Northville’s Dan Milstein turns 17 cents into hockey agency gold mine

Detroit News

It took Pavel Datsyuk only a couple of minutes to sign his voluntary retirement papers and email the documents to agent Dan Milstein to mark the end of his 14-year NHL career, which included two Stanley Cups with the Detroit Red Wings.

Milstein wasn’t quite as fast relaying the documents from his home in Northville to Red Wings general manager Ken Holland and assistant GM Ryan Martin.

As Datsyuk’s longtime friend, banker and manager who tried to talk the future Hockey Hall of Famer into staying in Detroit and fulfilling the final year of his contract, Milstein paused and considered the ramifications of pressing the send button.

“I sat there with my finger on the mouse … and I froze,” Milstein told The Detroit News. “This was something you only see in movies. I didn’t think it was possible in real life. I froze because I knew history could be written differently. I let it go.”

Milstein’s email ended Datsyuk’s NHL career in 2016 and sparked the beginning of one of the fastest-growing businesses in the sports management world, which has highlighted his Horatio Alger-type story of a Jewish Russian immigrant coming to the United States with 17 cents in his pocket in 1991 and living the American dream by building one of the largest mortgage companies not only in Michigan but in the country.

Gold Star Mortgage Financial Group, headquartered in Ann Arbor with 49 offices worldwide, branched off into Gold Star Hockey, featuring more than 100 clients, including 40 NHL players with a total contract value of more than $200 million. 

The list of clients includes Vezina Trophy winner Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Hart Trophy winner and Tampa Bay teammate Nikita Kucherov, both of whom signed eight-year contract extensions for $76 million each.

“He’ll do whatever it takes to make you happy,” Vasilevskiy said via text message before setting a franchise record last week with 61 saves in a 3-2 victory in the fifth overtime against the Columbus Blue Jackets, the fourth-longest game in NHL playoff history. “He helped me sign the biggest contract in my life. I think that’s a great indication of his work.”

Milstein’s work has caught the attention of The Hockey News, which ranked him No. 7 this year among the top 15 NHL agents in the Money and Power issue (“Gold Star has quickly become a major player in the NHL”). He’s also the youngest agent on the list at age 44 whose “influence is undeniable,” especially among Russian players like Vasilevskiy, Kucherov, Vladislav Namestnikov of the Colorado Avalanche and Stanley Cup champion Ivan Barbashev of the St. Louis Blues.

His top prospects include Guelph Storm defenseman Daniil Chayka, projected to be a top-10 pick for the 2021 NHL draft, and Namestnikov’s younger brother Max Namestnikov, the third overall pick by the Sarnia Sting in the 2020 OHL draft, which saw a record-breaking 12 American players selected from his Honeybaked U15 team.

While Milstein’s agency is one of the fastest-growing companies in four years, he doesn’t rank among Forbes’ top-50 list of the world’s most powerful sports agents. The Hockey News’ No. 1-ranked agent Pat Brisson, 54, of Creative Artists Agency, ranks 15th overall with contracts worth $1.1 billion and $42.9 million in commissions.

“I don’t have a vision to be No. 1 … and here’s why,” said Milstein, who has been the No. 1-ranked loan officer among 550,000 professionals in the industry. “In a very short period of time, we’ve been able to build an infrastructure. You have to build a runway before you land a 747. To me, being No. 1 isn’t representing the most (players) or having the highest contracts. To me, being No. 1 is having positive experiences with your clients. I want them to be proud of their agent.

“If you would’ve asked me this question 10 years ago, I probably would’ve said, ‘Of course, I want to be the No. 1 guy.’ Everyone’s going to be looking up to you. But this is not about the money as much anymore. This is about touching lives and making others be the best that they can be. That’s what drives me now.”

Key additions 

Milstein said he built the hockey-business infrastructure after Datsyuk’s departure by making two key hires: Keith McKittrick and Alexander “Sasha” Tyjnych. 

McKittrick, who spent six years as Mike Babcock’s video coach with the Red Wings and three years as director of hockey operations with the Michigan State Spartans, would watch and break down video at Datsyuk’s home in Bloomfield Hills and also teach at Datsyuk’s summer hockey school in his hometown of Ekaterinburg, Russia.

