National Hockey League super agent Daniel Milstein is accustomed to managing the details of his players’ lives—their contracts, their travel, their endorsements, sometimes even the logistics of their marriages. But the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent blowback on the Russian-born players he represents, is altogether different.
“Some of my clients are getting death threats, literal death threats, on social media,” the Ukrainian-born Milstein said at a March 18 webinar hosted by the UB Center for the Advancement of Sport. Just a few weeks prior, the tone was very different. Those same players received messages saying, ‘Thank you very much for winning the Stanley Cup, I’m going to name my son after you.’
“I can assure you that none of them want war. Everybody wants world peace. At the same time, they are here, they are contributing members of society. They not only pay taxes but also they’re in all kinds of charities. I’m not going to tell you how much they have donated toward Ukraine, but rest assured some of them have, and they’re doing all kinds of wonderful things about social problems that people may never know about.”
Managing political vitriol is just the latest wrinkle in Milstein’s whirlwind personal story. Born a short distance from Chernobyl, at a time when Ukraine was still under Soviet control, he emigrated to the United States at age 16, then bootstrapped his way from an entry level job at a local McDonald’s to the banking industry. His Gold Star Mortgage Financial Group is a major player in the mortgage industry, and he has pivoted to agenting through a subsidiary, Gold Star Hockey.
The webinar was moderated by Helen “Nellie” Drew ’88, director of the sports law center, and Gerry Meehan ’82, former NHL player and general manager and senior vice president of the Buffalo Sabres. Law students Jason Delmont ’23, Joseph O’Bryan ’23, and Daniel Saltzman ’22 participated in the discussion.
Milstein shared his wisdom on the business of sports. But the world political situation was a somber backdrop for the conversation, and Milstein said he has not been immune from the high emotions it has spawned.
“I’m a political refugee from Ukraine here in the United States who happens to work with Russians,” Milstein said. “There is not a day that goes by that I don’t receive threats. A college political science professor from Texas found me on LinkedIn and used his verified account to basically school me. He called me names that you would never believe.”
“I am against the war. I was very clear about it from day one. My childhood home that I lived in for the first 16 years is being bombed.”
Still, he resists the idea of banning Russian athletes from international competition, as they were from the Paralympic Games. “Hockey was the way to a diplomacy of some sort,” Milstein said. “So if you take that away today, is it really going to change anything? Probably not. For these guys to be denied the opportunity, don’t punish them… They found the courage to work hard, to do something. They found the light at the end of the tunnel, and then it’s taken away from them. Is this world a better place?”
He also rejects the idea that Russian athletes should be cajoled into disavowing the war publicly: “If you’re the president of a certain country and a few athletes had been pressured to say that, would that help you change your mind?”
And in response to a student question about breaking into the business, Milstein—someone who answers the phone on the first ring and said he works 20 hours a day, seven days a week—sounded a note of caution. “You have to be a phenomenal communicator, you have to be a father figure, you have to be a friend, you have to be a mom, you have to deal with all the money, and then sometimes clients fire you for no particular reason,” he said. “And then you have to have a very thick skin.
“Success is never owned, it is rented, and the rent is due every day. So every day I wake up, I look in the mirror and I pay my rent for each and every day.”