Ice men: UCLA Law alums steer top NHL teams

Andrew Lugerner of the Vegas Golden Knights and Don Fishman of the Washington Capitals face off from the front office

May 1, 2018
Joshua Rich

This article was originally published on the UCLA Newsroom website on May 1, 2018. We share it here with UCLA Newsroom's permission.

Don Fishman, left, and Andrew Lugerner. Photo courtesy of Don Fishman.
UCLA Law alums and NHL executives Don Fishman, left, and Andrew Lugerner at the 2017 NHL draft. Photo courtesy of Don Fishman.

When the Vegas Golden Knights swept the Los Angeles Kings out of the first round of the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup playoffs on April 17, members of the UCLA School of Law community had ample reason to celebrate the big win, even though it came at the expense of the hometown team.

As the Golden Knights’ director of hockey legal affairs, UCLA Law alumnus Andrew Lugerner, who graduated in 2013, has played a pivotal role in the club’s improbable success in its first season on the ice, during which the Golden Knights have emerged as the best expansion team in the history of American professional sports.

A key deputy to the team’s general manager, Lugerner handles player contract negotiations, budgets, day-to-day transactions involving players who move to or from the minor leagues, and contracts involving all aspects of the team’s hockey operations. Vitally, he is also the master of the team’s salary cap, the set limit of money that an organization can spend on its roster.

Known in sports jargon as a “capologist,” his is a role that is increasingly being filled by lawyers and businesspeople whose efforts can make or break a franchise. Spend too much on a superstar, and there’s no money left to pay the right guys to pass him the puck. Or find the perfect mix of undervalued prospects, and craft a scrappy squad that works wonders. That, it turns out, is exactly what Lugerner and his colleagues managed to do after the Golden Knights were founded in 2016 and had to put together a roster from scratch, featuring players mostly cast off from other teams.

“Every player has a dollar figure associated with his contract,” Lugerner said, “so while the scouts are telling the GM what a player does on the ice, I’m trying to give a context to what he’s worth.”

For Lugerner’s club, the results have been astounding. Across the major American sports — football, baseball, basketball and hockey — expansion teams customarily finish dead last in their leagues, and none has even had a winning record for more than a half century. But the Golden Knights wound up the regular season with 51 wins, just 24 losses and the fifth-best record in the NHL. They also became the first expansion team in any sport to win their division and the first hockey team to win their inaugural playoff series in a clean sweep.

Defying such long odds befits an ice hockey team that calls a desert gambling mecca home, and the Golden Knights’ impact off the rink has been similarly remarkable. Even as the Las Vegas area grew exponentially in recent decades, to more than 2 million people, professional sports teams stayed away, discouraged from associating with a town synonymous with wagering. Aside from UNLV’s occasionally competitive college sports, residents have lacked a team to rally around. So it was particularly poignant when the Golden Knights played their first game just 10 days after a mass shooting killed 58 people on the Las Vegas Strip. The organization soon retired jersey number 58 in their memory. And the players skated into the record books.

“We’ve obviously been off to a great start here,” Lugerner marveled. “The way the community has embraced us has been great. The fan support has been unbelievable. It’s the most exciting thing that I’ve ever been a part of, to work in a great organization with great people. It’s truly a blessing.”

A key assist

Much like the Golden Knights’ sudden success, Lugerner’s rapid ascent from law school grad to winning sports executive is owed to a crackerjack team — in his case, of UCLA Law alumni, faculty and staff.

A native of suburban Washington, D.C., Lugerner found himself choosing between two law schools in 2010: UCLA Law and one back east, where he hoped to work as a lawyer. Through UCLA Law’s admissions office, he met Sonya Schwartz, who graduated from UCLA Law in 2000, a leading health care policy reform advocate. She convinced Lugerner of the global value of a UCLA Law degree, and he decided to head to Westwood.

Schwartz also introduced Lugerner to her husband, Don Fishman, a D.C. native who graduated from UCLA Law in 1994. As it happens, Fishman is also the assistant general manager and director of legal affairs for the NHL’s Washington Capitals, for whom he has been the main capologist since 2005. The men hit it off over coffee, and Fishman hired Lugerner as an intern during the summer after his first year in law school. “He’s a really smart guy and a big hockey fan,” Fishman said of Lugerner. “He also understands the game from a numbers point of view, and he’s a great lawyer.”

With the Capitals, Lugerner had a front-row view into the workings of a major pro sports franchise, the intricacies of the salary cap and the nuances of player contract arbitrations, which are complex legal processes that include negotiation, brief writing and oral advocacy. As a trailblazer in the front-office numbers game, Fishman is a widely admired architect of a perennial contender. Notably, in 2008, he negotiated the NHL’s first nine-figure deal, between the Capitals and superstar Alexander Ovechkin.

“Don mentored me very well,” Lugerner said. “I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t worked with him, learned from him and gotten the opportunities to do all the things I got to do because of him.”

In the meantime, Lugerner worked to complete his UCLA Law degree, including a semester in the school’s sports law clinic, part of UCLA Law’s Ziffren Center for Media, Entertainment, Technology and Sports Law — which professor Steve Derian has run for 30 years.

“It was a great class and an opportunity that you get at UCLA Law that you don’t get elsewhere,” Lugerner said. In the clinic, students learn through simulated negotiations, mock contract drafting and lectures from leading team executives — including, one year after Lugerner graduated, Fishman.

By then, Lugerner was an associate in the New York office of Latham & Watkins. And he was still there when Fishman called him in 2016 with word that the Golden Knights were looking for front-office talent. Lugerner would be the perfect capologist, Fishman thought.

Practically overnight, Lugerner recalled, “I went from being a corporate lawyer working in New York City to a hockey lawyer living in a casino-hotel in Las Vegas.” He laughed. “I got the Golden Knights job five years and one day after I first e-mailed Don to meet up for coffee.”

‘Like the bar exam’

The whirlwind week in the middle of June 2017 remains a blur in Lugerner’s mind.

First, he helped the Golden Knights build the base of their roster by selecting 30 players in the expansion draft. He had been preparing for a year. Then, the Golden Knights unveiled their picks at the annual NHL awards ceremony at their home stadium, the T-Mobile Arena, which sits right on the Strip. The same night, he jetted to Chicago for the league’s regular entry draft, where he and his colleagues tapped rising stars out of high schools, junior clubs and Scandinavian nations.

“I’ll never have a 10-day period like that again,” Lugerner said. “It was pretty exciting, though.”

Maybe best of all, he arrived at his team’s table on the draft floor only to make eye contact with Fishman across the way. The Capitals’ exec was back at the draft for another year of making deals and trying to build a winner. “The draft is exhausting, like the bar exam, but it was really cool,” Fishman recalled. “All the 31 clubs were on the draft floor and Andrew and I were both at our tables. I quickly grabbed Andrew and said, ‘Let’s get a photo of us.’”

Having scored the shot, Fishman fondly reflected on the moment. “I was actually there with my 11-year-old son, who was the runner for our table. He knows Andrew because Andrew has been to our house many times,” Fishman said. Today, the odds increasingly favor the possibility that his Capitals could face Lugerner’s Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup finals.

But if that happens, there won’t be hard feelings. “At the draft, I was doing my job, but I was proud of Andrew, that he was there representing Vegas,” Fishman said. “I was proud of that. I was proud of him.”

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