McKittrick said Milstein’s “success as an agent is the culmination of a lot of his strengths as a businessman,” including a straightforward, no-nonsense approach often supported by analytics and video analysis with potential hockey clients.

“I think people respect his directness,” McKittrick said. “He does a good job of telling a story when it comes to business. We live in a world where players want answers. It might not be the answer you want but you’re going to get an answer.”

Tyjnych was the former backup goalie to three-time Olympic gold medalist Vladislav Tretiak on the Red Army-sponsored CKSA Moscow team, which won 12 consecutive league titles from 1976-88 coached by taskmaster Victor Tikhonov.

“I remember one game, we won 12-3 against the Soviet Wings and then he had us watch two hours of video and talk tactics after the game,” Tyjnych said. “It was a different time, a different era. Tretiak and I didn’t have a goalie coach. We created our own practices on and off the ice and found ways to become better players.”

Tyjnych was already an agent representing Nikolay Zherdev of the Blue Jackets when he met Milstein and Datsyuk at the 2004 NHL All-Star Game in Minnesota.

“I work hard but Dan never stops,” Tyjnych said. “Today, he’s in Moscow. Tomorrow, he’s in Tampa, New York, Toronto, flying, driving, in snow, rain. When he wanted to hire me, he took the first flight from Detroit to Ottawa and we talked about my experiences, my background, his experiences in his life. He was building a business and needed people who understood hockey and how to develop players and relationships.”

Vasilevskiy, for example, was a client with Tyjnych at age 16 and wound up being selected in the first round of the 2012 draft by GM Steve Yzerman, who spent nine years building the Lightning into a Stanley Cup contender before returning to Detroit. Vasilevskiy’s father, Andrei Sr., was also a goalie and Tynych’s backup.

“Alexander found me in Russia and made me an NHL player,” Vasilevskiy said. “He introduced me to Dan, who uses his business experiences to make sure I have everything I need in the future. They’re a really powerful duo.”

Tyjnych’s difficult transition to North America in the Edmonton Oilers’ organization in the late 1980s and Milstein’s decision to finance “The Russian Five” movie about the Red Wings in the late 1990s highlights the hurdles that Russians faced in the past and how young players have benefited from the lessons learned by Tynych’s teammates Igor Larionov and Slava Fetisov, as well as the younger Russians on those Detroit teams, Sergei Fedorov, Slava Kozlov and Vladimir Konstantinov.

“I never, never thought about playing in the NHL because I was proud to represent my country,” Tyjnych said. “By the time I did come to play in Canada, I was older (31) and I had a few injuries. I would often practice three times a day under Tikhonov. In Edmonton and in Sydney (Nova Scotia), it was kind of confusing. I didn’t speak English very well and I really wasn’t mentally prepared to compete with the Oilers.”

“Russian Five” producer Jenny Feterovich said the movie wasn’t as much about telling the story of the Red Wings’ back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1997-98 and Konstantiov’s career-ending limousine crash as it was about shedding light on being a foreigner in Detroit and how the Russians felt like outsiders even in their own dressing room.

“When I pitched the project, I looked at Dan and said, ‘This is a legacy piece,'” said Feterovich, who used to play soccer on Sunday mornings with Fedorov and his teammates in Oak Park. “‘If we don’t do it, who tells the story? Does it just die?’

“Growing up in the ’80s, Russian Americans weren’t much liked. We come from different places and want different things. It wasn’t until both cultures meshed when these five players came here and learned about each other, about other people’s ways and learning how to accept and trust each other did they finally win the Cup.”

Director Joshua Riehl said “The Russian Five” story never would’ve been told without Milstein’s guidance, patience and financial help as the executive producer throughout the four-year process.

“Jenny would tell me stories that she was the funny girl with the funny accent until the Russian Five came along,” Riehl said. “Then it was, ‘Do you know Sergei?’ Then, she became popular. The cultural impact these guys had on what it means to be a foreigner in Detroit, in Michigan, in America can’t be underestimated. Jenny and Dan understood it too because they lived it. I can only imagine what they went through.”

