It may not have been the dream in every last Canadian boy's head, but if you were a hockey-playing teenager in the 1970s, there weren't many better than the one Michael Gillis was living. Playing junior in Kingston, Ont., the young left- winger was not only marked for glory, he had the agent to prove it: The man behind the great Bobby Orr, the one and only R. Alan Eagleson himself, had swung into town to sign up Gillis. "We did this meet-and-greet thing," the 42-year-old Gillis recalls with, it's fair to say, less enthusiasm than he might have felt at the time. "At that point he was a very powerful guy. Extremely influential."
In the 1978 NHL draft, the dream was sustained: Gillis was drafted by the Colorado Rockies, fifth overall. It didn't seem to matter that once a contract was in place, Eagleson didn't call: Gillis was on his way.
Then, in the first week of training camp, he wrecked his knee. "I remember sitting there before the operation," he says, "and the doctor saying, 'I don't know if you'll ever play again.' I was 19."
Gillis did return to the ice, but somehow, after that, the stuff of dreams was lacking. Traded in 1981 to the Boston Bruins, he scored a total of 17 goals over four seasons. "He was a good little worker," says Russ Conway, who covered the Bruins for The Eagle-Tribune in Lawrence, Mass.
It wasn't until 1984, when a broken leg ended his career, that Gillis acquired what a lot of those former teenaged dreamers got in his day: his very own bad-agent story. Eagleson told Gillis that Lloyd's of London had rejected his disability claim. Not to worry, his agent reassured him: They'd get some high-powered law firm on the case. What Eagleson didn't mention was that he already had the disability cheque in hand. Not only that, but the big law firm was in fact a real estate company owned by Eagleson himself. When the cheque finally found its way to Gillis, $41,250 had been carved out to pay for the non-existent lawyers.
Gillis, who returned to Kingston to attend law school, eventually sued Eagleson and won. After all the injuries, the insult, the deceit, Gillis might have been forgiven for withdrawing to the placid world of corporate law. "When I left playing I had absolutely no intention of ever being in hockey again," he says.
But then a former teammate asked him to look at his contract and Gillis started inching his way back. "I decided that players needed someone who could represent them in an efficient and aggressive way," he says. If he didn't exactly set out to right Eagleson wrongs, he went into the business with a blueprint of how not to operate. By 1993 he'd left law and was working full-time as an agent.
What's changed in the years since Gillis played? There are now 30 teams in the league, providing jobs for about 750 players. There's more money, of course. There are more agents--200-plus, compared to a mere dozen in Canada in 1969--and more of them are former players. They now have to be certified by the National Hockey League Players' Association.
So the whole business is as immaculate as a freshly Zambonied rink, right? Right, except for the ill feeling that still seems to shroud agenting. It's as if today's practitioners are paying for Alan Eagleson's bad karma. Fans blame agents for ruining the game by sending salaries into the stratosphere. Among agents themselves, the competition for talent can be a race to the bottom. "It's a nasty business," says Tom Laidlaw, a former defenceman who now represents 15 players. "It's dog-eat-dog, much more than it was," says Bill Watters, a former agent who today is assistant general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Eagleson years, Russ Conway believes, are "a scar" on hockey "that can never be removed." He was one of the first journalists to document Eagleson's sins. "The glad-handing, backslapping, hey-don't-worry-about-it, leave-it-up-to-me-and-you'll-be-a-millionaire days are gone," he says. "The players are more educated and more aware. If the Eagleson saga did anything it woke up the players."
Tales of underpaid and ill-used players are as natural a Canadian resource as maple syrup. Before Eagleson came along, owners ran the show. When Eagleson wasn't acting in his own interest, he was only too pleased to accommodate his many friends in management. "Eagleson just made it so easy for the owners," says sportswriter Bruce Dowbiggin. "They stocked their front offices with a bunch of dolts and former hockey pucks who couldn't have run a 7-Eleven. But as long as Eagleson was in charge of the players, you could still make any mistake in the world and be forgiven."
