By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 20, 2008
Don Fishman became a passionate fan of the Washington Capitals when the franchise was in its second season and he was a kindergartner attending games with his father at Capital Centre. Three decades later, Fishman still doesn't miss a game. But now he watches them from a different vantage point: a booth in the press box at Verizon Center.
A lawyer by trade and the team's assistant general manager in title, Fishman is probably the most important front office employee most fans have never seen. He negotiates contracts for the organization's two-dozen NHL players and its prospects, and advises team officials on a litany of other legal matters. But more significantly, he manages the salary cap, a responsibility that has become increasingly critical as the Capitals mature from a young and rebuilding team to a star-studded squad expected to contend in the Eastern Conference this season.
With all of Washington's key players under contract as training camp begins this morning at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, it might seem as though Fishman's work is done. Actually, it's anything but. In fact, as Coach Bruce Boudreau and his players begin to prepare to defend their Southeast Division championship, Fishman is already focusing on the roster for the 2009-10 season -- and beyond.
"It's a puzzle," said Fishman, a sharply dressed 38-year-old who speaks in measured tones. "That's the thing about the cap -- you're constantly projecting who you want in what role in the future."
Fielding a competitive NHL team has become more challenging since the NHL adopted a salary cap economic system in the summer of 2005. For general managers, it means they can no longer outspend the competition as a means of achieving success. Instead, top teams are built through careful drafting, player development and a smattering of shrewd additions via free agency.
General Manager George McPhee and Fishman met in January 2005, when the two worked together on Washington's successful bid to bring the NCAA's 2009 Frozen Four hockey championship to Verizon Center. Fishman served as the District's representative on the project while McPhee, who holds a law degree from Rutgers, represented the Capitals. About the same time, the NHL's season-long lockout was ending and a new economic order was on the way.
Majority owner Ted Leonsis and McPhee sought the advice of a number of professional football and basketball teams about the most effective way to manage the cap. Their advice? Become one of the first hockey teams to hire a "capologist."
McPhee didn't have to look far. Fishman, who was the valedictorian of his class at St. Albans (1987) and a graduate of Harvard and UCLA's law school, had spent much of his life preparing for this job, whether he knew it or not. Beginning with his days watching from the upper deck in Landover, Md., with his father, Alan, to calling the Crimson's games on Harvard's student radio station and playing intramural ice hockey there, Fishman always had a passion for the game.
"I jumped at the opportunity," Fishman said. "My first week on the job, we were working on deals for [2004 draft picks Alex] Ovechkin, [Mike] Green, [Jeff] Schultz and [Chris] Bourque."
Fishman worked previously as a corporate lawyer with Latham & Watkins and as general counsel for the District in the Cable Television and Parks and Recreations departments. But the one thing his résumé lacked is the same thing many hockey teams covet for high-ranking employees in the hockey department -- experience as a player.
"George doesn't rely on me for my hockey talent," Fishman said.
Mark Gandler, the agent for forward Alexander Semin, said experience as a player is unnecessary, as long as the person negotiating the contract on the team's behalf is knowledgeable about the game.
"Whether he played hockey or not is irrelevant to me, " he said. "In my opinion, Don really likes the game and understands the game."
Most personnel moves begin with McPhee determining which Capitals he wants to re-sign, and which free agents he wants to pursue. Fishman then spends weeks -- if not months -- quizzing Washington's pro NHL scouts, Brian MacLellan and Larry Carriere, and researching everything from a player's locker room demeanor to the most minute detail such as third-period point production. All the while, Fishman must consider how the contract will impact current and future cap figures. This season, the Capitals expect to spend right up to the limit of $56.7 million.
Washington contracts, however, aren't the only documents Fishman knows inside and out. He is also an expert on the nuances of all of the league's 700 player contracts -- just in case McPhee needs the information to evaluate a trade offer, whether during the season or at the draft table.
During his tenure, Fishman has negotiated about 100 contracts. One he won't soon forget is the historic, 13-year, $124 million contract he helped McPhee bargain with Ovechkin. It's the first nine-figure contract in NHL history.
"When we commit to a five-year or 13-year contract for a player, it's committing to something we might not be around for," he said. "So you have to make sure that you handle it in a really responsible way. Whoever is standing in my shoes in 13 years, hopefully they'll still think it was a good contract."
Fishman hopes that someone will be him.
"I'm still a passionate fan so I'm kind of doubly invested in the outcome every night," he said. Asked what lured him to the high pressure world of pro sports, Fishman smiled and said, "You can't win a Stanley Cup working for a law firm."