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August 10, 2010 6:29 PM

Skadden, Proskauer Help NHL Scuttle Kovalchuk Contract

Posted by Brian Baxter

Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom and Proskauer Rose teamed up to advise the National Hockey League, a longtime client of both, in arbitration proceedings that ended Monday with the rejection of Ilya Kovalchuk's 17-year contract with the New Jersey Devils.

According to a 20-page decision obtained by The Am Law Daily, Proskauer labor and collective bargaining partner L. Robert Batterman served as lead counsel advising the NHL on Kovalchuk's controversial contract, which the league claimed flouted its salary cap rules. Skadden litigation partner and antitrust chief Shepard Goldfein, another longtime lawyer for the NHL, assisted Batterman along with associates Elliot Silver and Nicholas Danella.

Arbitration hearings took place last week over two days at the Hyatt Harborside near Boston's Logan Airport--the hotel was a convenient location for all the lawyers to gather on short notice, those familiar with the proceedings say.

Washington, D.C.-based private labor arbiter Richard Bloch, who has handled arbitrations under the collective bargaining agreements for most major professional sports leagues in North America, rendered the decision in favor of the NHL on Monday.

The NHL had voided Kovalchuk's deal with the Devils three weeks ago, which caused the NHL Players Association to file a grievance against the league seeking to reinstate its terms. Commercial litigation partners John McCambridge and Michael Conway with Chicago's Grippo & Elden represented the NHLPA in the dispute. (Neither responded to requests for comment.)

McCambridge, a founding and former managing partner of the firm, previously advised the NHLPA during labor lockouts in 1994-95 and 2004-05, as well as negotiated agreements covering the participation of NHL players in the Winter Olympics.

But Batterman, whose success advising the NHL in its labor battles led to him being retained by the National Football League two years ago, scored another victory against the players union when Bloch ruled in the league's favor.

The dispute over Kovalchuk's contract got us thinking about another questionable sports contract involving a sports team in another league that has traditionally leaned on Proskauer and Skadden for outside legal counsel.

The National Basketball Association is reportedly looking closely at the consulting contract that college basketball coach Isiah Thomas has signed with his former employer, the New York Knicks.

We called Skadden sports law and business litigation partner Jeffrey Mishkin, who joined the firm in 2000 after serving as the NBA's chief legal officer for seven years. Mishkin, who has represented the NBA as its chief outside counsel while also handling Stephon Marbury-related legal matters for the Knicks, politely declined to comment.

Detroit Pistons on the Block

In the past few months we've written about the legal advisers behind the sales of NBA teams like the Golden State Warriors, New Orleans Hornets, Washington Wizards, and Charlotte Bobcats. Now we can add the Detroit Pistons to the mix.

Little Caesars pizza founder Michael Ilitch, owner of the Detroit Tigers and Detroit Red Wings, is reportedly eying a deal for the team. The Associated Press reports that Ilitch wants to buy the team to ensure that another buyer doesn't swoop in and move the franchise out of its home in suburban Auburn Hills, Mich.

Longtime Pistons owner William Davidson, a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, died last year. His wife, Karen Davidson, inherited the team, which Forbes valued at $479 million in 2009. But economic problems facing the Motor City and the state of Michigan will likely force Davidson's widow to sell the team at a discount, Forbes reports.

The Davidson estate, which has other high-profile assets besides the Pistons, has been hit with several legal claims since the death of its namesake. According to Crain's Detroit Business, federal estate taxes could be behind a sale of the Pistons by Karen Davidson, who is represented by Birmingham, Mich.-based Williams, Williams, Rattner & Plunkett. (Several other investors own minority stakes in the team.)

Am Law 200 firms are also involved in the unfolding ownership drama. Samuel Damren, a Dykema Gossett litigation partner representing two trustees running Davidson's estate that currently serve on the Pistons' board, did not respond to a request for comment.

Butzel Long of counsel Oscar Feldman, who owned a minority stake in the Pistons that he sold to the Davidson estate last October (the two were longtime friends, as well as business associates), also didn't return a phone call seeking comment about the franchise's ownership situation.

Feldman served as the team's legal counsel and general manager for a time, and earlier this year told Crain's that Karen Davidson would sell the team, something she confirmed a day later. Feldman currently serves as president of the Pistons-Palace Foundation, a charitable endeavor that donates its resources to the Detroit community.

A Lawyer Gets Involved in Another Upstart Football League

It might not have the cachet or the legal drama surrounding previous forays into professional football like that of the United States Football League, but with lawyers for the NFL and that league's players union continuing to haggle over a new collective bargaining agreement, the United Football League is lurking in the background as a possible employment opportunity for NFL players should they find themselves locked out in 2011.

The Connecticut Law Tribune, a sibling publication, has a story about UFL general counsel Matthew Couloute, Jr., a former prosecutor and NFL attorney now heading up the upstart league's two-lawyer in-house department. Couloute, who got the job through his ties to UFL commissioner Michael Huyghue, a sports lawyer and former NFL executive, has his hands full advising on all types of legal matters for his new employer.

If the NFL and its players do fumble the ball in their ongoing labor talks for next year, it sounds like Couloute and company will be ready to pounce.

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