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.
On Friday July 16th at 9:45am Don sent me a text message stating, "george wants to offer eric a one year deal, please call me." When I called Don he said that you were prepared to sign eric to a one year, 1.850million dollar deal. He told me that you didn't want to sign the deal then because you were working on a trade and you didn't want eric's signing to get in the way of that trade by increasing the other team's leverage.(While Don wouldn't elaborate, I assumed you were trading a center and you didn't want the other team to realize you had a surplus at that position). Don did require that Eric commit to the deal at that time however, because he stated that you didn't want to be in the position of making a trade and then finding out that eric changed his mind and wouldn't accept the offer. I told him I would call him back shortly and give him an answer. After speaking to Eric, I called don back and told him that eric would agree to the deal. Don said based on that you would move forward with the trade....he predicted that the trade would take anywhere from 2 to 5 days to complete and that eric would be signed by the following week. Don knew, as he and I had discussed, that we were negotiating with other teams at that point. Of course in order to make the commitment to you we had to cease those negotiations. By doing so we obviously passed up other opportunities for eric because eric wanted to play in washington , believed the deal to be fair, and grew to love his coach and teammates there. Eric and his wife decided that washington was also a wonderful community for them to raise their family, which includes 2 young daughters.
Don agreed to stay in touch over the next few days to report on the progress of the trade. Don sent me a text message confirming our agreement.
Don and I connected via text message over the next few days and it was relayed to me that you were still working on the deal and that you still hoped to be done by friday the 23rd of july. Don called me in the late afternoon of the 23rd to tell me that ,while progress had been made, the deal still hadn't been completed at that time and that you were hopeful to complete the trade the following week.
For the purpose of this email , I will not go thru each and every conversation (via text and by phone) that I had with Don over the four weeks following july 23rd but suffice it to say that they were all the same in sum and substance, that you were still working on the trade and that you hoped to have it completed shortly.
Up until that point it was never a question as to "if" the trade would take place but "when" it would take place. That was until I received a call from Don on August 17th in which he told me that you were still working on the trade but if we were getting "restless" then we should "move on." I explained to him that at this point in the summer....5 weeks after our offer and acceptance, that there were no other places for eric to move on to. That all of the teams that we were negotiating with in early july had themselves moved on when I told them that eric would no longer be available to negotiate at that time. While don expressed that he was trying to be fair I explained to him that saying that 5 weeks later.....less then a month from training camp , when most teams have their rosters situated, was anything BUT fair and that the time to have said that to us was 5 days after the offer and acceptance not 5weeks after it, when every other opportunity eric was looking at had been filled by other players. To further complicate matters, Eric had to prepare his family for the following season by finding a place to live and getting his children registered in a school . Upon my request and at Don's direction eric has been in contact with your team manager, Ian Anderson, since the first week of August to assist Eric in the above mentioned tasks as well as moving his house belongings from Minnesota to DC. During the first week of August your organization sent a moving company to eric' s house in Minnesota to size up and prepare for the move. The company scheduled a move for September 1. Because it was getting late in the summer eric and his wife had a tough time getting their children registered in a school in DC but ultimately prevailed in getting the last spot in one of the schools that came highly recommended by some of eric's teammates. Ian had connected Eric with a real estate broker and Eric signed a lease on a house in DC for one year. School is scheduled to start on september 1st. Obviously, eric and his family need to be in Washington by then. Of course. Eric, who has been training hard all summer, need to continue to skate in the days leading up to training camp and had made plans with several teammates to start skating at the facility on september 1st. On July 29th, eric received an email from Ian Anderson with pre-training camp instruction and schedule. Ian told eric in the email that he had to send it to him under separately because the deal had not yet been "announced".
Eric recently had a conversation with Bruce in which Bruce expressed his desire to have eric on the team and told him that he was even on the training camp roster. Obviously based on all of these facts, prior to the call from Don on august 17th, there was no question that Eric would be playing in Washington this season. As a matter of fact on the August 17th call, Don said for the first time that while you were trying to get this done there was "no guarantee" that the trade would be made and therefore you might not be in the position to sign eric. In response to that I told Don that our agreement was never a matter of "if" the trade was done , it was a matter of "when" it got done. Don stated that that was "true, but the market changed." I reminded him of the commitment he asked eric to give to washington by agreeing to the deal and not going back on that agreement once you made the trade (and thereby discontinuing conversations with the other teams) and the teams equal commitment to eric, a veteran of over 600NHL games who has a reputation of doing whatever he has to for the good of the team. In light of all of the positive reinforcement that we were given throughout the weeks proceeding the August 17th call, the new "no guarantee" position was very upsetting and I believe very unfair. While Don has now taking to repeating "you can move on if your restless" I have repeatedly said to him that with training camp 2+ weeks away, there are no longer situations for us to move on to! I have expressed to Don that the emails and text messages both from him and Ian Anderson support our position.
I truly hope , as does Eric, that we can conclude this agreement on a positive note and have Eric do whatever it takes to help the team win a stanley Cup.
George, what is happening to eric and his family has been very difficult. At one point I was told by Don that you would call Eric to explain the situation to him. I relayed that to Eric. Unfortunately, that call never came. Please reach out to me so we can discuss this.
My cell phone # is [removed]