The Hockey News - Money & Power
ALWAYS A FRONTRUNNER
IT HAS BEEN 37 years since a 30-yearold Don Meehan turned down the security of partnership at an established Toronto law firm and decided to go out on his own to represent hockey players in contract negotiations. Now, two years after he’s become eligible to collect government pension cheques, Meehan is still in the game, jockeying for clients and running Newport Sports Management, hockey’s largest representation agency.
To say the hockey landscape has changed would qualify as an enormous understatement. And some of that change has been because of Meehan, who was one of the first to see the value in selling a player’s family on his services instead of just the player himself. And his was one of the first agencies to become a one-stop-shopping experience for players, providing them with every service from contract negotiations to endorsements to tax and investment management. Hockey was not a particularly big business when Meehan attracted Hall of Famer Pat LaFontaine as one of his first clients in 1983, but with 30 employees around the world and about 125 clients in the NHL, Meehan and his group were the first super-agents on the hockey scene.
Meehan sees two major changes in his industry. The first is the sheer number of people chasing talent. When Meehan started, there were maybe 20 agents for hockey players and only a handful of those were handling the bulk of NHL players. This season, the NHL Players’ Association has a total of 191 registered player agents on its website. But more than that, Meehan sees a much more troubling trend that has developed. And that competition has made it more difficult to recruit players. It has also, in Meehan’s opinion, given parents of young players a sense of entitlement to subsidize their son’s development from his teenage years until he starts making serious money as a pro. That’s a demand with which Meehan refuses to comply. “That’s a fool’s paradise,” Meehan said. “When you see how many kids from the Ontario League draft or the draft out west, and then you go to the first round (of the NHL draft), it’s hard enough projecting players who are picked in the first round who will go on to a meaningful second contract, let alone try to do that at 15.
You’re going to be in receipt of receivables when they’re maybe 19. So you’ve got four years in, and on an entry-level contract, you’re getting three percent. That’s $27,000 a year for the sake of discussion if they’re good enough to play.”
Even with the other services Newport supplies, Meehan said the core business is still in the revenues it generates from representing players. Agents typically receive three percent of a first contract, with the percentage diminishing as the player gets older and the contracts get bigger. It wasn’t always the case, but Meehan can attract clients with his reputation and track record. Not all agents with that experience and client list are so lucky. “They have to subsidize those people,” Meehan said. “They have to provide incentives.”
With increased competition comes the pressure to keep clients, and Meehan is definitely mindful of that. He and his associates are constantly in rinks all over North America recruiting and making certain the clients they have at all levels get face time. And like any agency, they lose clients to other agents. When Alex Ovechkin came into the league, Meehan represented him and poured all kinds of resources into helping Ovechkin adjust to life in North America, only to be dumped in favor of the player’s mother a year before Ovechkin received his 13-year, $124-million contract from the Washington Capitals. “You have to accept and understand the fact that it’s going to happen to everybody,”
Meehan said. “On occasion, you get the client saying, ‘I’ve got to blame somebody here. This isn’t working out, so I’m going to blame the agent.’ I can recall telling (former NHLer) Steve Thomas years ago what I thought he was worth. He told his wife, and his wife wouldn’t have any part of it. So they ter- minated me and went to another agent and ended up getting exactly what he was worth. You run into all kinds of situations like that.”
Approaching four decades in the business, Meehan is still as energetic as ever. He doesn’t see himself slowing down in the foreseeable future. His client base is strong, and he’s developed ties with the GMs with whom he has negotiated. There will come a day when he steps away, but that day is not on the immediate horizon. “It took me so long to build the firm,” Meehan said. “I made a lot of sacrifices over the years, and it’s now coming to fruition, and it’s successful, and I don’t want to walk away from it. I gave up a lot. When I was building the firm, whatever we made, I put into the firm and hired more people and really wasn’t taking anything out and became successful a little later on in life. Like any entrepreneur, you make a lot of sacrifices. But if you’re fortunate and you do the right thing, then it comes back to you in spades.”