Leaping from employment law to stick-handling hockey players’ contracts

UAlberta Law alumnus Manav Deol is a hockey agent

Helen Metella - 14 August 2020

Manav Deol may be too young to have been misled by Tom Cruise’s version of a professional sports agent’s life in the 1996 film Jerry Maguire, but some aspects of the job he now holds did surprise him.

“I was probably not aware of how much time I’d spend in front of a computer,” says Deol, ‘14 JD/‘15 MBA. “Like most people, I thought I’d be out and about watching games, doing deals on the sidelines.”

Three years ago, Deol left his job as an associate lawyer at a large firm to become a junior sports agent. He does attend hockey games as the hockey operations associate at Wintersports Ltd. (the Edmonton-based company founded by world-renowned hockey agent Ritch Winter), but the nuts and bolts of his job are research, analysis and relationship management.

Right now, Deol is helping Winter prepare for player drafts at the NHL and junior hockey levels, and also the impending contract negotiation season this summer.

“I would describe it as a generalist role with lots of correspondence with clients, leagues, teams, unions, partners and other professionals providing service to our clients, and lots of research,” says Deol. “That’s largely comparing numbers, comparing what statistical performance in the past has led to players getting a certain amount of money, looking at contracts as precedents.”

Agents stay in touch with clients year-round, with services that can range from helping young players prepare for moving to a new city to the trickier role of finding and vetting sponsorship deals.

Transferable Skills

While many of the approaches that Deol learned as a labour and employment lawyer at McLennan Ross’s Edmonton office are useful, negotiating sports contracts involves two unique goals, says Deol.

“One is money, of course, but there’s also the secondary one that the public doesn’t consider much, and that’s opportunity. That’s the actual team opportunity where you’re playing, but it also involves your family quite a bit. Hockey players have to jump from city to city, and their families have to do that, too. It can be very difficult and it’s an important consideration (in contracts).”

Relationships Deol forges with sports clients are far closer than those developed during his law practice. “When you’re representing young athletes, you’re more than just an agent. You’re a confidant, sometimes an older brother, watching them grow and achieve their goals.

“When players get to the NHL, or represent their country in world juniors, those are very, very important occasions and they want the people who helped them to be there, so that’s their family members, their agent,” he says. “One player from the Czech Republic, Matej Pekar, I’ve worked with over the last three years, I saw him drafted in the NHL draft (by Buffalo), I saw him play in his first world juniors in Vancouver. And this past year, I saw him play in his second world juniors, in his own country and spent two or three days there with his parents.”

That mentor/mentee relationship also exists between Deol and his boss, who took a personal interest in the young lawyer from their first meeting.

Ritch Winter

Deol was following up his JD with an accelerated MBA when the Faculty of Law brought Winter in as a speaker. After the talk concluded and the audience dispersed, Deol buttonholed Winter with his 90-second elevator pitch.

“At the time, he brushed me off because he was late to pick up his wife, and I was devastated,” says Deol. “But a week later, he called the business school back, asking if they knew of a half-MBA, half-law student who was an Indo-Canadian. He got back in touch and we had lunch.”

As a former elite soccer player, Deol had been interested in representing athletes since his teens. Throughout his studies, he’d cold-called North American sports agents for advice. In Winter, he found one of the NHL’s top agents, who has represented some 300 players over 30 years, including such superstars as goalie Dominek Hasek and winger Marian Hossa.

Winter first put Deol to work on volunteer non-profit projects he was involved with, and eventually introduced him to the Business of Hockey Institute, where Deol served as the managing director, carrying out the mandate of a group of highly accomplished hockey executives.

At Wintersports, Deol’s assisted in renegotiating contracts for all of the agency’s NHL clients..

In his limited off-hours, he is also on the board of Free Footie, a grassroots, no-cost, after-school soccer league for vulnerable youth, and is a member of the FC Edmonton advisory committee.

To law students intrigued by his path, Deol offers two pieces of advice: network as hard as you can and make those calls asking the professionals for 15 minutes of their time now, while you’re still a law student.

“Very few people in the sports industry will say ‘no’ to a student. It’s a lot more difficult when you’re not a student.”