During her tenure as an intern with the Boston Breakers (NWSL), Eleni Demestihas (@strongforecheck) was exposed to the reality of women’s athletes on the team not being treated as well as their men’s counterparts. This firsthand experience led Demestihas on the path to pursue advocacy within women’s sports and eventually to launch Hecate Sports Group, a women’s hockey sports agency.
During a quick break from work, Demestihas chatted with Hockey of Tomorrow (HoT) to discuss her newest pursuit.
Demestihas: In my senior year of college, I basically committed to going to law school and this was in 2017. Around this time, the US Women's National Hockey team announced a boycott right before Worlds as they were negotiating their new CBA. I had tickets to fly out to Detroit from Atlanta to see them play their medal games and my initial reaction was like, ‘Oh my God, if I don't get to see them play, I'm going to be so pissed.’
Then the more that I read about it, I got super into it and really hyped about the boycott. I'm reading about all the stuff that they're doing and realizing that lawyers are the ones that are helping them advocate for themselves, getting them to that table and translating the things that they want into legal language in a contract. I was like ‘Okay, yeah, I could go to law school if that's what I get to do’ so I went to law school, I did a couple of other things in law school that were not super related. I did work for a sports team for a minute as a legal intern. I ended up litigating for a little bit, but from the inception of my decision to go to law school, it was always motivated by women's sports and having firsthand knowledge of how hard it actually is to be a female athlete in these leagues that don't have a lot of competition and haven't been around long enough, like the NHL, not that the NHL does perfectly by its players, but I had always been motivated by the knowledge that players had in women's sports. A lot that they needed to be advocating for and thinking about how that burden is completely overwhelming for someone who should not have to carry it, like those players should be able to focus on playing.
They shouldn't also have to ensure that their team respects the maternity leave, you know language that's their contract, that shouldn't be their job. For a long time, I was covering women's hockey as a journalist and more and more, I would hear about these things that were happening that I knew weren’t right. As a journalist, all I could really do about it was write about it. I knew that I had the skill set to do something maybe a little bit more direct; it started to really get my nerves that I had to kinda rein myself in and be really careful about what I was doing and what I was saying. When the PHF announced that the cap was going to be doubled, I was like ‘okay, these girls are gonna start making enough money that it's going to really make a difference’.
Those negotiations are gonna make a big difference because you could be someone that made $50,000 last year that should be making $80,000 this year. $80,000 is enough to live on if you're [playing for the Connecticut Whale] and living in Connecticut or depending on where you're living. That's what motivated me to do it now but I think I was always going to end up here at some point.
Demestihas: I’m Greek so that's part of it. My dad runs his own business that has a Greek name and I started from a place of not wanting to use my last name, it's super long. I don't really like the way my initials line up and I was starting from scratch. I was thinking about the easy Greek figures to point to with athletics and how most of those had already been taken as business names. [Some background on the name], Hecate is a figure in Greek mythology, the person who when Persephone was taken to the underworld to Hades, went with Persephone’s mother to help find her. She's depicted in Greek mythology as holding two torches and a lot of times when you see her figure in tableau, she's got like 3 faces. She's the goddess of crossroads, among other things, but crossroads was the one that I clung onto there; even when they found Persephone, she stayed in Hades as an advisor.
So Hades having someone who is able to light both opportunities, because the whole idea was that she was lighting both sides of the path with it; they could look everywhere and with the decision being made, she was going to continue to provide guidance was big to me. In agency, it’s all about choosing for yourself what your path is going to be and every time you make a decision you make that decision at a crossroads whether or not you know it. You know if you choose to re-sign somewhere but it never occurred to you to look at a different team. That's totally fine but there was always that other option. The figure of Hecate is someone who makes it obvious that there is a crossroads and there are different paths was something that was really attractive to me as a symbol.
Demestihas: A big part of it is I’m currently working in contract law. It’s my day job, I negotiate contracts every day and I write them every day. Having that level of experience with knowing what a contract typically looks like and being able to read contracts in a way that makes sense. If a random person off the street reads a contract, they're not written for other people to be able to read them, and that's to me a big failing of the system in general, but that's how it works.
So I know people, not just players, a lot of people who sign contracts and think they know what they say and sign them and just don't really know what they say. My ability to translate what the contract says into language that other people understand is really important because I'm not trying to negotiate a contract for someone else, I'm trying to help them access my toolkit to negotiate [their own contract] and to advocate for themselves. I mean, there are definitely times that I step in and use my negotiation skills to play hardball or to make an argument that doesn't occur to someone else, or to use leverage or whatever. A lot of what I do is just translating contract language and empowering the athlete to make the decisions and the arguments that they want to make based on what is being put in front of them.
For example, last year, the [PHF] cap doubled in between seasons. Last year, there were several girls on each team who signed a 2-year agreement. If you were getting paid a certain amount of money last year and the cap doubled between last year and this year, I’m giving them the tools that they need to be able to go to their GM and say, ‘Hey, shouldn't I be getting paid twice as much as I got paid last year since the cap doubled?’ It's stuff like that. They know the math and know that it's not right or they know what they want, but being able to lay out like a set of bullet points of like ‘all right, here are the reasons that I would say you should be able to do this’ and giving them negotiation tips on ‘this is when I would bring this up.’
