Friday, November 12, 2004
Meehan: 'We have what we built'
By Scott Burnside
Special to ESPN.com
MISSISSAUGA, Ontario -- When Don Meehan began representing NHL players, he couldn't afford to rent office space in downtown Toronto, so he opened up shop in this western suburb where the rent was at least barely affordable.
Today, after more than 20 years in the business, Meehan's office walls are covered with photos of All-Stars and MVPs, captains and Hall of Famers, Stanley Cup winners and international icons.
Chris Pronger, Jarome Iginla, Nicklas Lidstrom, Trevor Linden, Jose Theodore, Evgeni Nabokov, Alexander Ovechkin. The list of players belonging to Newport Sports Management is as long as it is impressive. Last season the agency had 125 clients appear in at least one NHL game, making it the largest firm in the NHL. Nine members of Canada's 2002 Olympic gold medal-winning team were Newport clients.
The 53-year-old native of the blue-collar Montreal suburb of Verdun has gone from dodging bankers and cold-calling parents of prospects to become the most powerful agent in professional hockey. He has developed a reputation as a shrewd but fair negotiator and a man loyal to friends, whether they happen to be general managers, team presidents or clients whose NHL careers never panned out.
"Is he tough? Yeah, he's tough. Is he good? Yeah, he's good," said former Calgary Flames GM Craig Button, who has known Meehan personally and professionally for most of his life. "You'd better be prepared to defend your position in negotiation with him."
Said one former agent and NHL executive, Meehan drove him from the business with his relentless work ethic and his ability to establish relationships with those on both sides of the negotiating fence.
Veteran NHL referee Terry Gregson and many others throughout hockey were surprised when, back in 1992, Meehan represented on-ice officials in a landmark negotiation with the league and brokered significant salary increases, employee assistance programs, educational programs and an enhanced pension package.
"But after I got to know him, no, I wasn't (surprised)," Gregson said. "Donnie has a real passion for the game."
Now in the self-described home stretch of his career, Meehan is considered one of the few people in the sport with the professional wherewithal to help broker a new collective bargaining agreement and end the lockout that is threatening the season and the game itself.
Meehan sat down with ESPN.com following the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies.
|After Canadiens goalie Jose Theodore won the Hart and Vezina tropies, Don Meehan brokered a three-year deal for him worth $16.5 million.|
ESPN.com: People have suggested you are one of the few people who might be able to bring the owners and players together and end the lockout. What is your response?
Meehan: I've had those kinds of conversations with people in the media, players and representatives from management. But at the end of the day what I really say is I am a lawyer by profession and I understand a mandate, and the mandate that has been given has been given to Bob Goodenow and his executive committee and the mandate has been given to Gary (Bettman) and his negotiating committee. First and foremost, I respect those mandates. Secondly, nobody's asked for my opinion.
If asked, I'd be more than willing to help in any way I could.
ESPN.com: Agents will meet with the NHLPA on Wednesday in Chicago; do you see that as the kind of meeting that can effect change?
Meehan: I think the PA feels, and I've only heard this secondhand, they'd prefer to have no involvement by the agents nor are they seeking involvement. So, really if that's the way they feel I have to respect that. Which might beg one to say, "Well, what are you having a meeting for?" You'll have to ask Goodenow about that.
ESPN.com: Will you speak at the meeting? Do you expect other agents of prominence to speak?
Meehan: I think the more substantial people would feel that if they have any submissions for consideration they would probably feel there's a better environment to discuss those issues with Bob, because anything that's mentioned in that hearing will be outside the door in 10 minutes. So I think the substantial people realize that if they're asked they'll gladly give their help. So if we're not asked, and we're not being asked, then I think an individual would have to make a decision whether they feel they want to talk to Bob privately about some concepts, some ideas, some considerations. And then, of course, there's the other group of people who may only want to hear themselves talk and have no clue about the process. And unfortunately those people will take most of the time.
ESPN.com: Is there a risk involved for agents in making thoughts known, if it's something that may not run to the party line?
