(Photo via: Carlos Osorio/Associated Press)
Dan Milstein is one of the National Hockey League’s most successful player agents. Milstein, and his Gold Star Sports Management Group, represent the vast majority of the League’s Russian players, including superstars such as Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy of the two-time reigning champion Tampa Bay Lightning, future NHL Hall-of-Famer Pavel Datsyuk (currently playing in the KHL), and other notable NHLers – Nakita Zaitsev, Vladislav Namestnikov, Ilya Sorokin, and Canadian Evander Kane, to name a few.
This degree of success is impressive in and of itself; but Milstein’s personal and professional journey make his accomplishments that much more remarkable. Milstein was born in Ukraine, and naturally occupies a unique role in hockey considering the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine. He was gracious enough to take time out of his busy schedule in order to answer some questions of mine over the phone.
Milstein was born in Kyiv, Ukraine in 1975 – while the country was still under Soviet control. He grew up 78 miles from Chernobyl, and was just 10-years old when the infamous nuclear accident occurred there. Milstein mandatorily evacuated the area soon thereafter, and briefly returned, but he and his family ultimately left Ukraine as political refugees when he was only 16.
Coming to America
Milstein came to the United States with “17 Cents and a Dream,” as one of his four books is titled. With only those 17 cents (enough to pay for the postage to send a letter back home) and a suitcase to his name, Milstein lived off of food stamps and in project housing when he first came to America. His family settled in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he got his first job – cleaning bathrooms at McDonald’s. Milstein also mentioned working a number of other odd jobs to help make ends meet, such as working on cars or delivering newspapers. He estimated that he spent about 20 hours per day between school and work at this stage in his life.
He told me a story of a competition held between a number of McDonald’s franchises in which employees could participate. Still in high school at the time, Milstein won the competition, and became manager of that same McDonald’s before he graduated. While undoubtedly thankful for these opportunities, Milstein still had his eyes set on a larger prize.
Milstein said that he would watch “nicely-dressed men and women” walking into a large building every day in Ann Arbor. He learned that this building was a bank, and was determined to work there. One day, as just a 19-year-old Cleary University student “in a t-shirt and flip flops,” Milstein entered the building and asked for an application. “Joe, I don’t know why they gave me the job, but they did.” Milstein became an assistant consumer lending manager at TCF Bank, and by the time he was 21, he had become the youngest general manager in company history.
As if this wasn’t enough for a recent political refugee to be achieving so quickly in a new country, Milstein still had bigger plans.
Building a Business
When Milstein was 24 years-old, he had the idea that he wanted to start his own business. He said that he liked the idea of making a decent living in the mortgage industry, but never could have imagined the success that would follow.
Milstein founded Gold Star Mortgage Financial Group in 2000. By 2013, Milstein had incredibly landed the company on the Inc. Magazine 5000 “Fastest Growing Companies” List on three occasions. Between 2009 and 2012, the company reportedly grew 292 percent, with revenues increasing from $15.3 million to $59.9 million. Milstein had personally closed more than $3 billion in loans by this time, as he ascended to the rank of #1 Loan Officer in the United States (out of 550,000 lending industry professionals). The Gold Star Family of Companies now has more than 40 offices worldwide and closes more than $1 billion in home loans annually. Milstein owns 100 percent of Gold Star.
As the company continued its exponential growth, Milstein naturally conducted business and established connections with high-profile entities in the area. His name became a well-recognized one, and one fateful referral dramatically changed the course of his life and career, yet again.
Gold Star Hockey: Transition to the NHL
Not far from Ann Arbor, in Detroit, a young Pavel Datsyuk was fighting for his spot on an historically-talented Red Wings roster that featured 13 future Hall-of-Famers. Milstein told me that Datsyuk did not expect to remain with the team after the 2001 training camp, especially after being selected in the sixth round, in his second year of draft eligibility, in 1998. In fact, Milstein mentioned that Datsyuk discovered that he was drafted by reading the newspaper and seeing his name listed. Nevertheless, legendary head coach Scotty Bowman told Datsyuk that he would be remaining with the NHL squad for the duration of the regular season. Bowman gave Datsyuk, a Russian native, Milstein’s business card, telling him that Milstein spoke the language and would be able to help him settle into the area. Milstein began working as Datsyuk’s financial advisor, and told me that they quickly became “best friends.”
Milstein did not officially represent Datsyuk, or any player, as an agent until 2015, though. Just one year after Milstein became Datsyuk’s agent, Datsyuk decided to retire from the NHL, and return home to Russia to finish his career in the KHL. Milstein had built his agency solely around Datsyuk, and Datsyuk’s NHL career had unexpectedly come to an early end. Milstein told me that he had to make a decision – continue representing NHL players and build out this new sports management portion of his business, or let it fall by the wayside and focus on the rest of the company. Needless to say, Milstein made the correct choice.
Gold Star Hockey, a division of the Gold Star Family of Companies, now represents more than 100 clients, amounting to a total contract value of over $300 million, entirely amassed since 2016. Amidst a host of extraordinary achievements throughout his life and career, this is truly one of the most impressive. Milstein did not represent a single player, aside from Datsyuk, before 2016, and now his clients account for the fifth-most active contracts by any current agent, and the tenth-highest total contract value.
