When Gord Kirke was growing up he wanted to be a cowboy, a dream finally crushed when his father pointed to the shortage of horses and cows in their downtown Toronto neighbourhood and suggested “why not think of something else to do?” So Kirke became a lawyer instead, a decision that’s led to an undeniably charmed career. After all, he has managed to do what every jock-in-the-closet, Jerry Maguire-wannabe lawyer across Canada would do pretty much anything to get a chance at — combining law and sports. Today, at the age of 60, Kirke is the country’s most successful sports lawyer, a job that has put him ringside to some truly defining moments in the playing fields of glory.

Take game six of the 1992 World Series when the Toronto Blue Jays were in Atlanta playing the Braves and Dave Winfield was at the plate in the eleventh inning, with two runners on base and two out. Winfield hits a foul ball that Kirke, sitting in the stands, catches. On the very next pitch, Winfield doubles down the line and Devon White and Roberto Alomar come in to score — the winning runs of the World Series. Later that night, and because he is the Blue Jays’ lawyer, Kirke is on the plane celebrating with the players as they flew back to Toronto. He took this opportunity to approach Winfield and ask the future Hall of Famer to sign his baseball.

Meanwhile, as a sports lawyer and for a time, as an agent, Kirke has represented and befriended many of Canada’s most famous athletic figures, including NHL stars like Eric Lindros, Rick Nash and Mike Modano. Outside of hockey, he has been the lawyer for Bret Hart, Olympic champion Donovan Bailey, Olympic gymnast Elfi Schlegel, and sports executives such as Pat Gillick, Gord Ash, Paul Beeston, John Bitove, Keith Pelley and Richard Peddie. He is counsel to the Toronto Blue Jays as well as the Toronto Argonauts, and even once represented the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts. He was the lawyer who prepared the original papers that created the Blue Jays in 1976 and helped the club negotiate contracts with stars like Joe Carter, Robbie Alomar, Carlos Delgado and Roger Clemens. Kirke is counsel for the Ontario and Canadian hockey leagues and players of Team Canada ’72 of the famous Russia-Canada series. He also teaches sports law at both Osgoode Hall and the University of Toronto.

Moreover, he’s in hot demand as a media commentator, appearing regularly on TSN’s “Off the Record” with Michael Landsberg and on radio station The Fan 590 with Bob McCowan, which is also simulcast on Sportsnet. “Gord has tremendous respect in the sports community because he’s perceived as, and effectively is, a good person,” says McCowan, the outspoken radio and television broadcaster and one of Kirke’s clients. “There’s no dark side to Gord. I don’t know any other attorney who doesn’t have a dark side, who isn’t motivated by other things. Gord seems not to be.”

Kirke is also that rarity among prominent lawyers in that he doesn’t throw his weight around. Instead, the key to his success is being a consistently positive, generous and easygoing guy, invaluable traits in the sports industry. As he observes: “You are in the ego business. You’re dealing with enormous egos.” So while the image of the Gerry Maguire–style mercenary agent may be burned into people’s minds forever, Kirke consciously eschews this caricature. “He has no mood swings I am aware of,” says McCowan. “He’s always light-hearted and joking and never makes anything out to be World War Three.”

Mind you, this congenital affability has been known to drive some of his opponents to distraction. After all, in the hothouse world of sports, where opinion, criticism and yelling at people are universally accepted, Kirke has demonstrated that it can be a tactical advantage to never lose his cool. “Usually in contract negotiations there is a breakdown and then there has to be a period of time to allow for reconciliation, for people to calm down,” explains McCowan. “With Gord that never happens. There is no breakdown. With him it never gets personal. You are never mad at him. You may be mad at the situation and how things are going. But you always feel he is not your enemy, even on the other side of the table. And that is clearly his greatest asset.”

