The agent for veteran centre Eric Belanger is threatening legal action after he says the Washington Capitals backed out of an agreement to sign his client five weeks after it was initially made.
Joe Tacopina, a high-profile New York defence lawyer who has recently begun representing NHL players, told The Globe and Mail that the Capitals agreed over the phone to give Belanger a one-year, $1.85-million deal on July 16 that would be made official after general manager George McPhee completed a trade.
Tacopina said Capitals assistant GM Don Fishman then advised him in mid-August that the deal may fall through, after the team had already helped Belanger move and lease a home in Washington. His children were also registered for school in the area.
With few other options, Belanger signed a one-year, $750,000 contract with the Phoenix Coyotes on Tuesday, taking a more than $1-million pay cut from the deal Tacopina says the Capitals offered.
"They should be ashamed of how they handled this situation," Tacopina said of McPhee and Fishman. "We're pursuing and evaluating our legal options in that regard."
The Capitals declined to comment other than to say they never had a contract in place for Belanger.
Both NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly and a NHL Players' Association spokesman declined to comment on the situation.
Belanger's agreement with the Capitals was first reported by The Globe on Aug. 12. Five days later, Tacopina said Fishman told him the deal was potentially in doubt.
While Tacopina insists there was an ironclad agreement, a contract was never signed and registered with the league, an arrangement several veteran player agents said they would never have agreed to.
"They don't have a legal leg to stand on," one agent said Wednesday. "The entire situation is governed by the CBA. An agent and the player are obligated under the CBA to not take individual legal action or you can lose your certification to be an agent ... The sole remedy would be a grievance.
"The grievance precedent is 100-per-cent crystal clear: Unless you have a signed standard player contract on file, registered with the NHL, you have nothing."
The agent added that he believes Tacopina mishandled the situation by trusting the Capitals.
"This is a cold, nasty, cut-throat business, and when you're dealing with the likes of George McPhee, just know what the rules are and know how to deal with them," he said.
First contacted Tuesday evening for comment on the failed deal, an irate Tacopina provided a copy of a lengthy letter he sent McPhee on Aug. 26 (shown below) that outlined the situation and implored the Capitals to "conclude this agreement on a positive note."
"George McPhee has a reputation and many people aren't surprised," Tacopina said of taking the dispute public. "As far as I'm concerned, the facts are the facts.
"Eric's a veteran NHL player, with two young children, 600-plus games played and respected around the league as a character guy. To string him along like he's a piece of property as opposed to a human being? ... It's very disturbing how this went down. Then to treat this like they had no obligation, moral or otherwise? That's the organization."
Belanger first joined the Capitals at the trade deadline, when he was acquired from the Minnesota Wild for a second-round pick. He had six points in 17 games in Washington and played in all seven playoff games in the Caps' first-round loss to the Montreal Canadiens.
Belanger became a free agent on July 1 after making $1.75-million a season the past three years. He recently left well-known agent Pat Brisson of Creative Artists Agency, who represents Sidney Crosby, to become one of Tacopina's first NHL clients.
Below is an unaltered copy of the email Tacopina provided:
From: Joe Tacopina
Date: Thu, 26 Aug 2010 20:43:37
To: George Mcphee
While I am sure Don has filled you in on our talks , I must tell you that I am frustrated that I cannot get you to speak to me on what has become an increasingly difficult situation.
The purpose of this email is to present to you some of the facts, explain to you the difficult situation that we have been put in, and to ask you to honor the commitment the team has made to eric.