Meehan: Will anybody make a play, stand up and challenge the whole process? I doubt it very much. Because I think, No. 1, there's a respect for a mandate that's been given and, two, there's an understanding as well that if that mandate is to be respected, then there's an accountability ultimately. Because you're judged on the basis of your performance, so as an aside, you'd better be right. And if you've isolated yourself and you have no alliances and you haven't looked for those alliances, well ...
ESPN.com: How do you see the lockout playing out?
Meehan: The only way we'll see a resolution, and it might sound na´ve, but we have to get engaged again. And only when they're engaged again will we have an opportunity for any kind of success. Not being engaged makes no sense.
ESPN.com: Does the lockout have a bearing on your thoughts on staying in the business?
Meehan: I don't think so, because I'm prepared with whatever agreement both sides negotiate. In terms of how long I want to do this? I'm not sure. It's still a lot of fun. But this isn't very much fun now and these are days really where it's difficult not to say I'm disillusioned and I'm embarrassed with what's going on. But that's all right. I understand and appreciate a collective bargaining agreement process.
|Meehan on the lockout: "It's difficult not to say I'm disillusioned and I'm embarrassed with what's going on."|
ESPN.com: Let's go back a ways. Weren't you an accomplished athlete in your own right?
Meehan: I had an opportunity for a tryout with the Montreal Alouettes. At that point I was in law school. I think I made the right career decision.
ESPN.com: How did the decision to become a sports agent instead of a partner in your first law firm go over?
Meehan: My mother cried when I told her. She really couldn't understand or appreciate what I was doing or why.
ESPN.com: How did you begin representing hockey players?
Meehan: I grew up in an area where everybody was involved in sports. And the friends I had really encouraged me in that kind of neighborhood environment, they were proud of me. There weren't too many lawyers coming out of that neighborhood. Then, when I started practicing law, people would say to me on occasion, "So-and-so is playing at this level and would like to talk to you, would like to get some advice." So that's how it developed, on a limited basis at the very beginning. And Andre Chartrain was one of those people. We still talk. We're still pals. He was the first player that I ever signed back around 1980, 1981. He was one of the guys who came on my golf trip.
ESPN.com: What were those first years like?
Meehan: I was able to get a line of credit from the bank, $15,000 or $25,000, and then dodged the bank for about two years. Regularly. And then in 1983, probably, was my first real draft. I had about three first-rounders and six second-rounders, and I really, from about '81, built through the drafts. I didn't start with existing NHLers.
ESPN.com: How difficult was that, selling yourself to young players like Pat Lafontaine and their parents?
Meehan: I can't tell you enough times when people said no. There were times I would drive home I would say, "What's the point? What's the point of this? I'm not sure that I'm going to make it. I'm not sure I'm going to know what to tell the bank." You're out there all the time and you're working. I'd be out west, I'd be in Ontario, I'd be in Quebec. I would be everywhere. I never stopped. Those were really the hardest days of my life.
||I was able to get a line of credit from the bank, $15,000 or $25,000, and then dodged the bank for about two years. Regularly. ”
||— Don Meehan on how is career as an NHL agent began
ESPN.com: Many of the general managers and team officials you mentioned as having negotiated across from are your friends. How do you balance those elements?
Meehan: There were times when Cliff (Fletcher) would say, "You're the only guy that's ever arbitrated against me, why, why is this happening?" But I think we were always able to put that aside.
They knew if they were going to have any negotiations with me it wasn't going to be any kind of buddy-buddy scenario. This was very professional. We would have issues with each other. We would have complaints; there would be complaints about discussions with the media. But at the end of the day you had a set of principles that you operated on, you weren't deceitful, you didn't lie, you didn't try and hurt anybody. And again, the style where you would really work with the other side in understanding and appreciating their issues. That seems a bit simplistic. But it's not. It's easier said than done.
Let me give you an example. A few years back with Michael Peca, we negotiated with Darcy Regier and the Regis family. And Michael made a determination at the end of the day, and when I say the end of the day we sat with Regier for countless hours. I brought Michael Peca in, Michael expressed himself. Darcy expressed himself relative to his philosophy of the game and the benevolent ownership he worked for, so on and so forth. And at the end of the day, Michael Peca made a determination, "Look, I think this is not right." But we took the time. I don't think Regier could say -- and we don't have a great relationship as you can well appreciate -- I don't think he could ever say that we never would sit down and express ourselves. You never want to be accused, professionally, of not being understanding of the other side. I think that's worked well for me and I think I'm respected for that.
