The way Bill Daly modestly puts it, his career as a successful sports lawyer is somewhat analogous to a hockey player who scores a goal off a rebound.
“I’ve been extremely fortunate to have been in the right places at the right times,” says Bill, officially William L. Daly, who at just 38, is executive vice president and chief legal officer of the National Hockey League, and is viewed by many to be among the most powerful of the “Big Four” sports power brokers.
While there is no question about his success, the “right-place-at-the-right-time” theory applies only if you listen solely to Bill. The scouting report from others paints a picture of a lawyer who is more a combination of superstar and rink rat; someone with a brilliant mind and a work ethic to match; a visionary who has been in the right places at the right times not due to luck, but because he can see plays develop a few steps ahead and works himself into scoring position.
In fact, in 2001, the Sporting News ranked Bill 59th on its list of “The 100 Most Powerful People in Sports,” and Hockey News put him fourth on its list of “100 People of Power and Influence.” Last year, Bill was included on Street & Smith’s Sports Business Journal’s “Forty Under 40” list of the sports industry’s youngest and most influential executives.
“There was never any question that Bill was a lawyer of unlimited potential,” says New York partner Shep Goldfein, who heads up the firm’s antitrust and sports law practices. Bill was an associate in that group for six years before NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman hired him as the league’s chief lawyer in December 1996. Bill was just 32 at the time. While Commissioner Bettman undisputedly wears the “C” sweater around league headquarters, Bill is clearly in the “A” sweater as the commissioner’s right-hand man. At Skadden, Arps, which he puts at the top of his “right places” list, Bill represented the NHL, the NBA and the NFL in a number of high-profile matters. He also had, as he puts it, “the amazing experience” of working with Frank Rothman.
“Working for (Frank) was incredible,” Bill said. “He had this remarkable ability to very quickly wade through the minutia and cut right to the heart of an issue. He needed very little in the way of background to be fully conversant on a subject. He was the greatest lawyer I’ve ever been around in terms of understanding the critical issues on a any given matter.” Bill also credits Shep and antitrust/sports partner James Keyte as mentors in his development as a lawyer and as instrumental in being given an opportunity to work at the NHL. “There could have been no better place for me to have worked at the start of my career,” Bill said. “It was always high-profile and highly sophisticated work and I was learning from the very best. There are very few jobs in the world I would have even considered leaving Skadden for. This was one of them.”
As part of the top management team for the premier league in one of the world’s most popular sports, Bill’s work has been no less high-profile or sophisticated since he joined the NHL. Most visible, perhaps, is Bill’s lead role in administering the league’s collective bargaining relationships with the NHL Players’ Association and the NHL Officials’ Association. Even the most casual sports fan knows how challenging collective bargaining can be in professional sports. In the NHL, a league that includes six franchises in Canada, those issues can be even more complex.
“It certainly presents a lot of legal challenges. What you can or can’t do is regulated by different and sometimes contradictory laws,” said Bill, who used pension law as an example. “The goal, obviously, is to be in compliance with all applicable laws and regulations. But sometimes, that’s not possible. You end up making the best decisions you can with the best legal advice you can get your hands on,” Bill said.
Bill’s involvement in highly visible league matters reaches well beyond the collective bargaining table. In 2000, he assumed responsibility for overseeing the operation of NHL International, a separate business unit for the league that is responsible for all international business ventures and opportunities. Just two months after assuming his NHL International responsibilities, Bill negotiated an agreement with the NHL Players’ Association and International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) which allowed NHL players to participate in the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. He was also the individual principally charged with implementing that agreement, and handled all aspects of the NHL’s Olympic effort from the establishment of roster naming protocol, to procedures relating to drug testing and doping control, to the procurement of appropriate disability insurance for participating players, to facilitating and effectuating a “first-of-its-kind” joint marketing relationship with the Salt Lake Organizing Committee. The NHL’s successful participation in the 2002 Winter Games drove record level television ratings for hockey in the U.S. and Canada, and provided a platform for unprecedented worldwide exposure for the league and its players.
Other career highlights thus far include Bill’s oversight of the league’s comprehensive review of arena safety conditions and the implementation of the follow-up mandate requiring the installation of protective netting, his lead role in the bankruptcy reorganization of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the late ’90s and his handling of grievance arbitrations arising out of Ottawa Senator Alexei Yashin’s year-long holdout during the 1999-2000 season. Agreeing with the league’s arguments, an arbitrator held that Yashin had to “fully perform” his contract before he could become eligible for free agency.
“People who deal with the NHL know that Bill is part of that very small circle of people you have to work with,” said Shep. “He has critical input on every major issue that impacts the league.”
Obviously valuing his own Skadden experience, Bill has surrounded himself with a handful of other Skadden alumni. Gloria Morales, an assistant at Skadden for nine years, left with Bill in 1997 and currently serves as Bill’s executive assistant. Julie Spar Grand, a former associate who worked with Bill in the antitrust group at Skadden, followed two years later and is currently the NHL’s vice president, deputy general counsel. Another Skadden alum, Jason Camhi, works as a corporate attorney in the NHL Enterprises Legal Department. “Having been there for so long, and experiencing the quality of training the firm provides and the quality of people it hires, adding these people when the opportunity arose was a no-brainer,” Daly said.
Though being named the NHL’s top lawyer at just 32 years old would have been hard for Bill to foresee, he was always sure that he wanted his career to involve sports. A “huge sports fan” who grew up in New Jersey, Bill’s dad had New York Rangers season tickets. And by the time Bill went on to Dartmouth College and eventually NYU School of Law, he knew sports law was right for him. “It just matched my interests so well, it was a great career path for me,” he said.
While professional political correctness may dictate that Bill is now officially a fan of all 30 NHL clubs, that seems to have only made his love for the sport – and his career – stronger. A hint of that came through when Bill was asked if his two young children think that he has the coolest job in the world. “They may be a little young to realize that now,” Bill answered, “but someday they will.”