Behind the scenes with Nellie Drew

UB Law School adjunct faculty member and sports law expert Nellie Drew sitting in her office.

UB Law School adjunct faculty member and sports law expert Nellie Drew offers glimpses of the informal and sometimes raw life of a top sports law lawyer.

Release Date: August 13, 2014

UB Law School adjunct faculty member Nellie Drew shares some of her experiences in the sports legal field, her ongoing teaching to UB law students and whether, while negotiating professional athlete contracts, she ever felt like Jerry Maguire.

You’ve been behind the scenes and in the board rooms of some of the most prominent sports organizations in Western New York. How long and in what ways have you been involved?

ND: As a law student at UB, I started to look for opportunities in sports law, what was then a relatively new and not particularly well-defined field. I contacted the Career Development Office and they confirmed that Gerry Meehan, then assistant general manager of the Sabres, was a Law School alum. I wrote to Gerry to inquire if he would co-advise an independent study paper I was preparing under the guidance of Professors Dianne Avery and Fred Konefsky. Gerry was kind enough to work with me throughout that year as I developed a thesis exploring conflict resolution in the NHL.  Through Gerry, I was able to interview people like Alan Eagleson, former director of the NHLPA (National Hockey League Players’ Association), the Knoxes (former owners of the Sabres) and, ultimately, Bob Swados (former Sabres and NHL counsel).

As always, Bob was in a hurry. He shook my hand, looked me up and down, and said, “Can you write?” I think I stammered, “I believe so.” Gerry assured him that I could.  “Good. I have a project for you.”

That spring I fell ill with mono and I wasn’t able to clerk for the law firm Cohen Swados Wright Hanifin Bradford & Brett as I’d planned. But Bob never let a little thing like mono get in the way when he wanted a job done. The Sabres were defending against a lawsuit by French Connection star Rick Martin. Some overly zealous attorneys had convinced Rick that he could obtain a settlement outside workers’ compensation for injuries he suffered during his career. Another very skilled litigator had prepared a draft of a brief on the Sabres’ position, but, given the inevitable PR and emotional aspect of the case, Bob wanted this to be a clear-cut outcome that would vindicate the Sabres of any wrongdoing.

So, I was given the opportunity to work on the brief with the other attorney. It was a once-in-a-lifetime assignment: I simply had to justify the position that the Sabres valued Rick Martin so highly that they would never contemplate intentionally injuring him or hurting his career. At home, in between naps and bowls of split pea soup, I pored over old Sabres yearbooks and programs, and combed the pages of the NHL Register. (This is before the Internet.) Together, the senior attorney and I concocted something of an ode to Rick Martin’s fabulous skill and on-ice achievements — and the judge’s clerk ultimately commented that it was the best summary judgment motion he had seen in 25 years. Bob was very happy and I was now on his radar screen whenever a sports issue arose.

By far, the most unusual and intriguing matter I worked on was Alexander Mogilny’s defection from the then-USSR. As it happened, I remember thinking it had all of the elements of a bad ‘B’ movie — the kind of completely unlikely script you would run across on late-night TV. This was before the days when everyone had cell phones — especially impecunious young lawyers — although Bob toted one around that required a small suitcase.

I had returned on a flight from Atlanta on a rare May night that found my car covered in snow. When I walked back into my apartment around 12:30 a.m., my phone was ringing off the wall and I had about seven messages from Bob. Alexander Mogilny had decided to defect following the World Junior Tournament in Finland. As Bob told me, “We’re on, kid!” 

Neither of us had ever handled a defection before. By mid-morning, I was on a flight to meet an immigration expert who had handled some asylum cases. Meanwhile, Don Luce, the Sabres’ director of scouting, and Gerry Meehan, who was now general manager, were playing tag with Alexander, the strange dude who helped him defect and the strange dude’s girlfriend all around Helsinki while security for the Russian Red Army team (KGB?) tried to catch them.  

Alexander eventually arrived in Buffalo, and I recall standing in Gerry’s office as he gave Alex some money for food and essentials — probably a few hundred dollars.