Demestihas: I definitely know people in the space that are agents who have reached out to me and I've helped them out with various different things before I started my own agency. My approach is a little bit different intentionally because to me, I’m not trying to be the one negotiating if that makes sense. It's not so much that I'm intentionally departing from what other people are doing, what I really want for my athletes is for them to be able to have that conversation in any part of their lives. For example, some of them have a second job and they're probably getting underpaid there too, you know what I mean. For me, it’s about being able to teach them how to fish, so to speak, unless they straight up tell me like ‘I don't want to do that, I want you to do all of this’ and then I'll do it.
Also, being a holistic agency is a big part of what I would like to try to do. We just kind of just started kicking off. I haven't announced my first player yet; I'm still working and getting that together. [However], I would like to be able to provide my clients, not only with sponsorship opportunities and helping them get their player contracts, but also with things like integrating DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) into the tools that they have access to. I would like to be able to bring them to people who can have conversations with them about diversity and inclusion in the sport that is not just being done through the League or something that they're seeing on Twitter, or like expecting them to go read whatever on their own time, which they might do.
I want to provide them with those opportunities to learn that can make them an advocate for change within the sport in a way that I think a lot of them want to be. A lot of them can articulate ‘this is a problem in the sport and I want to help but I don't know what my role is in that.’ Maybe that isn't typically something an agent would do but I would like to be able to provide that to them. A lot of my approach is adaptive to the player so it depends a lot on what that specific person needs from me because women’s hockey players are much more diverse in background and experience than most men's players are because there's kind of a set trajectory for a men’s player. For the most part for men, you play junior or go to college, you play minor league, you play the NHL, you play abroad. Women’s hockey is not exactly the same.
These girls all have completely different backgrounds from each other. Some of them have second jobs that require them to be on-site, some are working remotely, some of them have their own built-in sponsorship opportunities because they already work for a brand. The level of involvement that they may need or want for me or guidance that they may need or want for me is going to be totally different every time.
Demestihas: Right now, it's just going to be me and it's just going to be hockey because I do still have my day job, so I have a limited amount of time. If I’m working a 9 to 5, that's a 5 to midnight second job. There's a unique opportunity in women's hockey, because it's a little bit of a Wild Wild West in a way that other sports have already been building these policies and procedures, for negotiations to work and how contracts work that we're still kind of building from the ground up in women's hockey. I don't really foresee me bringing anybody else on in the near future, that would have to be years from now. Without knowing what women's hockey is going to look like a couple of years from now, it's really hard to say; if the PWHPA does end up having their own League, maybe 3 years from now, I bring someone on who will only do those contracts and I'll only do PHF, maybe I'll branch out and do both.
I would be surprised to see me move into other sports but I would never say never. I just don't really necessarily have the connections in other places that would make me attractive. I'd be really bootstrapping if I wanted to get into women's soccer. There's a lot more of an infrastructure there, and I don't know anybody there, whereas with women's hockey, I've been working in and around the sport since 2016, 2017 so I also don't know that I could really bring the same value to a player in another sport because I just wouldn't know the industry or their League quite as well. You never know, I mean 2 years ago, I never would have thought I would be here.
Demestihas: It's gonna depend so heavily on the sport but especially in women's sports and women in general, female athletes are kind of held to a different standard than men athletes are. This is almost the first time I've ever seen, like the NHL Pride Night controversies, people expect something individually from a player in terms of activism or their ability to articulate some kind of position.
For the most part, male athletes are pretty exempt from that kind of thing and that's a good and a bad thing. I can see the arguments for “that's not their job” but the truth is that sports have always been political again. The Olympics was intended to be political from the beginning, it always has been and it's always going to be. In women's sports, female athletes are always held up as being like role models, like it's always marketed like, ‘Oh, they're the role models for the future’ so female athletes have to be more aware of societal issues and the politics in the community that they're playing in than men do. They can't afford to be totally checked out like how some men athletes are.
If anything, maybe from a player on a team standpoint, there's going to be more demand for players to be provided with more than just the basic negotiation services. Teams may take it upon themselves to do some of that stuff but it may come to the point where you're a player and you're like ‘look, I know that I don't really know anything about politics, that I'm going to be expected to know and I want to make things better in my community and I'm going to be expected to do that as an athlete who represents my community. How do I do that? What does that mean for me? Whether the things that I'm passionate about, what are some ways I can leverage my visibility in the community to make the kinds of differences that I want to make?’ At least in women's sports, that’s always going to be a thing and it's only going to become more and more obvious but I think that can be addressed at a team level, at an individual level, at an agency level.
My guess is that the bigger agencies probably won't mess with it; they've got a system that works for them, they make a lot of money doing it the way that they do it. Most agencies service mostly male athletes who don't need or want that kind of feedback, but it's possible that more people will start to use a holistic approach. I would love for that to be the case. I would be surprised if it became a big trend.