SBJ/November 10 - 16, 2003/Forty Under 40

William Daly

It might not be an overstatement to say that the future of hockey as we know it rests on Bill Daly's shoulders.

William Daly
NHL
“He’s an incredibly steady, honest broker, really a salt-of-the-earth, very straightforward guy. He gives a lot of great advice to owners and is very welcoming to new owners and is really one of the main people we lean on for advice and candor.”
— Ted Leonsis, owner, Washington Capitals
“He has credibility on all fronts in the hockey world. He fits into that circle in a unique way. He has a knack for getting his point across but does it in a way that doesn’t offend anyone.”
— Larry Pleau, general manager, St. Louis Blues
“The first word that comes to mind is ‘solid.’ Bill is a guy with very good read of any situation, a well-grounded commonsense approach. A guy you can rely on. He doesn’t get involved in any factions or carry tales, and that’s a vital resource for those of us in the 30 teams out there.”
— Jack Diller, president, Nashville Predators
“He’s tremendously involved with hockey and very involved with the full business. He’s one guy that has to cross over all lines and disciplines because that’s where his role takes him. And he does that in a very positive way.”
— Greg Jamison, CEO, San Jose Sharks
As the NHL's chief legal officer and Commissioner Gary Bettman's clear No. 2, it's Daly who serves as the key point man in negotiations with the NHL Players' Association. When the league's collective-bargaining agreement expires Sept. 15, the entire sport's future will hang from a thread that he and only a few other people will have in their grasp.

A passionate advocate for a system that puts guaranteed limits on salaries, Daly is involved in every facet of the league's push toward getting a new economic system. Although it is Bettman who ultimately will set the strategy and be at the center of the negotiations, Daly has taken on both the macro issues and the subtlest nuances of labor relations as talks with the union have started to materialize.

He has spent hours with pencils and spreadsheets, working through various economic models designed to give every NHL team a fighting chance at profitability. He spent months preparing a series of presentations that lay out how and why the league lost about $300 million last season, and the proposed remedy.

Throughout the summer he walked owners, team representatives, the media and the union through two hours worth of PowerPoint slides underscoring all those points.

While Bettman has made the phrase "cost certainty" into a rallying cry, it's Daly who is making the case for it. As the NHL coalesces around a single message, an important process in any labor negotiation, it's Daly who has become the de facto voice of the league.

"I like to think I've done more at the league and accomplished more than just collective bargaining," he said. "But obviously, this is the most important thing we have to deal with right now, and getting it resolved in an effective way is the most important thing to me personally and, of course, professionally."

With a regular-guy demeanor that belies just how political and divisive the league's economic issues can be, Daly exudes a credibility and an honesty that will be crucial to convincing skeptics that the league's cries of poverty are genuine.

While sports leagues and their top executives often spew more spin than substance, Daly has a candor that is both refreshing and a potential asset as talks heat up. Not paranoid about what he says or reveals, he believes that there's very little it makes sense to hide when it comes to the labor questions.

"It goes to an old lawyer's adage, which is 'good facts make good law,'" said the 1990 graduate of New York University School of Law. "I've rarely been involved in any type of negotiation where the facts are as strong as they are here. The challenge was to come up with effective communication points."

Daly spent six years at New York law firm Skadden Arps, where he represented several sports leagues in high-profile cases, most notably the NFL in the lawsuit filed by former player Freeman McNeil.

He joined the NHL in 1996, at the age of 32, as its chief counsel. A direct report to Bettman from day one, Daly has always been at the center of most of the league's important business dealings.

While the old guard of the hockey world sometimes regards any new blood with distrust, especially business or legal types who don't have years of hockey experience, Daly has always been able to bridge that gap.

"He's my kind of guy," said Boston Bruins President Harry Sinden. "I think he has a total understanding of not only the business end but of the playing of the game. I often call on him for advice."

Team executives say there's really nothing they can't talk to Daly about.

"He's really a go-to guy for us because he seems to know everything," said Richard Peddie, president of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, parent company of the Toronto Maple Leafs. "He's very pragmatic, street-smart and just seems to have a lot of credibility with a lot of constituencies."

Peddie said he even sought Daly's opinion on whom the Maple Leafs should hire as a general manager, perhaps the most important and highest-pressure hockey-related job in Canada.

Whether it's dealing with banks or team sales or arena leases, Daly is on the front lines. He is Bettman's eyes and ears, and sometimes his muscle.

"He can be the heavy," Sinden said. "They're a terrific team. He's also a sounding board for Gary. He's the guy that Gary relies on for kind of a devil's advocate role."

Look for both of them to play the heavy over the next year.

If there's one issue where Bettman and Daly are of similar mind, it's labor and the economics of the game. They rejected the union's offers for a luxury tax and revenue-sharing-oriented system like baseball's, and say that only cost certainty will lead the NHL out of its financial straits.

Daly says he's confident the union will eventually come around, because players will begin to believe the league's message that there is no real alternative. To get to that point, Daly said, the key is being straight-up with all the parties involved.

"I think [NHLPA executive director] Bob [Goodenow] has been very clear that his role is to reflect the desires of his constituents," Daly said. "So while he may have his own personal philosophies on how this should come out, at the end of the day he'll listen to what his players have to say."

Therefore, Daly said, the most important thing is getting players to believe what he has to say. "Our role and objective is to make sure that we're communicating effectively," he said. "Over time, you want to build credibility in a relationship that hopefully you can call in when it comes to crunch time."

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