Alex, at that time with little command of English, looked at Gerry and said: “For car?”

Gerry looked at me and shook his head. Alex was thinking Porsche. Gerry had been thinking Wegmans. Luckily, Dianne and Don Luce intervened to help Alex adjust to his new life. Over the next several years, the Luces would be instrumental in assisting Alex.

As counsel to the NHL, Bob was involved in virtually every transaction involving a team. It was my great good fortune that Bob not only provided me with the opportunity to develop professionally, he insisted upon it.

I remember vividly when the 1992 NHL Expansion was announced. Thirteen applications were received, many consisting of almost 100 pages or more of documentation. Bob handed them to me and told me to “summarize them” ASAP. I spent almost 24 hours straight organizing and condensing data into categories that he could quickly review as he prepared to report to the Board of Governors. Without telling me, Bob sent my summaries to NHL President John Ziegler — with my name on them as author.   

During that expansion process there were occasionally conference calls involving John Ziegler and several owners. At one point, an issue required a conference call vote. Bob contacted AT&T, which set up the call involving about 30 participants. These busy, wealthy men all patiently waited until everyone was on the line and John attempted to begin to present the issue, only to be interrupted by some strange interference on the line. John asked everyone to hold while he contacted the operator. The operator began the laborious process of checking every single participant’s line, only to report back that there was no connection problem. John must have recognized something amiss, though. He called out one owner and asked where he was and what the!@#$ he was doing. Turns out that particular gentleman was sitting in the dentist’s chair having his tooth drilled. The chorus of comments from the other owners on the line was interesting, to put it mildly. The gentleman took a hiatus from his dental appointment and the governors proceeded to conduct their business.

In 1991, the NHL decided to reorganize its licensing arm, NHL Enterprises. Bob handed the largely tax-oriented work to me and to a younger partner in the Cohen Swados firm. We worked through the intricacies, but it was evident that we would need to visit the NHL offices in New York City. No problem, except for the timing: It was early June and the due date for my first child was somewhere between May 28 and June 6. It was my first kid, I was 29, and I had no fear. I think Bob asked me once, when I was about three months along and rather queasy, if I could do the job.

“I’m pregnant, not terminally ill,” I said. And he never asked again — through three pregnancies, multiple deals, lots of late nights and plenty of travel.

Can you tell us one of your famous cookie stories?

ND: As the effort to build what is now the First Niagara Center took shape, Bob and I went in-house with the Sabres. That effort, a combination of public and private investment, was the first of its kind in professional sports-facility development. We were breaking new ground on all sorts of fronts as we forged ahead. The parties had agreed to the concept, but it was up to the lawyers to hammer out the basic principles that would be memorialized in a relatively short memorandum of understanding.

One of the watershed moments in my professional maturation took place on a hot July day when the attorneys were meeting yet again to try to hammer out the MOU. After multiple sessions, people were beginning to get on each other’s nerves. We were meeting in the Aud Club, which had enough space for everyone and also had what passed for air conditioning. Rich Tobe, then Erie County commissioner of environment and planning, and I had established a standing joke that if we were going to meet in the Aud Club, the least they could do was provide cookies, as Aud Club cookies were legendary for their size and taste. 

I don’t think anybody else appreciated our humor up until that point, but at least it gave us a reason to needle each other whenever we met — “Did YOU bring the cookies?” That miserable summer day as I sat there wondering if we would EVER be able to get people on the same page, Rich came in — about 20 minutes late. I brightened up immediately; at the very least, I had the chance to poke at Rich.

“Sure, you come in 20 minutes late, and …”

Rich broke in with a huge grin and a flourish: “BUT I brought the cookies!”

Everyone laughed, the ice was broken and we sat down to 10 minutes of Pecan Sandies and small talk. The lesson came as we settled back down to work. Ten minutes of conversation about families, training camp, the weather, etc., and a couple of cookies made all the difference. What had been intractable positions became more reasonable. People suddenly were able to work more cooperatively. The atmosphere in the room became positive and goal-oriented.

