Although football is king this time of year and the media is obsessing over the NBA lockout and NCAA shenanigans, there is plenty of hockey going on and we here at The Legal Blitz have a soft spot for the true winter past time. Steve used to cover the ECHL’s Las Vegas Wranglers and is constantly challenging Ben to drop the gloves in the office even though he doesn’t wear gloves.
The ECHL currently has 20 teams in 16 states so we started to wonder how the league’s top lawyer handles such an expansive league. So we went straight to the source – ECHL Director of Hockey Operations Jeff Zavatsky. Zavatsky, a Phi Beta Kappa at Emory as an undergrad and an NYU law alum, left the New York City firm life to build a career in the ECHL starting in media relations with the Stockton Thunder. Zavatsky moved his way up the ranks, serving the past two seasons as the ECHL’s Manager of Hockey Operations prior to taking over as Director this year. Zavatsky is responsible for the organization and release of team rosters, including the daily monitoring of contracts, salary cap, player background and immigration matters while also overseeing all transactions, including trades, waivers, recalls and injuries. He also is responsible for the administration and tracking of all player and team fines, ongoing relations with the Professional Hockey Players Association.
Hockey Operations encompasses a lot. Can you describe on a large scale what you do and then also your day-to-day duties both during the season and during the off season?
Essentially, I primarily function as the League’s Central Registry — in that role, I am responsible for ensuring that our teams are following all of the ECHL rules and regulations, particularly with respect to player transactions, roster movement, and the salary cap. I also deal with the PHPA (player’s union) on CBA-related matters, assist our VP of Hockey Operations, Joe Ernst, with the administration of player discipline, and as we get into the Spring I help coordinate the playing schedule for the next season. It’s truly a 24-hour a day commitment from September through May – we have 20 teams, and if anything of note is happening with any of them at any time, we have to be on call and ready to deal with the issue. In the offseason, there are some critical deadlines related to the reserve process (qualifying offers, free agency), but it is a little bit slower than the regular season and playoffs, with the focus shifting on getting ready for the next year. It’s definitely a lot of work, but truly a labor of love.
What made you decide to go to law school?
Looking back in hindsight, I probably didn’t give it as much thought as I should have at the time — but then I was only 20 when I was applying to law schools! My father is an attorney and I always respected what he did, and I didn’t really have a clearly defined alternative in mind. Everyone always told me that having a law degree makes you versatile, and that’s certainly proven to be a true statement. My years in law school rank as some of the best in my life – I made a lot of great friends there, and it’s where I met my wife.
Did you ever want to practice law or were you always geared toward a career in hockey/sports?
I fully intended to practice law out of law school, although I don’t know that I really fully understood what practicing in a New York City law firm actually entailed on a day-to-day basis. Nevertheless I went into the law with an open mind, and actually did practice in New York for two years before making the shift to hockey. Sports have always been my main passion, and I think I always had in the back of my mind that if there were some way to combine my knowledge and legal skills with sports, I would jump at the opportunity. I was fortunate enough to catch some breaks and take advantage of some opportunities along the way which have made that possible.
What is your favorite part of your current job?
My favorite part of the job is the daily interaction with colleagues and with the different coaches and staffs across the League. There are many other aspects of my position that I enjoy, but it’s that interaction and camaraderie that I enjoy the most — which is not to say every conversation with a coach is pleasant! But I’ve learned quickly that the hockey world is incredibly small, and I’m both honored and thrilled to have become a part of it over the past few years. It’s incredible the amount of talent and dedication that is spread across the ECHL, and it starts at the top with Commissioner Brian McKenna.
How did you end up in Stockton and with the ECHL?
After a few years of practicing, I found that trying to segue into sports through the legal field would be a little more difficult than I anticipated, so I decided to take a chance and try to come at it from another tact. I was initially considering some opportunities in the NYC area, but my wife (girlfriend at the time, and also an attorney) expressed some interest in relocating back to California, where she was from originally. I googled “San Francisco hockey team” and Stockton (about an hour east of SF) was one of the first results to pop up, so I did some investigation and liked what I heard. They were only in their first or second year at the time, but had led the ECHL in attendance and appeared to have put together a top notch organization in a short period of time. They had an opening for an unpaid internship in PR/Community relations, so I applied and was lucky enough to have been given a chance.
You need to know a lot…immigration, contracts, labor law…how have you picked all of this up?
When I was in law school, a lot of my professors would say that the main purpose of law school to teach you to think like a lawyer. I never really understood what that meant until I got out of law school, but earning a JD provides a very solid analytical framework that makes it easier to approach problems in a critical, clear manner. And as a litigator, you are often forced to become an immediate expert on some esoteric area, depending on the facts of the case you are working on. These skills and experience have made it easier to absorb things like immigration, labor law, etc. that I hadn’t really been exposed to before joining the League. At the end of the day, however, it’s really all about understanding what the rules are and following them. I don’t really do very much “legal work,” per se, for the League – we have very capable outside counsel. I’m by no means an expert – it’s a process, and I learn something new almost every day.
Head injuries received a lot of attention in the media this season. How are ECHL officials adapting to the new sensitivity toward hits to the head?
We have taken the issue of player safety very seriously, and I think our officials have done a great job in adapting to the ever-changing landscape. As long as hockey remains a contact sport, you’ll never be able to eliminate all injuries, but certainly it’s something we take into consideration when looking at the rules of the game and contemplating supplementary discipline.
On a similar note, Chris Pronger recently had a nasty eye injury in Philly. Do you think the NHL will ever mandate visors for all players?
Similar to above, I think all hockey leagues have taken great strides in trying to protect the players. I can’t really say what the NHL will or will not do in the future as far as rule changes go, but I would not be surprised if it’s something they consider down the road.
What is the disciplinary process like in the ECHL? The NFL is sort of a dictatorship with Roger Goodell and the NHL has Brendan Shanahan and a committee? How does the ECHL determine fines/suspensions?
There are certain penalties or offenses which call for automatic review and others where a review must be requested by a team. In terms of the actual review, it’s a complicated process that involves looking at the video, speaking with everyone involved (coaches, officials), comparing to other similar incidents in the past … we deal with each incident on a case-by-case basis, because they are all very fact-specific. It’s a thankless task, but a necessary one.
How much does the ECHL oversee strict salary cap compliance vs. counting on individual teams to monitor their spending?
There’s a lot that goes into team costs that is separate from player salaries, but we do keep track of each team’s roster and salary cap on a daily basis to ensure that they are complying with League rules. Ultimately the onus is on the individual team to keep in line with our rules, but we try our best to help the teams out if they have questions – we try to be as pro-active as possible.