As Eagleson fell, the players--and their salaries--began to rise. Since Detroit lawyer and agent Bob Goodenow succeeded Eagleson as NHLPA executive director, average salaries in the league have climbed from $271,000 (in 1991) to $1.4 million this past season, an increase of more than 400%.
With NHL payrolls totalling more than $1.5 billion last season, agents collectively stood to take in about $46 million--and that's assuming, conservatively, they all charged the industry minimum of 3%. In 1999, Gillis, whose 20 NHL clients include Bobby Holik, Tony Amonte and Pavol Demitra, negotiated a five-year, $72-million deal with the Florida Panthers for high-scoring right-winger Pavel Bure. Gillis's 3% fee over the life of the contract comes out to more than $2 million.
So, thanks to the better-informed, better-paid situation of players--which the agents themselves helped produce--preying on players is not a possible business strategy any more. Preying on other agents is. The weather in the agenting world is humid with innuendo and rumour. Players offered cars, parents offered jobs. In the months leading up to this June's junior draft in Sunrise, Fla.--one of the richest crops of talent in recent years--several highly ranked players switched agents, producing mutterings of inducements amounting, in one case, to $225,000.
Many agents will happily share stories of the sins of their rivals, the poaching of clients chief among them. Says Edmonton agent Rich Winter: "The most recent one was, I will pay you $100,000 [U.S.]if you leave Rich Winter's company and come with us." (The player didn't bite.)
Highly skilled hockey players don't, of course, arise fully formed in an agent's office, eager to sign over 3% to 5%. Most are aggressively recruited. Gus Badali tracked down and signed up a 15-year-old Wayne Gretzky. Today it's the norm.
"When I started doing this about 15 years ago I used to recruit college seniors," New York-based agent Lewis Gross says. "Now we have to recruit them before they get to college. You find yourself recruiting 16-year-olds, 17-year-olds. You really don't have a choice. Nobody likes to do it, everybody thinks it's wrong to do it--but we're all in business, and you have to do what you have to do."
"We've been fairly dominant in the Czech Republic because we were there early," says Rich Winter. "But now the competition is increasing. One guy went into Slovakia about three years ago, under the radar, and signed 12- and 13-year-old kids.
"That's a way to compete, because a 12-year-old kid's going, 'An agent from Los Angeles? Mmm. That's cool.' There's 25% unemployment in some of the areas of Slovakia. If someone offers them a thousand bucks, that's pretty attractive. Sometimes that's a long-term decision that comes back to haunt them."
"It's a terrible business decision to recruit a 13-year-old, and it's a terrible moral decision," says Brian Lawton of Octagon Athlete Representation. "They're kids. Let them be kids. They can get an agent when they're 16, 17, 18 years old. They're not going to miss anything." The father of Ontario Hockey League centre Jay McClement, drafted 57th overall by the St. Louis Blues in June, recalls approaches by a dozen or so agents --including Woolf Associates, headed by none other than Bobby Orr--back when Jay was 14. A visit to the family home by Orr helped seal the deal. Why does a 14-year-old need to sign with an agent? "I didn't know whether you really need to," says David McClement. And today? "I don't know they did a whole lot for us at that time, except for preparing you for the OHL draft, giving Jay some guidance on what he needed to work on."
Michael Gillis won't recruit. "Based on my own experience," he says, "kids are naive, they're easily influenced. Parents are naive and easily influenced. Parents are willing to put their faith in people they don't particularly know. Oftentimes the results are quite poor. I don't believe any kid who is 15 or 16 needs representation. And now I hear stories of 12- and 13-year-olds getting approached. I can't imagine another industry in the world that would let adult males solicit adolescent preteens in this kind of context. I think it's wrong."
Pavol Demitra didn't have a great May. Then again, the year before wasn't so great either. In 1999-2000, the high-scoring 26-year-old Czech left-winger for the St. Louis Blues missed the playoffs with a bad shoulder. This season he bruised a retina, took a deep cut in the leg from a skate, and then hurt a hamstring, before finally making it back into the lineup for the playoffs.
St. Louis made it through the first two rounds, beating San Jose and Dallas. In the third, facing Colorado, they struggled. After one loss, Demitra was singled out by his general manager, Larry Pleau, as a struggler:"It's hard to say why, but he was bothered out there. He didn't look comfortable."
