Passion and determination are two integral aspects of the game of hockey, and they also are two traits shared by the National Hockey League’s executive vice president and general counsel, David Zimmerman. For a game played by athletes renowned for their yeoman-like work ethic, team-first values and zeal for the sport itself, it’s fitting that the league’s lead attorney brings to the office each day this same effort and enthusiasm that the players bring to the ice.
While being an athlete and working in professional sports is perhaps one of the most idealized jobs for many young boys, Zimmerman didn’t originally dream of raising the Stanley Cup as a child growing up in Hicksville, N.Y., but instead aspired to be a veterinarian. It wasn’t until later, and he’s not sure of exactly how or why, that he developed a zest for law, which led him down a fortuitous path toward his current position.
After spending his first post-graduate year as an accountant, Zimmerman settled on a new career path, deciding instead to move on to law school. Immediately after graduation, he accepted a job at a law firm that was then known as Proskauer Rose Goetz & Mendelsohn, where he worked until 1992. At that time, the NHL was undergoing structural changes, and Proskauer asked Zimmerman if he wanted to work part time for the league “for a few hours a day” and then come back and serve his normal clients. Little did he know “part time” would really mean “full time,” and after several months of burning the candle at both ends, he was invited to work for the league on a permanent basis.
Q: What’s a normal day like for you?
A: We don’t have normal days here, and I wish we did. While I work for the league, and am employed by the league, in addition to having the league as a client, I also represent 30 [NHL teams], which means 30-plus owners, 30 general managers and other team personnel. So I have an awful lot of clients. Each day I could be doing anything from fielding general managers’ calls about what they’re allowed and not allowed to do—[from] contract structure and the like for players during the current free agency period, to having the [players’ union] file a grievance with respect to a club’s rights under the collective bargaining agreement to having clubs requesting approval to close corporate transactions. I also handle collective bargaining, immigration, financings, contract negotiations—we collectively basically do in-house what a full-service law firm does for its clients.
But I spent the bulk of my time split—not necessarily evenly—between various corporate transactions, both at the club and league levels, corporate and financing transactions, and collective bargaining matters.
Q: What interested you in in-house as opposed to law firm work?
A: I did a lot of deal work at Proskauer—mergers and acquisitions—which I thoroughly enjoyed. Doing deal work is great because you’re involved in the deal and you can see it from start to finish, but more often than not, you’re not part of the company as it grows. I really wanted to be part of a company as it evolves and not just do a deal and then move onto the next one. I really wanted to be part of the process where you’re evaluating the deal from a business perspective, where you’re accomplishing and concluding the transaction itself, and then when you’re implementing the transaction and how the business grows both internally and externally.
Q: How have you seen the league evolve in your time there?
A: The league has grown by leaps and bounds by virtually any measurement. We’ve added franchises; our revenues have increased manifold over the years; our lines of business have increased. The magnitude and sophistication of the types of deals have increased exponentially. It really has been that which I wanted in my career—being on the inside.
Q: What’s most challenging about your job?
A: One of the challenging aspects about what we do is balancing the various legitimate interests of the different constituencies. While I’m employed by the league, the fact is the league office is a service organization in some ways for all of our 30 member clubs. But at the same time, we have our own, very real commercial business and, in addition, we have the interests of the league to protect and the interests of all 30 clubs to protect.
For example, we’re responsible for vetting the transactions, making sure they comply with league rules and making sure that incoming and outgoing owners sign required league agreements. In a tripartite negotiation, you’re representing the league office and the other 29 clubs; on the other side negotiating is a current owner, and on the third side is an incoming owner, and you need to balance all of those various interests while ultimately doing what’s best for the league and all 30 clubs as a whole. And that isn’t always an easy road to navigate.
Q: What do you enjoy most about your work?
A: By in large, it’s absolutely intellectually challenging. In the sports law context, a lot of what we’re doing is cutting-edge legal work, and I work with an incredibly talented, smart, passionate group of people who really care both about the game and about the product that we put on the ice. It’s really enjoyable because everyone is pulling in the same direction.
Q: What advice would you give to young lawyers who aspire to be general counsel?
A: Find an area of the law that you enjoy practicing because if you genuinely enjoy it, and you have passion for it, then more likely than not you will excel at it. And when you excel at something, people are going to recognize that. Also, don’t be afraid to go out of your comfort zone. As I describe to people, you’re going to have to grow horizontally first, but when you grow horizontally, you’re ultimately going to grow vertically as well.
Q: What’s your favorite thing about working for the NHL?
A: Watching the product on the ice. Knowing the athleticism and character of our players; listening to them speak; knowing their backgrounds and watching what they do on the ice, playing as passionately as they possibly can—it’s just phenomenal. And at the end of a hard-fought playoff series, which can be as tough a series as there is in any sport, they line up at center ice and shake hands. Watching this and knowing that you’re a small part of putting that product on the ice is just phenomenal.
Q: What would be your dream job if you didn’t work in law?
A: I’d want to be a veterinarian. I never will, but it’s still my dream job.