Faced with paying a $50 million judgment awarded in a bruising court battle with retired hockey players over money taken from the players' pension fund, the NHL's owners may have found a way out: Blame their lawyers.
Records from the court of appeals in Ontario, where the case was reviewed, as well as other sources confirm that the league will soon demand that its lawyers and their malpractice-insurance companies pay for the league's loss. The NHL will claim that a partner at Baker & McKenzie, the league's law firm for this case, told NHL officials it was O.K. to take the money, a "surplus" that had grown in the pension fund from annuity purchases that unexpectedly ballooned in value during the inflation of the early '80s. And the NHL will have some convincing documents to support that claim when it pursues a case against its lawyers—two "opinion letters" and a position paper written by Baker & McKenzie told the league it had "carte blanche" to remove the money, even though it was held in trust for retired players.
Both a trial judge and three higher-court judges have already disagreed with the law firm's position, ruling that any money deposited in a players' pension fund is forever the property of the players. Relying on pension-fund documents that show the owners' deposits into the fund to be irrevocable, the courts ordered the NHL to return the $23 million it took from the fund. With accumulating interest and plaintiffs' attorneys' fees, the owners now owe nearly $50 million.
Although NHL officials are still considering an appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, a decision they must make by mid-April, the groundwork is already in place for a suit against Baker & McKenzie and Marcus Grayck, formerly an attorney with that firm, who wrote the opinion letters and the position paper. Grayck has already answered more than 700 questions in a deposition, and both the league's current lawyers and the retired players' attorney, Mark Zigler of Toronto, are poring over Grayck's case files.
The folks at Baker & McKenzie world headquarters in Chicago are real unhappy. When asked about Grayck and the documents he generated that are on file in court in Toronto, the Baker & McKenzie lawyer now working on the case, Maura Ann McBreen, said repeatedly, "We're not involved," and then abruptly hung up.
What lies ahead will be a different kind of hockey brawl—players watching, owners and lawyers fighting.
Every winter is a long winter in Maine. But given what has gone on in the University of Maine athletic department over the past few months, long doesn't begin to describe this one. Proclaiming themselves to be in violation of NCAA rules, the university's hockey, football, women's cross-country, field hockey and women's indoor track teams announced last week that, pending a decision by the NCAA, it will probably have to forfeit all of the victories they had gained to that point in the 1993-94 academic year.
Repeated bureaucratic errors were responsible for the violations. First, Maine's NCAA rules-compliance officer, Lin-wood C. Carville, misinformed five graduate student-athletes in the five sports that they had to carry six credits during the season to be eligible, when in fact they needed eight.
Then it was athletic director Michael Ploszek's turn to screw up. After Carville told him on Feb. 17 of the credit error, Ploszek inexplicably waited one more week to inform hockey coach Shawn Walsh, thus costing the Black Bear skaters one point they had received from a tie. That was only the latest in a succession of penalties suffered by Maine's hockey team, the 1993 NCAA champion, because of the inability of coaches and administrators to understand NCAA rules.