Kirke’s practice has coincided with the burgeoning societal presence and riches generated by all sports, which generates annual revenues of US$213 billion in the United States alone — twice the size of the auto industry. Currently, an NFL franchise is worth US$530 million. All told, the four major leagues bring in scads of cash at the turnstile, from TV revenue, endorsements, products, appearance fees and the like. Meanwhile, players’ salaries are astronomical compared to what they were a mere 20 years ago, with the average baseball player earning about $2.5 million a year (compared to Ted Williams making $75,000 a year as a top player in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s.)

So it’s no surprise top sports lawyers can make in excess of $1 million a year, too. Indeed, Kirke is well off, living with his wife in the super-affluent Toronto neighbourhood of Rosedale (he has two children from a previous marriage). “I see sports law as being a big part of entertainment law,” he remarks. “You go to hockey, baseball or football games to be entertained. The fact that it costs so much money speaks to me of the importance society places on being entertained.”

In spite of the sex appeal of sports law, Kirke fell into it quite by accident. He grew up in Toronto, his father working in the coin operating machine business while his mother was a housewife. In high school he was a bit of a jock — good at football and baseball, although he was once distressed to lose first base position to Pete Mahovlich. He excelled in martial arts and sucked at hockey. He studied law at Osgoode Hall and when he graduated, ended up at Goodman & Goodman (now Goodmans LLP) in the early ’70s doing litigation.

His life changed forever when he was taken under the wing of Herbert Solway, one of Goodmans’ earliest partners, and began dabbling in entertainment and sports law. Solway was involved with Labatt Breweries, which was seeking a baseball franchise in Toronto in the mid-’70s. It was eventually awarded the Blue Jays. Soon Kirke joined the inner sanctum of a small group of baseball executives — Pat Gillick, Paul Beeston and Gord Ash — who systematically built the Blue Jays from a laughingstock into the powerhouse that won two World Series. “His style kind of stood out a little bit,” recalls Gillick, the former general manager of the Blue Jays and currently GM of the Philadelphia Phillies. “Gordie has kind of a low-key style, so he puts pressure on people without the people knowing that pressure had been put on them.”

Kirke’s primary role was to help the club negotiate contracts with the players, a job that grew in importance as the calibre and salaries of players rose. “A good lawyer guides you through the minefields,” says Gillick. “Keeping you out of trouble is just as important as getting you out of trouble.”

The negotiations on behalf of the Blue Jays were not without moments of levity. For example, at one point in the early ’80s the Blue Jays were trying to sign starting pitcher Doyle Alexander, a necessary ingredient to their scheme of building a World Series contender. The talks had been tough and had come down to one point: the team would not pay Alexander’s salary if the pitcher injured himself while hunting. Alexander, a famous curmudgeon, balked at this. A compromise was reached whereby it was agreed that Alexander could collect his money if he was hurt — but only if he was following all hunting regulations and wearing a prescribed bright orange hunting jacket. After the contract was signed, a peeved Gillick told Kirke: “If something happens to Doyle while hunting I will find him and turn his jacket inside out.”

And then there was the time Kirke was flown out to Seattle to assist Gillick in trying to persuade the sweet-swinging John Olerud to leave college and sign with the team. When Kirke arrived, he joined the meetings and observed the talks for a while before asking Gillick to step outside to confer. He told Gillick that the GM seemed so enthused about the success he was having that he couldn’t say no to anything Olerud was asking for. “You have to say ‘No’ to John and his group no matter what they ask from now on to get the deal done,” Kirke advised Gillick. The two men returned to the room, whereupon Olerud promptly asked: “Is it all right if I go to the bathroom before we start up again?”

“No!” said Gillick bluntly. The contract got wrapped up soon afterwards.

As the Blue Jays evolved into a powerful contender, Kirke found himself in a once-in-a-lifetime experience. “It was the Camelot of baseball,” he recalls. “Everything worked so perfectly. You had an owner who realized they knew nothing about baseball and hired exactly the right people to run it and let them do it. They had a tremendous group of people, whether it was design or fluke: a core group of people who came together and made magic happen.” It culminated in the ’92 and ’93 World Series wins, before those teams were eventually dismantled and the franchise’s owners and executives changed.

