In the summer of 1993, after Paul Kariya was chosen fourth overall in the NHL entry draft, a steady stream of player agents made the trek to his North Vancouver home, hoping to represent the budding hockey superstar. Mr. Kariya was a student at the University of Maine and so technically couldn’t sign a contract until he turned pro, but that didn’t stop the parade.
The last to visit was also the biggest name in the business – Michael Barnett of the International Management Group, who represented, among others, Wayne Gretzky, the greatest player of all time.
Mr. Kariya grew up idolizing Mr. Gretzky, but mostly remembered Mr. Barnett’s parting words. “Michael said, ‘Of course, we would love to have Paul at IMG, but if Paul doesn’t go with us, he should sign with Don Baizley.’ ”
In the sometimes cutthroat world of professional sports representation, that sort of unsolicited testimonial is rare, but it also illustrated how highly Mr. Baizley was regarded in the industry.
Mr. Baizley, 71, passed away on June 27 of non-smokers’ lung cancer at his Winnipeg home following a 14-month illness.
“I never liked to use the word ‘agent’ with Don and I never considered him that way,” Mr. Kariya said. “He was family. First and foremost, he was a friend. My parents really liked the fact that Don was a lawyer and really humble and down to earth. Don was probably as far away from the Jerry Maguire type of agent – which is maybe what people in the general public think of player agents. Don was 180 degrees removed from Jerry Maguire and that ilk.”
Mr. Baizley began to represent a number of local Winnipeg players in their contract negotiations with both World Hockey Association and NHL teams as a sideline in his law practice. Eventually, he built up a stable of clients that included some of the greatest players of their generation, from Mr. Kariya and Joe Sakic to Teemu Selanne and Peter Forsberg.
He was also a pivotal figure during the so-called European invasion of the North American professional hockey ranks, helping to facilitate the path to the NHL for many Swedish and Finnish players, including Anders Hedberg, Ulf Nilsson and Jari Kurri. Nowadays, players from all over the world dot the rosters of the 30 NHL teams but back in the 1970s, it was a new phenomenon.
Mr. Hedberg met Mr. Baizley through Dr. Gerry Wilson, father of former NHLer Carey Wilson and grandfather of current NHLer Colin Wilson. Dr. Wilson, a Montreal Canadiens draft choice as a teenager and the former team doctor of the Winnipeg Jets, happened to be in Sweden on a sports-medicine exchange program in which Mr. Hedberg was participating. He and Mr. Nilsson had aspirations to play in North America and Dr. Wilson put them in touch with the Winnipeg agent to see if he could help make it happen.
Mr. Baizley made the trek to Stockholm, but the airline lost his luggage, so at that first meeting – at the Sheraton hotel – he looked a little unkempt.
“It was the first and only time in my life I ever saw him unshaved,” said Mr. Hedberg, laughing. “He didn’t look like a sophisticated lawyer from a big law firm in Winnipeg at the time. But obviously he made a hell of an impression on us. We had our girlfriends at the time with us and there was no question that he was going to represent us.”
At the time, players coming from Europe still met resistance at the professional level. Some critics believed they weren’t tough enough to play in the NHL or the WHA. Others were unhappy they were taking jobs away from homegrown players. The first generation of European players dealt with challenges that future generations did not have to endure, and according to Mr. Hedberg, “I can’t imagine how we would have managed without Don. He allowed us into his and [his wife] Lesley’s social network, which was so warm and so genuine and so interesting. We were new immigrants and they just opened their arms and allowed us to be part of their circle.”