Bill Daly has done a lot, seen a lot, heard a lot and changed a lot since arriving at the NHL on Dec. 13, 1996, as chief legal officer. He has carved out a career which has made him one of the leaders in the sports world as the NHL's Deputy Commissioner for the past nine years.
But take away the impressive resume and job responsibilities and, at his core, Daly is still a 50-year-old fan who relishes the opportunity to meet the players he admired as a boy attending games at Madison Square Garden with his dad.
"Getting to talk to Stephane Matteau and Jeff Beukeboom recently, that was really cool for me," Daly told NHL.com. "Rod Gilbert, the fact that he recognizes who I am and wants to talk to me, I think that's really cool. Vic Hadfield, we talked one night at a Ranger game and he went out of his way, on his own initiative, to sign a picture and have the Rangers frame it. He gave it to me the next time he saw me. I mean, how cool is that?"
Daly's latest brush with his childhood came before this season began, when former Rangers coach Emile Francis called him to congratulate him on being a recipient of the Lester Patrick Award for outstanding service to hockey in the United States. Daly will receive the award along with Philadelphia Flyers executive Paul Holmgren on Dec. 4 as part of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony and Dinner in Minneapolis.
Chances are that in his acceptance speech Daly will mention his former life as a fan of the Rangers, who presented the Lester Patrick Award to the NHL in 1966. But that childhood allegiance to a local team merely provided the foundation for a more universal love of the game, one that causes Daly to marvel at NHL talent wherever it resides and drives him to keep the League thriving and hockey growing.
"You have to really develop a whole different perspective on the sport," he said. "You're not as much a fan of a team as you're a fan of the game. That's clearly true with me."
Maybe so, but it's impossible to ignore the impact the Rangers have had on Daly's rise to prominence in the sport, a rise that on Dec. 4 will put him in a distinguished line of executives, coaches, players and media personalities who have received the Lester Patrick Award.
Early days in Kinnelon
Daly traces his first memories of his love of hockey and the Rangers to the 1971-72 season, when he started going to games with his dad.
"I still remember the first game I went to at the Garden, against the Pittsburgh Penguins and [current Penguins general manager] Jim Rutherford was in goal," Daly said. "The Rangers won that game and I went to the game on Christmas Eve. The Rangers shut out the Red Wings 4-0 and I waited in the parking lot afterward to get autographs. I was hooked after that."
He went crazy over the "GAG Line" of Gilbert, Hadfield and Jean Ratelle. He lists Gilbert, Walt Tkaczuk, Don Maloney, Ulf Nilsson, Barry Beck and Adam Graves among his favorite Rangers of all time. Like so many Rangers fans at the time, Daly idolized Brad Park and Ed Giacomin.
Daly played hockey regularly on the streets in Kinnelon, N.J., and, weather permitting, on the flooded rink behind the borough's municipal building. However, he was good enough in football to be recruited by a dozen East Coast schools.
He chose Dartmouth College, where he played from 1982-85. His ability in football didn't curtail his love of hockey.
"Hockey by far and away, from a playing perspective and a fan perspective, was my favorite sport," Daly said. "Hockey was big in my town. It was important to me and my friends. It was an important game to us."
That love of the game was only a part of Daly's love of sports. When he arrived at Dartmouth he gravitated toward the legal field with the idea of using that as a highway toward working in sports.
"I wasn't singularly focused on having a job in hockey, but that's the way things played out," Daly said. "They couldn't have played out better."
Rise to the NHL
While at Dartmouth, Daly became an undergraduate assistant at the New York City law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP. He immediately began working on cases involving the National Football League, and, soon enough, the NHL after he became a junior associate upon getting his law degree from New York University.
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The NHL retained Daly's law firm for the 1994-95 collective bargaining negotiations. Daly worked side-by-side with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, former chief legal counsel Jeff Pash, and Brian Burke
, who at the time was an executive vice president and director of hockey operations at the NHL.
"I was a very junior associate during the labor negotiations in the mid-'90s," Daly said.
Pash left for the NFL. Daly was hired as his replacement. He was 32 years old.
"While people might have thought that he was an untraditional choice because he was so young at the time, I remembered what it was like to be 32 and the general counsel of a major sports league," Commissioner Bettman said. "He was somebody who I believed would get a running start and be able to grow into the position."
Burke said the League executives at the time were nervous about replacing Pash until Daly came along and impressed everyone with his intelligence and mental fortitude.
"This is a guy who is in Bettman's league in terms of intellect, and in all of our hockey players' league in terms of toughness," Burke said. "We were worried about filling Jeff's shoes, but we didn't need to worry. We got the right guy."
Commissioner Bettman and Burke said Daly's age was never a factor in the decision to hire him.
"The beautiful thing about professional sports is when you're ready to play, you play," Burke said. "They don't say, 'You're 18, you can't play.' They say, 'If you're good enough you can stay.' It's the same thing with the front office. I don't think we ever mentioned his age except as an asset as a guy who might be able to stick around for a while."
Daly hasn't just stuck around. He has helped steer the NHL through countless challenges as it inches ever closer to being a $4 billion industry.
When the 2004-05 lockout was over, Commissioner Bettman named Daly the League's first deputy commissioner.
Daly said the promotion came as a surprise to him. He knew his responsibilities at the League had extended beyond strictly the legal sphere, but he had no clue what Commissioner Bettman had up his sleeve at the Board of Governors meeting to ratify the CBA on July 22, 2005.
The BOG unanimously approved Daly's promotion.
"Life is full of surprises, I figured he should have one," Commissioner Bettman said. "I think he was surprised, but I know he was very pleased and very happy because this job -- and for all of us it's not a job, it's a lifestyle -- is obviously very important to him. I felt the recognition of his contributions to not just the League, but the game was important."
Daly said he took the promotion as a vote of confidence. He has spent the past nine years repaying it and building on it through his multitude of tasks, including serving as the NHL's representative on USA Hockey's executive board.
Bill Daly (left) talks with Jeremy Roenick ahead of a 2014 NHL Stadium Series game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks at Soldier Field. (Brian Babineau/NHLI)
Daly's work with USA Hockey is a big reason he is receiving the Lester Patrick
"No matter how busy we are or what else is going on, he makes it a point for being available for the board meetings and doing the other activities," Commissioner Bettman said. "Obviously I'm involved in USA Hockey, but I don't need to do it every day because I'm confident that he really, extraordinarily well represents the League."
Daly also represents the NHL on the Hockey Hall of Fame's executive board. He works closely on all matters with the NHL Players' Association and the NHL Officials' Association. He was front and center in negotiations on the League's 10-year U.S. national broadcast rights agreement with NBC, and its 12-year Canadian broadcast rights and new media agreement with Rogers Communications.
In addition, Daly oversees the NHL's participation in international events by working closely with the International Ice Hockey Federation. He administers the NHL's player transfer agreements with European federations and is the point person for the NHL's relationships with the American Hockey League, Canadian Hockey League and Hockey Canada.
"He's a great partner," Commissioner Bettman said.