When I asked Milstein what separates Gold Star from the competition, he replied that “we do everything.” He said that they essentially handle players’ entire lives – from scheduling doctors’ appointments, to watching and breaking down game film to improve on-ice performance. Most importantly, he noted, “I answer the phone on the first ring, just as I did with you.” Milstein says that it is this personal rapport that he develops with his clients that makes Gold Star’s services unique, and among the most desirable in the sport.
Other Career Ventures and Recognitions
Milstein is the executive producer of “The Russian Five,” an exceptional documentary that highlights the journey of five Russian members of the Detroit Red Wings, as they revolutionized the game in the post-Cold War era.
Milstein is also an international best-selling author of four books: The ABC of Sales: Lessons from a Superstar, 17 Cents & a Dream: My Incredible Journey from the USSR to Living the American Dream, Street Smart Selling: How to be a Sales Superstar, and Rule #1 Don’t Be #2.
Milstein has been recognized by a number of organizations, resulting in appearances on Crain’s “40 Under 40” list and DBusiness Magazine’s “30 in Their Thirties” list. The Hockey News ranked him as the #7 agent in the NHL in their 2020 Money and Power issue, noting that he was the youngest on the list of the top 15 agents. The Hockey News also ranked Milstein 64th on their list of Top 100 People of Power and Influence in their 2019 Money and Power issue.
Milstein and I spoke just a handful of hours after he had provided ESPN with an extensive interview regarding the ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia. Understandably, he did not want to rehash the answers that he had just given earlier in the day, and he kindly referred me to the ESPN article for questions on this sensitive topic.
Milstein told ESPN’s Emily Kaplan that his clients have been “experiencing ‘disturbing levels’ of harassment,” and believes that draft-eligible Russian players are being discriminated against. Milstein lamented, “we’re being set back 30 years. I have players calling me, parents calling me. They’re concerned whether they’ll be able to play, whether they’ll be safe.”
He went on: “while some of my clients can speak freely in the safety of being in North America, their family could be scrutinized back home and anything could happen. I’m a proud American, so I ask let’s come together united. My own childhood home is being bombed as I speak to my friends back home. I haven’t slept in six days because this is such a difficult time. But people are picking on the wrong crowd. I can speak on behalf of my clients: They want world peace like everybody else. They’re not being treated like that.”
Milstein mentioned a specific instance in which a client was told to “get back to your country,” and was called a Nazi by someone on the street. “Clients are being called Nazis. People are wishing that they are dead. These are human beings. These are hockey players. These are guys contributing to our society, paying millions of dollars in taxes to support the U.S. and Canada and doing all kinds of charity work back home. Stop being racist.” Milstein later told ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski, “people view German Nazis more favorably – and quote me on this – than Russians this week.”
Several of Milstein’s clients have supposedly received death threats, including one player’s wife, who posted an Instagram picture with the player and their infant daughter, and subsequently received a direct message saying that she had “Nazi kids.”
He did remark that every NHL team has accommodated his and his players’ requests for additional security, and that he is “very grateful for” their cooperation.
Milstein represents 15 Russian-born players eligible for the 2022 NHL Draft, a number of whom have the potential to be chosen in the first round. He worries that the discrimination that many of these players are facing will negatively affect the players’ draft stock, which would in turn have financial ramifications for the players. Milstein continued, “this is pure discrimination. These are young men’s lives we’re talking about. Innocent young men who are now being punished.” On the idea of the junior hockey leagues potentially excluding Russian and Belarusian-born players from their import drafts, Milstein says this would “crush the dreams of these teenagers and potentially change the trajectory of their entire careers. . . I have several owners and general managers in those leagues telling me they disagree with it, but they are also telling me they can’t say this publicly because of the fear of public opinion.”
Milstein’s clients in the American Hockey League (AHL) and the various junior leagues have also expressed their concerns. One client, Belarusian-born and playing in the Canadian Hockey League, was allegedly booed by his own team in their locker room. The player reported the incident to management, and it occurred again within the next two days. Another CHL player was targeted with an anti-Russian slur during a recent game, according to a tweet from Milstein.
“People need to be aware that this is going on. This is racism and it needs to stop.”
Dan Milstein has seemingly lived multiple lifetimes, achieving such a great deal in various areas of business, all while overcoming some of life’s most challenging obstacles. His drive and motivation are clearly unparalleled, but I was most impressed with his demeanor and the kindness that he showed me throughout our conversation. He had not slept in six days, yet still made time to speak with me, even while his childhood home was simultaneously being attacked. He was neither impatient nor short; instead, he was tremendously generous with his time, and genuinely inspirational to listen to.
I can certainly understand why so many players gravitate towards him – in just a few short minutes I experienced the interpersonal connection that has convinced dozens of NHL players to entrust him with their financial well-being. The current state of affairs between Ukraine and Russia surely presents a new set of challenges for Milstein, both personally and professionally. His dedication to his clients in the midst of such chaos is admirable, to say the least.
Milstein is the true embodiment of the American Dream. His journey is a prime example of what undying, tireless work can result in, even when emerging out of difficult or less-fortunate circumstances. The ongoing conflict will undoubtedly complicate his already hectic days; but he has not “called in sick since 1998, and dead or alive, I always work and I always answer my phone.” It would be unwise to expect him to lie down now.
Our thoughts go out to the people of Ukraine, and all their loved ones.
3L at University at Buffalo School of Law; BSELS Co-Vice President
MBA in Marketing;
In pursuit of a career at the intersection of sports law and sports business, specifically in professional hockey.