The National Hockey League and National Football League have turned to Proskauer Rose for counsel in their collective bargaining negotiations with players and referees, respectively, as other Am Law 100 firms have also grabbed roles in the high-profile pro sports contract disputes.
With the clock ticking down to the deadline for agreeing to a new labor deal with its players union, Proskauer hosted a meeting of the NHL’s board of governors at the firm’s  Times Square headquarters in Manhattan last Thursday. The board, which is composed of representatives from each of the league’s 30 teams, voted unanimously in favor of locking out players if a new deal was not reached with the Toronto-based National Hockey League Players’ Association by midnight Sunday. When that deadline came and went without an agreement in place, the lockout went into effect.
L. Robert Batterman, a veteran labor and employment partner at Proskauer who has handled his fair share of collective bargaining battles, including advising the NHL during the stalemate that eventually scuttled its 2004–05 season, is once again leading the charge for the league as its outside labor counsel.
Batterman is working closely with Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom antitrust practice leader Shepard Goldfein and partner James Keyte, who are serving as the NHL’s outside litigation counsel. Both firms have long-standing ties to the league, according to our previous reports.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and league general counsel David Zimmerman are both former Proskauer lawyers, while deputy commissioner William Daly once worked at Skadden.
The NHLPA, as The Am Law Daily reported earlier this year, has turned to Weil, Gotshal & Manges—a firm that has advised the players union on and off for the past 20 years—as it prepared to resume negotiations on a new labor deal with the league.
James Quinn, cochair of Weil’s litigation practice, says that his firm represents the NHLPA in the United States and has provided some “general advice” to the union on its collective bargaining talks with the NHL. Quinn’s litigation practice partner Bruce Meyer adds that Weil is “advising the union on all of their options.”
Among those options: pursuing an injunction late last week before a Quebec labor relations board in hopes of preventing the NHL from proceeding with the lockout. The NHLPA, led by its associate in-house counsel Robert DeGregory and outside counsel Michael Cohen of Montreal’s Melancon, Marceau, Grenier & Sciortino, sought on behalf of 16 members of the Montreal Canadiens to declare any potential lockout of players illegal under Quebec labor laws.
Though the Quebec labor board rejected that request for an immediate injunction at an emergency hearing on Friday, NHLPA general counsel Donald Zavelo issued a statement noting that the board did not dismiss the union’s case in its entirety and that both sides must still prepare for a full hearing on the merits of the dispute. NHL players with the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers have filed a similar labor complaint in Alberta, for which a hearing has been scheduled Friday, according to the Edmonton Journal.
Danny Kaufer, Corrado De Stefano, and Gary Rosen, labor partners with Canadian firm Heenan Blaikie in Montreal, took the lead for the NHL in winning the denial of the NHLPA’s injunctive relief request in Quebec. Like Proskauer and Skadden, Heenan Blaikie also enjoys a long history with the league.
Marcel Aubut, a corporate partner at the firm and a member of its executive committee, spent 16 years as a member of the NHL’s board of governors thanks to his former role as president and CEO of the Quebec Nordiques, an NHL franchise that was sold in 1995 and moved to Denver to become the Colorado Avalanche. (While Aubut’s Nordiques days are over— there is a movement to bring an NHL team back to Quebec City—he does currently serve as  head of the Canadian Olympic Committee.)
Peter Gall, a Vancouver-based Heenan Blaikie labor partner and another member of the firm’s executive committee, is representing the league in the Alberta action along with Hugh McPhail, a leading labor lawyer and partner at Alberta firm McLennan Ross.
The NHLPA is being advised in the Alberta action by J. Robert Blair, a Canadian labor expert and name partner at Edmonton’s Blair Chahley. Weil’s Quinn, who along with Meyer helped end a labor dispute affecting the National Basketball Association last year, says it remains “unclear” whether the Canadian litigation will migrate to the U.S.
Leading the team for the NHLPA on its collective bargaining talks, which are on hiatus at the moment, are Zavelo and union executive director Donald Fehr, a former head of the Major League Baseball Players Association.
Fehr, who frequently butted heads with baseball’s top brass, retired from the MLBPA in 2009. Pro hockey players elected him to head their union the following year. Fehr’s brother, Steven Fehr, currently serves as special counsel to the NHLPA and previously worked closely with his older brother at the MLBPA. ( The Am Law Daily took a look last year at the MLBPA’s outside legal fees under Don Fehr; similar information for the NHLPA is not publicly available as provincial labor laws in Ontario do not require the union to make such disclosures.)
With the October 11 start date of the 2012–13 season imperiled, many NHL players have begun the process of heading overseas to play in European leagues. One of those players who has already inked a contract abroad, Russian star Ilya Kovalchuk, is no stranger to the NHL’s lawyers from Skadden and Proskauer, according to our previous reports.
As it happens, Proskauer’s Batterman, a key adviser to the NFL in its own labor deal with players last year, is also working closely at the moment with NFL general counsel Jeffrey Pash and league in-house counsel T. David Gardi in advising the league in connection with its ongoing labor talks with the National Football League Referees Association on a new contract.
The NFL is entering the third week of its 17-week regular season, but so far the league has been using replacement officials while attempting to reach a new deal with its permanent referees. Management locked out those officials in June. (The NFL is the only major pro sports league in North America that pays its officials on a contract basis rather than as full-time employees, a system the league would like to change for a variety of reasons.)
The locked-out refs’ ranks include some with solid legal credentials. Edward Hochuli—who is among the league’s best-known officials, both for his beefy biceps and controversial play calls—is also a name partner at Phoenix-based litigation shop Jones, Skelton & Hochuli. Hochuli recently spoke with Yahoo! Sports and The New York Times about his workout regimen and role as an NFL official, a job that he considers anything but part-time.
And Hochuli isn’t the only lawyer moonlighting as an NFL referee. Ronald Torbert, a Harvard Law School graduate and former Dykema Gossett associate who currently serves as general counsel of suburban Detroit-based construction company Barton Malow, recently worked his way up through the referee ranks to become a member of Hochuli’s crew as a side judge.
Torbert told The Am Law Daily in an email Monday that several other lawyers—such as referee Clete Blakeman, side judges Jeff Lamberth and Joseph Larrew, field judge Steven Zimmer, line judge Darryll Lewis, and umpire J. Jeffrey Rice—are currently members of the NFLRA as on-field officials. (There may be other members of the NFLRA who are lawyers but no longer practice law, says Torbert, noting that his tabulation also doesn’t take into account associate members of the NFLRA such as replay officials that may also be attorneys.)
The NFLRA itself has turned to Michael Arnold, a name partner at Kansas City, Missouri–based Arnold, Newbold, Winter & Jackson, to serve as its lead negotiator with the league as the two sides seek to bridge their differences on a new labor deal.
According to records on file with the U.S. Department of Labor, Arnold’s firm was paid approximately $109,854 in 2011 to handle labor negotiations and other legal issues for the Kansas City–based NFLRA, which is led by executive director and former referee Tim Millis.
Meanwhile, the NFL’s replacement officials—including one who previously worked in the Lingerie Football League, as well as the NFL’s first female referee—have been scheduled to work for the next few weeks while the league’s lockout of their predecessors continues.
How those replacements fare on the big stage—the league had to pull one for reasons unrelated to performance this past weekend, and other lingering replacement issues remain—will likely determine how long the current labor impasse continues.