The Blue Jays were not his only noteworthy clients. In the late ’80s, Bret Hart’s business manager asked him to meet the up-and-coming wrestler. Kirke didn’t know who Hart was and was determined to turn him down. On the day Hart showed up at Goodmans’ Toronto offices, Kirke was surprised at all the commotion the wrestler caused; suddenly, senior partners who were in-the-closet wrestling fans emerged to steal a peek at the star. “I sat down to get this over with and say I didn’t want to represent him but Bret totally won me over,” remembers Kirke. “He was a very warm individual and he showed me poetry he wrote.” Kirke agreed to become the wrestler’s lawyer and they soon became good friends.

Not long afterwards, the father of a young minor league hockey star came seeking his legal help. His name was Carl Lindros and his son Eric was being heralded as the next big thing to hit the NHL. Except there was a problem: Eric did not want to play for the team he was drafted to — the Quebec Nordiques. It became a national scandal, as it was believed Lindros was anti-French. Kirke joined the player’s group of advisors to try and extricate him from this situation, and eventually struck a deal allowing Lindros to go to the Philadelphia Flyers, where he landed one of the best guarantee-laden contracts ever signed. “There were all kinds of allegations of Eric being anti-Quebec,” says Kirke. “But I knew it to be absolutely false… It had more to do with the management of the team.” Lindros and Kirke have since parted ways.

The respect Kirke enjoys in the sports world would lead to a life-altering event. In 1997, he was asked to investigate the extent of abuse in the minor hockey league system after it was revealed that one coach, a pedophile, had been preying on some players. Kirke spent months interviewing police, psychiatrists, social workers, teachers and even went into prisons to talk to perpetrators. “I was surprised at how prevalent this is in society,” he says. “And the second surprise is how little we know or want to know about it. It’s a yucky subject.”

His study, called “Players First Report,” was released to national acclaim and remains widely used within the youth sports community to this day. This experience also compelled Kirke to get involved in charities and organizations helping abused children. For example, he joined the board of the Children’s Aid Foundation (CAF) in Toronto and set up a scholarship program to help young people. “He has a very deep understanding of the issues, and tremendous concern for high-risk young people falling through the cracks,” says Sheilagh Johnson, the CAF’s executive director. “He’s been very impactful in a lot of different ways.”

Another consequence of doing the report was Kirke deciding to become a players’ agent, hoping to help young players avoid being ill-treated. He left Goodmans and set up his own firm, called KSR Sports Representatives Inc., eventually representing up to 45 hockey players at various levels of the game.

His biggest victory came in 2002 when he negotiated the richest contract ever given to an NHL rookie — first round draft pick Rick Nash. Nash, who would go on to become the league’s top scorer, was highly sought after by the Columbus Blue Jackets, which gave Kirke a degree of leverage. Still, the talks with the club’s general manager and president, Doug MacLean, grew testy at times. “MacLean is a bright, bright guy and can be quite charming and animated and aggressive and loud,” says Kirke. “He has this style of negotiating that alters depending on the situation — reward and punishment. He also involved his assistant GM and they would play good cop and bad cop.” At one contentious point during the talks, MacLean’s wife called her husband, whereupon MacLean told her: “I am with that asshole I was telling you about. Do you want to speak to the asshole?”
MacLean then handed Kirke the phone.

“Mrs. MacLean, you have my commiseration of what you have to live with,” the lawyer said to her. She laughed in reply.

Eventually a deal was struck, 12 minutes before the signing deadline, giving Nash a US$1.2 million-a-year base with bonuses and incentives adding up to US$8 million to $12 million — which still stands as the biggest rookie contract ever signed.

However, Kirke tired of being an agent and last year let his licence lapse, returning full time to being a sports lawyer. “I enjoyed the lawyering part more than many other parts of the business,” he explains. “As an agent you have to travel around to homes of athletes and parents and do this dog and pony show — and for me that part was not fun any more. I am a people person, I love people, but in that dog and pony situation it stopped being fun.” And if there is one key to understanding Gord Kirke’s career, having a good time has clearly been a big ingredient to his estimable success.

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