ESPN.com: Do you have a favorite negotiating story?
Meehan: There's classics over the years. They're all distinct and they're all special. (Former Islanders GM) Bill Torrey and I were talking the other day. Patty Lafontaine played in the 1984 Olympics, and we sat down at the Hotel Europa in Sarajevo for serious negotiations. Just as the meeting was getting started there was a call to prayer. I'm not sure what you call one of these individuals in the Muslim faith who calls the community to prayer, but we had this prayer call outside our window and we couldn't even think straight. Bill and I thought that this was something prophetic involved. Divine intervention.
ESPN.com: Back to the golf trip you mentioned. You've been criticized by peers and sometimes by media for your close relationships throughout the business. You celebrated your 50th birthday by taking 120 of some of hockey's biggest names on a golf trip to the British Isles. How did that come about?
Meehan: It happened in a real innocent way. I was with some friends in a pub one night, in an Irish pub, and I thought to myself, "Wouldn't it be a great idea if we got some friends together, and we all golf, and went for my 50th birthday." I've always wanted to go to Ireland. My ancestors are there. It got to be a better idea after a few more pints.
I originally started with 10 people. After awhile it started to develop, 20, 25 people. And before you knew it we were working with St. Andrews saying we have a group of 120 people. It was a magnificent trip. Bob Clarke came, Bob Gainey came, Craig Button came, Scotty Bowman came, Ron Ryan from Philadelphia came, he was president of the team.
|Don Meehan has kept his agency in Mississauga, though he now is able to afford the rent in downtown Toronto.|
There was a day my oldest brother enjoyed because Bob Clarke was sitting down with Serge Savard, having a beer, and Scotty walks by, and Gainey walks by. And they sat down, and Clarkie egged Scotty on by saying, "Scotty, you know, here's Serge sitting here, come on, what's this (expletive), who's the best defenseman that you've ever seen play the game?" Well, with that you could have stopped the pub, because people would come over and they'd start to tell stories and they'd be spellbound.
We had a banquet that last night. Michael Burgess (from Phantom of the Opera), he sang for us that night. Ron MacLean and Harry Neale were joint masters of ceremony.
ESPN.com: And you paid the whole shot?
Meehan: Yes. Cost me a lot of money. A lot of money. But in retrospect, would I do it again? I'd do it tomorrow.
ESPN.com: How much was it?
Meehan: I'm happy to tell you, but what I worry about is that bad people out there will say, "Oh, he bought people," which is the furthest thing from the truth. I didn't need to buy anybody. I've never had to buy anybody in my life. I did it for my reasons, which is that it made me happy and made my friends happy.
There's people out there who criticized me -- not many -- but who criticized me for the golf trip but who are handing over a bag of cash to people in Europe to get a client. Imagine.
||I thought to myself, wouldn't it be a great idea if we got some friends together, and we all golf, and went for my 50th birthday. I've always wanted to go to Ireland. My ancestors are there. It got to be a better idea after a few more pints. ”
||— Don Meehan on his 50th birthday trip to Ireland
ESPN.com: You have a reputation of representing players who are active in their respective communities. Do you impress upon your clients the importance of understanding the position of privilege in which they find themselves?
Meehan: In large measure I've been fortunate to represent people who've been well brought up. When I look at people like Patty Lafontaine or Jarome Iginla or Curtis Joseph, they've been well brought up and have the support of their parents. Any issue of community involvement or for that matter becoming better citizens ... Wade Redden in Ottawa, for instance, has always worked with children's hospitals, so I'm not introducing something foreign to them. They can understand and appreciate the kind of philosophy that I've recommended.
ESPN.com: Have you ever not taken a client or walked away from a client because you didn't think they'd be good citizens?
Meehan: Oh sure. I've done it not to make any points with anybody, but sure. I've walked from Jagr.