Michael Gillis thought he knew why. After all, he'd already flown down to counsel his client.
"The game now is played at such a high level," says Gillis, "that if a guy is just a little bit off-centre in terms of his play--or emotionally off-centre or physically off-centre--he can go sideways in a real hurry. And the relationship that I've evolved with my players is really based on playing the game and maximizing their opportunities." Demitra's problem, in Gillis's view, was that he was vexed by the layoff. "When he was frustrated, he began to get way too far ahead of the play. He ended up floating around, not touching the puck. One of the big things we talked about is being a lot more patient."
This sort of coaching by agents--which goes as far as running summer development camps--is not universally regarded as kosher. "That's the coach's job," says Bill Watters flatly. The comeback is that coaches necessarily focus on the team effort. When Gillis analyzes a game on TV, he's only watching his client. "What I like about Mike is that he's not a BS-er," says client Pat Verbeek, an 18-year and five-agent veteran who played last year with the Detroit Red Wings. Like many clients, Verbeek often calls Gillis for an assessment after a game that doesn't go well. "He tells you straight what you're doing."
Coaching clients does offer an alternative channel for the development of the agenting business to race-to-the-bottom recruiting. But since both those activities are traditional hockey-club turf, they're unlikely to enhance agents' reputation among fans already peeved by the core business: salary negotiations. "Obviously agents can't protect the best interests of their clients and at the same time care about the sport," says Jim Boone, an Ottawa web developer who co-founded the National Hockey League Fans' Association, an on-line advocacy group.
Agents are used to this line of talk, and have a ready answer. "From the player's perspective," says Gillis, "he's got a very limited time horizon to do as well as he can do financially. Your career is at the mercy of management, injuries, loss of skill--any number of things. People make presumptions: Boy, that player's greedy. No, he's not greedy. He just isn't developing a career that's a 40-year career."
True enough. But the enticements offered this year's crop of free agents produced new levels of career compression: Colorado re-signed Cup-winning stars Joe Sakic and Rob Blake at $10 million and $5 million a season, respectively. If, as they sign one lucrative contract after another, the players hold the power in today's NHL, they also must be aware that the gap between the have and the have-not (read: Canadian) teams is growing, and that the time may soon come when the owners try to grab some of of the power back. The current Collective Bargaining Agreement between the NHL and the NHLPA doesn't expire for another three years, but already there are signs that the two sides are girding for battle.
There's the rhetoric. Owners need to control costs, says NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. That could mean a salary cap. No way, says NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow. Both sides have raised the spectre of the entire 2004-05 season being swallowed up in the fight.
There are the war chests--said to be $90 million on the NHLPA side--built up in the event of a protracted work stoppage like the one in 1994-95.
And then there are what some see as signals in contract negotiations.
Last fall, agent Don Meehan asked the Buffalo Sabres to negotiate a new contract with his client, team captain Mike Peca. When negotiations broke down, Meehan and Peca asked for a trade. In March, the NHL's trading deadline came and went without a peep from Buffalo, and Peca ended up missing a year.
While to some agents this was just business, others think it's a message from the league, the text being, salaries have to be kept down in the run-up to 2004.
"Do they think that I'm not well enough connected to know through 30 teams the approaches that were made, the offers that were made?" asks Meehan. "It became very clear they were not going to trade him to teach him a lesson. Now, did that come from the league? I think it did." (In June, Peca was finally traded to the New York Islanders.)
"What scares me," says Rich Winter, "is that there are so few people involved in the process. It's Gary Bettman and Bob Goodenow and they don't appear very cordial in their relationship.
"Bob and Gary have the possibility of destroying the game. The economics are such now that we could destroy it in six or eight markets. I think Bob and Gary understand that. I'm not sure, in my mind, why they're not negotiating today.
"It's a very simple business. We can count the gate receipts, we can count the TV revenue, we can count the parking. Let's get some forensic accountants in and figure it out and then decide what's a fair share of the pie. Sure, there's going to be owners trying to '. But let's try to figure it out. Because at the end of the day, this is a very good business."