Milstein downplays his role with the critically acclaimed independent documentary, which cost more than $1 million to produce and made more than $500,000 at the box office as well as revenue from network, cable TV and other worldwide distribution sources.

‘Quality comes first’

He also said he doesn’t feel like an outsider in the ultra-competitive, male-dominated world after negotiating some of the biggest NHL contracts.

(Of the 154 certified agents on the NHLPA website, only three are from visible minorities and three are women, including Emilie Castonguay, whose client Alexis Lafreniere is the No. 1-rated prospect for the 2020 NHL Draft and will likely wind up with the New York Rangers, who won the NHL draft lottery last week).

Although he’s published four books centered on the topic of sales, including “Rule No. 1 Don’t be Rule No. 2,” Milstein is very private about his personal life (he’s married with children), has raised and donated millions of dollars to charitable causes and doesn’t comment publicly about the death threats he received when Datsyuk returned to Russia because of injuries and to be closer to his family, including his teenage daughter from his first marriage.

Datsyuk said via text message from Ekaterinburg that “it’s hard to believe” that Milstein has more than 40 NHL clients now but he’s “not surprised at all because Dan loves people and is passionate about all the projects he takes on.”

When asked what he’s learned from his 19-year relationship with Milstein, Datsyuk, who was bypassed in two NHL drafts before taken by Detroit in the sixth round of the 1998 draft and then went on to record 918 points in 953 regular-season games and 113 points in 157 playoff games, said, “Don’t rush. Quality comes first. He’s a perfectionist, never satisfied and always strives for something greater.”

Gold Star chief operating officer AJ Franchi has known Milstein for 12 years on the mortgage side and he said he’s learned not to dwell on business mistakes.

“If a bad decision is made, it’s way more important to talk about how you’re going to solve the problem than how you ended up there,” Franchi said. “How does he do it all? I hear that a lot outside of the company. I tell everyone that he’s focused, he’s very hard working and he hires good people and promotes from within.”

Milstein said he doesn’t plan on slowing down with his portfolio of companies while continuing to broaden his hockey client base.

Although the job seems glamorous in movies like Jerry Maguire (“Show me the money”), he said there’s a lot of “sleepless nights” after traveling the equivalent of 13 times around the globe on hockey-related business last year and accompanying more than 18 NHL GMs and other executives to Europe.

With 800 NHL players making an average salary of $2.78 million dollars for a total of $2.2 billion dollars, he said there’s plenty of business to go around with consolidation an industry trend with some older agents looking “for exit strategies.”

“I’ve never forgotten where I came from,” said Milstein, who was 10 years old when the Chernobyl nuclear plant blew up 78 miles north of his home in Kiev, Urkaine, forcing a mandatory evacuation in 1986 and eventually political refugee status. The 17 cents he put into his sock during the trip to America paid for postage to send a letter back home.

“I’ve been on food stamps, lived in the projects and taken jobs that were beneath some people (mopping floors and cleaning bathrooms in a McDonald’s restaurant in Ann Arbor). I had $3,500 to my name and quit a well-paying job to do what I love to do. Every day, I wake up, put on my suit and knock on doors.

“Every morning, you have two choices: Continue to sleep with your dreams or wake up and chase them. I haven’t called in sick since 1998 and dead or alive, I always work and I’ll always answer my phone.”

Twitter: @falkner

Dan Milstein glance

►Born: Nov. 8, 1975

►Birthplace: Kiev, Ukraine

►Residence: Northville

►Occupation: Entrepreneur, author, founder and CEO of Gold Star Financial Group, NHL agent with Gold Star Hockey, executive producer of The Russian Five

►Career: Graduated from Cleary University before founding Gold Star Financial Group in 2000. Company began as a mortgage provider based in Ann Arbor. Agent of former Red Wings center Pavel Datsyuk.

►Books: The ABC of Sales: Lessons from a Superstar, 17 Cents and a Dream: My Incredible Journey from the USSR to Living the American Dream, Street Smart Selling: How to be a Sales Superstar, Rule #1 Don’t be Rule #2

►NHL clients: More than 40 NHL players, including Nikita Kucherov, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Vladislav Namestnikov

Quote: “Success is not measured by the amount of dollars you make but by the amount of lives you impact,” Milstein said.

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