I remember with Jaromir Jagr -- and I don't mind if you use this -- I remember when Jagr came to Pittsburgh. There were difficulties then. He insisted upon a car, a free car. He insisted on a free apartment. He insisted upon a lot of things that (Pittsburgh GM) Craig Patrick certainly couldn't supply and that I couldn't guarantee because that wasn't part of our landscape here.
I can remember Jagr, the day he was signed. There was a local group in Pittsburgh that was Slovakian that came, and they had a little accordion and picnic set up. And the family wouldn't have anything to do with them because they weren't Czechs, they were Slovak.
I don't want you to get the impression that I initiated everything. (The players I've parted from) were probably initiating from their end, too.
ESPN.com: Do players rely on you for more than just contract negotiations?
Meehan: A lot of it never sees the light of day. There's family issues, there are personal issues whereby family may be looking for money. Issues of businesses that are started with friends, things are not going well. How do you handle those things? The list goes on.
It really becomes so much a part of your day. My brother needs help, he's an alcoholic, who should I speak to? Pregnancy in the family, unwanted pregnancy, how do you handle that? I've got somebody pregnant, how do I handle that? What do I do? Who do I talk to? We have DNA samples here in the safe at the office to deal with those kinds of paternity issues. It's part of the realm. What people don't understand is that they think that being someone's agent means only negotiating a contract and walking away. That's the least amount of time. It's ironic.
Drinking. Drinking and driving. Dealing with police. Dealing with Crown attorneys. The wonderful thing about my day is that you never know what's going to happen on any given day because you're dealing with people's problems. It's a challenge every day and it's different every day.
ESPN.com: How do you handle those problems -- do you have experts to whom you refer players?
Meehan: We do. There are people that we would rely on, depending on the circumstances. And, of course, we have the substance-abuse program that we have with the NHL. They are simply phenomenal.
ESPN.com: You represented the NHL officials in the early 1990s in a landmark contract session, along with current legal counsel Harry Radomski, that has endeared you to the men in stripes for life. Why?
Meehan: I read their collective bargaining agreement. And I thought, these guys need help. They need help, but the game, if they're going to attract good people to the game, we need to improve their lot. There was nothing in it. It was pretty much a hopeless case. Gary Bettman had just come to the National Hockey League and it was going to be his first issue.
It was a fabulous experience. There were times I thought it was going to kill me. There we were, 57 officials against the National Hockey League in New York. But I often say it was probably one of the most enjoyable times, one of the most difficult times, but probably one of the most enjoyable times and rewarding times in my career.
But I think that I helped the officials, and the game's better for it.
ESPN.com: You were approached about being becoming the head of the players association in the early 1990s after Alan Eagleson left. Why did you decline?
Meehan: They engaged a headhunter and they canvassed a number of people. They had contacted me and said, "You represent a lot of players, we'd like to talk." I told them I'd like to think about it, I'm not sure. But I had gone through a series of successful drafts and I had been in business then for about 11 years. I had a very good business. I had a good firm. I had great clientele. I finally made the decision one night, I called the headhunter back and said take my name out of consideration.
||It was a fabulous experience. There were times I thought it was going to kill me. ”
||— Don Meehan on his experience negotiating a new contract for on-ice officials
ESPN.com: Are you married, do you have children?
Meehan: No. I don't. Still single. I'm one of these guys, I've often talked with friends and family about it, and people who've been involved in the business -- I know I am driven. My business has totally consumed me. I wanted to be successful, I wanted to be successful for the people in the firm so that they also would be successful. Before you know it, you say, "Whoa, wait a second, I've totally committed myself to this process." But not unlike a lot of people you speak to that are involved in business and end up being successful, the hours they put in the work they're involved in.
ESPN.com: But you still have strong family connections?
Meehan: We had five children in our family. I was the baby. My dad was a mechanic by trade and he worked with Canadian National Railways all his life.
My oldest brother has Parkinson's disease and my sister became a single parent, so I have family. I have nephews and nieces, and they're being educated, so I've got lots of responsibilities and I'm really proud of them and couldn't be happier to have those responsibilities and relationships.
ESPN.com: How has your business grown?
Meehan: It takes an art to be successful, to live another day, to grow your business. We've never been the people that have bought out other people. We built it, we earned it. We haven't amalgamated. What we have we built, and that's what I'm proud of.
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.