TORONTO – There aren’t very many five-star hotels to be found in junior hockey towns.
Joe Tacopina discovered that pretty quickly after trading in the lavish life of a high-profile New York defence lawyer to try his hand at becoming a hockey player agent last year. He remembers one particularly gruesome stay at an $89 motel in Victoriaville, Que., during a trip to see client Joel Chouinard play for the QMJHL’s Tigres.
“I’m staying in a roach-infested motel in Victoriaville and I’m thinking, ‘OK, this is a little different than the Ritz I was at about a year ago while trying the biggest case in New York City,'” Tacopina recalled during a recent interview.
It’s the kind of story he tells with a laugh and a smile. Tacopina took an unusual path into the hockey world and seems to be thoroughly enjoying himself now that he’s arrived.
A passionate Montreal Canadiens fan who grew up played the sport at Skidmore College, he started dreaming of becoming an agent before ever making a name for himself as one of New York’s top defence lawyers. It finally became a reality in 2009 when he joined forces with former NHL executive Ed Horne to create Madison Avenue Sports and Entertainment.
The career change caught some associates by surprise?”People have said to me, ‘What the hell are you doing?”‘?but Tacopina has had very little time to sit back and reflect.
He and Horne have quickly started building their agency, hiring a scouting staff while taking on roughly 30 hockey clients. They include junior players, minor-leaguers and NHLers like New York Rangers captain Chris Drury and Washington Capitals forward Eric Belanger.
“We’ve gone from 0-to-60 in about three seconds,” said Tacopina. “Ed and I did not expect this. We have 15 people working for the agency right now. We weren’t ready for that level of growth, that quickly.”
As a lawyer, Tacopina earned a reputation as someone who will work tirelessly on behalf of his clients and get results. He took on a number of high-profile cases in New York and found himself making frequent television appearances while being featured in such publications as GQ Magazine and The New York Times.
Conceptually, he doesn’t see much difference in the skill-set required to do his old job and the new one. Tacopina recently negotiated a contract with the Dallas Stars for AHLer Mathieu Tousignant and found himself drawing on past experience.
“It was the same give-and-take?knowing when you have leverage, knowing when you don’t,” he said. “And when you know you don’t, not pretending you do. It’s just being an honest straight-shooter.”
Tacopina has found the hockey world to be a welcoming place during his first few months on the job. Advice has come from NHL general managers and other agents who might end up competing with him for clients.
There is no shortage of people looking to represent hockey players. Tacopina was one of roughly 140 certified agents to attend an annual meeting with the NHL Players’ Association last month.
He welcomes the challenge.
“I’ve been a trial lawyer in New York City, where every time there’s a big case the same 10 lawyers get interviewed,” said Tacopina. “I grew up in competition, I thrive on competition. Really what competition does is force the cream of the crop to the top. I don’t want to win if I don’t deserve to win.
“I don’t want us to become a successful agency if our players aren’t happy. We won’t, we won’t. Competition to me just means that you can’t just mail it in?you need to really do what you say you’re going to do. It can’t be a politician’s promise.”
Tacopina and Horne plan to lure clients with a promise of not only representing them, but also maximizing their marketing and sponsorship exposure.
They know the league’s star players will likely continue gravitating to the powerful agents?”the big boys, the acronyms” in Tacopina’s words?but hope to provide a high level of service to some of the middle-tier guys.
“If you’re not that top-10 player in the league, you sort of get lost in the shuffle sometimes,” said Tacopina. “At least that’s what some people feel, true or not.”
It’s been quite a learning experience so far. He was quickly exposed to the sleezier side of the business.
“Oh god yeah, on Day 3,” said Tacopina. “Obviously I’m not going to name names, but we had one of the most highly touted 15-year-olds in the world and the parents wanted to bring us on board. But then there was a request for remuneration?they wanted something of value for that.
“It’s not legal, it’s not appropriate, it’s not ethical. And wemade a decision early on that we’re not going in that direction.”
As always, Tacopina plans to do it with hard work.
Even though the job has left the father of five a “little short on sleep” over the last year, it hasn’t diminished his love of hockey. In fact, he’d have it no other way.
“For me to be really into something, good at something, I have to be very passionate about it,” said Tacopina, who calls Maurice Richard his idol. “If I’m not interested in it, I don’t have the attention. I can’t be focused on it. …
“For me, it’s part of the ingredients of success. My magic elixir is to be loving what you’re doing and be passionate about it?and I love the sport.”
Success has followed him throughout his professional career and it won’t be surprising to see it arrive again in the new endeavour. Tacopina oozes confidence and isn’t afraid to make a joke at his own expense.
“I don’t believe in my own bullshit?the GQ stuff and my Larry King appearances put together,” he said. “I’m a kid who grew up in Brooklyn to Italian immigrants and I still wake up every day thinking how lucky I am.
“That being said, I know what I can do and I know what I can do well.”