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.”
Don Baizley was born in Kenora, Ont., but raised in the Winnipeg neighbourhood of Riverview. He attended Churchill High School, where he met his future wife, Lesley. His father, Obie, was a chiropractor and the Minister of Labour in the Manitoba Legislature and engendered in his son a lifelong passion for politics, especially U.S. politics. As a teenager, Mr. Baizley played both field lacrosse and hockey, and was good enough at the latter to play two seasons in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League.
Mr. Baizley eventually graduated from the University of Manitoba in 1963 and completed his law degree in 1967. Beyond his life in hockey, Mr. Baizley was also “a bloody good lawyer,” said Justice Alan D. MacInnes of the Manitoba Court of Appeal, a lifelong friend who worked with Mr. Baizley for more than a decade at the firm of Thompson Dorfman Sweatman.
“He was very experienced and highly regarded as an arbitrator, primarily in labour matters,” said Justice MacInnes. “He wanted to be seen as a lawyer who had professional athletes as clients.”
For a time, Justice MacInnes assisted the Jets in handling contract talks and thus occasionally found himself on the opposite side of the negotiating table from Mr. Baizley.
“It made me appreciate why there wasn’t a general manager in hockey who didn’t like or respect Don,” said Justice MacInnes. “There were two things Don believed in. The first was that you were better to be slightly underpaid than to be overpaid because if the general manager believed he got a good deal, he would be protective of you if things weren’t going well. If you were overpaid, the general manager would have to wear that, so he’d be mad at you.
“The other was, Don’s clients honoured their contracts. His view was, ‘Do your deal and then don’t worry if, in two weeks’ time, someone you don’t think is as good as you signed for more money.’ I think that’s another reason GMs loved him – they knew, once they had a deal, they had a deal.”
Mr. Baizley was a quiet crusader for safety in professional hockey. Back when TSN Senior Managing Editor, Content, Steve Dryden was editor-in-chief of The Hockey News, he invited Baizley and former NHL general manager Brian Burke to engage in a point/counterpoint discussion on the controversial issue of fighting. Burke argued why fighting was needed in the game; Baizley took the opposite view and explained why it should be banned.
Baizley also lobbied hard for the NHL to improve concussion diagnosis and treatment for its players, long before concussion awareness and the lingering effects of head trauma became a public health issue.
“Don Baizley was an extraordinary force for good in the game,” said Steve Dryden, senior managing editor of content at TSN. “That may sound kind of silly – as if you’re in an episode of Get Smart – but he used his powers for good. He was a builder in the literal and figurative sense of the term. He was a builder of careers. He was a builder of consensus. He had an immense amount of intelligence and common sense. He had so many sharp smart views on the game and he always had the players’ best interests at heart.”
Mr. Baizley was passionately committed to the city of Winnipeg, and though he had chances to move to different cities in various capacities, he always resisted. According to Mark Chipman, chairman and governor of the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets, people in Winnipeg may not even have been aware of how influential Mr. Baizley was because he kept such a legendarily low profile.
Mr. Baizley also believed in strict client confidentiality. In a field where agents routinely leak information to the press, he rarely provided gossip to industry insiders.
In March, he was honoured for his contributions to hockey in Manitoba at a Fire & Ice dinner. He was also a member of the Manitoba Hockey Hall Of Fame.
Dryden had the members of the TSN hockey panel – James Duthie, Bob McKenzie, Darren Dreger and Pierre LeBrun – tape a spoof of one of their regular between-periods discussions.
“It began with Duthie saying, ‘Don Baizley is being honored in Winnipeg tonight so let’s talk about all the great inside information you got from him over the years,’” recalled Dryden. “Of course, the three of them just sat there, looking at each, shrugging their shoulders, and said nothing. It was hilarious - and it spoke volumes about Don and they pulled it off beautifully and people really got a kick out of it.”
According to Justice MacInnes, for all of Mr. Baizley’s intellectual strengths, he sometimes had difficulty negotiating the most rudimentary of household tasks. Once, after a golf tournament, Justice MacInnes recalled some friends gathered at Mr. Baizley’s cottage for a barbecue when someone finally wondered: “Don, are we going to get any food here?” and volunteered to light the barbecue. Don said, ‘great, yeah, do that.’ So this guy goes out and comes back and is just killing himself laughing. He says, ‘Don, have you ever even lit your own barbecue before?’ Well, as a matter of fact, no.
“Lesley had pasted sticky notes all over it to show him what to do. ‘Lift lid towards lake.’ ‘Turn dial on right towards Jones’ cottage.’ ‘Turn dial on left towards Smith’s cottage.’ Like that. He really was not very good about things like that.”
Mr. Baizley received his lung cancer diagnosis in early 2012. Mr. Hedberg made five visits to him in his final year and said he learned a thing or two about courage along the way.
“He had never smoked,” said Mr. Hedberg. “He exercised every day. He was always so healthy. I don’t think he ever missed a day of work in his life. Then suddenly, he receives this message, ‘You probably will die.’ I think most of us would say, ‘Why did this happen to me?’ And Don would say, ‘Why not me?’ That’s an incredible thing to say. … It was unbelievable, the discipline he showed.”
Mr. Baizley leaves his wife, Lesley, their two children, Marnie and Gordon, his grandchildren Finella and Obie and his brother Brian. A memorial service will be held Wednesday at the MTS Centre in Winnipeg, home of the Jets.