I never forgot The Great Cookie Caper, and I have used that technique multiple times since.

You're known for some teaching tricks and innovative techniques in your classroom. Can you share a few?

ND: One of my favorite “tricks” is to bring in guest speakers — Rich (Tobe) is a favorite. It helps to switch things up, vary the pace and inject new interest. Whenever Rich comes, one of us will bring cookies and tell the story. Our message is that ideally, in any transaction, everybody walks away satisfied with their outcome and respecting the other party and their counsel. Especially in a relatively small community like that which exists in sports law, it is so important to establish and maintain a reputation as an ethical, reasonable professional. We break out the cookies, students smile and, hopefully, they remember the lesson.

I’ve also been known to “share the pen.” It’s an elementary school trick, but drafting is such an important part of lawyering. Can you write without resorting to researching something on Google? Copyright issues aside, the bottom line is that you have to be able to string words together in a way that 1) makes sense and 2) achieves your client’s objectives efficiently and effectively. Typically, students are a bit apprehensive when I choose my first “victim” and they pass the pen to their friends, but as the semester progresses, they become more comfortable and they start to actually draft documents on the whiteboard.

One of your courses splits the class into two-person teams representing management and players. Each team researches, prepares and negotiates a professional athlete’s contract. Have you ever negotiated a player’s contract? What value would this have for law students? Do you ever feel like Jerry Maguire?

ND: Virtually 90 percent of the students who take that course have ambitions to become player agents. I suspect that when we are done that percentage drops precipitously. “Jerry Maguire” is true to life in many respects. In fairness, I must confess that I spent my career on the management side before going into academia. Nevertheless, I have tremendous respect for those who serve as player agents. It is a grueling, nerve-wracking, demanding job. Yes, I have participated in the negotiation and drafting of player contracts, including those for Dominik Hasek and Pat LaFontaine. The high-profile contracts attract the bulk of the media attention, but in the real world there are many more routine negotiations and signings that happen with little notice. Each of those documents has to be prepared correctly and vetted and filed by the respective league.

The practical skills incorporated into the bridge course you are referring to include researching, writing and revising a “tight” brief, complete with exhibits documenting the research. Students prepare positions based upon their clients’ perceived objectives, both monetary and otherwise. We review the many methods by which agents are regulated, as well as the fiduciary obligations binding upon them. We discuss cases in which agents have not discharged those obligations appropriately, and we talk about the ethical canons that apply to attorneys who act as agents. Finally, students participate in an oral argument, gaining experience in formally presenting a case on behalf of a client in front of an arbitrator. All of these skills are indispensable to a practicing attorney, whatever field of law he or she may pursue.

Having expertise in sports law in Buffalo right now seems like a dream job, a job that positions you at the heart of what everyone is talking about. Why does having training in sports law sound like the perfect match for Western New York circa 2014?

ND: It may be the least well-kept secret in the country, but Western New York is enjoying a renaissance that is building upon all of its many assets, including its professional and amateur sports teams. The investment that the Pegulas have made in the Sabres and the HarborCenter is already having a tremendous impact upon our local economy and, perhaps even more importantly, upon the psyche of Western New York.

As we all grieve the loss of Ralph Wilson, we eagerly anticipate the enhancements that have been made to the stadium that bears his name. There is a tremendous sense of civic pride that colors virtually every article, story and comment on the pending sale of the team. 

Meanwhile, the Bisons continue to be the class of the International League. The Buffalo Bulls have made fall Saturdays a must-see. What fun it was this year to watch the NFL Draft, with a Bulls player on the podium. Buffalo hosted March Madness with panache and our inherent warm hospitality. The recent announcement of the Big Four Basketball Classic has local hoops fans drooling about more than Thanksgiving pie.

While Buffalo culture has always centered on its sports teams, there has never been a time when so much energy and initiative have been focused upon them. While the professional sports business is always newsworthy, now virtually every day there is a significant legal/business story that touches upon some aspect of athletics in Buffalo.  It is an exciting, invigorating time for sports in Buffalo, and for those who work in the business and law of sports.

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