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Hockey Agent provocateur, or someone just doing his job?

To many Canadian hockey fans, particularly those in the Ottawa region, Mark Gandler is nothing less than the Prince of Darkness.

When Alexei Yashin walked out on the last year of his contract with the Ottawa Senators, Gandler was regarded as equally responsible. As Yashin's agent, Gandler was seen as the driving force in the standoff.

But Gandler is much more than just the supposed villain in one of the biggest hockey stories of the past year. He is an immigrant from the former Soviet Union who has built a bustling agency business with hard work and an intractable negotiating style.

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After only 10 years of representing NHL players, the 44-year-old has easily surpassed Rich Winter as the agent reputed to cause the most headaches among general managers. Gandler makes little effort to change the perception.

"I don't care about my reputation with the Canadian public," he said. "My job is to look after the best interests of my clients."

Gandler's reputation was also built on lower-profile showdowns than Yashin's year-long holdout. He is the agent for Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Dmitry Yushkevich and former Leafs defenceman Alexander Karpovtsev.

When Yushkevich missed training camp in 1999 while contract negotiations between Gandler and the Leafs dragged on, the agent was often accused of being the cause of the problem. The same was said this year when Karpovtsev stayed away from camp and then was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks.

Gandler's negotiating positions are taken with supreme confidence. This stems from the hours of research he and partner Todd Diamond put in studying where a client fits on the ever-changing NHL salary grid.

"Our knowledge comes from spending a lot of time with the players," Gandler said. "From knowing the situation in the locker room, knowing the situation on the bench, questioning and questioning. We talk to the players all the time.

"There is a great effort placed on research. Once we come up with what we think a player should get, we try to aim negotiations at that number."

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In the small world of the NHL, which is like a village when it comes to gossip and resentment, Gandler is no stranger to suspicion. After all, he has a North American-sounding name and operates from Northern New Jersey but grew up in the old Soviet Union. His client list is on the small side, 21 or so, and is made up mostly of Russians. Gandler's ability to navigate the often murky world of Russian hockey enabled him to land most of his clients.

The reality is different. To paraphrase the beer commercial, those who like Gandler like him a lot.

"He is more than an agent, he is a friend," said Yushkevich, who signed with Gandler in 1991 when he played for Moscow Dynamo in the Russian elite league. "He does a good job for us, his clients are happy, and that is the most you can ask for any agent."

Yushkevich said the public's perception of Gandler was driven by the Yashin affair. He, like a couple of other fellow clients plus an NHL general manager, said Yashin was the driving force behind the walkout, something Yashin has said.

"I am part and parcel of what happened," Gandler said, "even though [Yashin]was very gracious in his press conference [by taking full responsibility]

"Sure, the player is always responsible, but so is the agent. There are many discussions [about strategy] I can't impose my views totally on the player, and the player participates fully in the discussions."

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Alexander Berkovich is a lawyer who has known Gandler since they were students together at Columbia University in New York. He has also done legal work for Gandler, who has a law degree from Columbia but never took up a practice. Where others see an obstinate pit bull who turns even the most innocuous negotiation into a showdown, Berkovich sees an immigrant who became successful by being tough, resourceful and smart.

"He has to be tough because it's his job to be tough," Berkovich said. "You have a duty to do your best for your client and sometimes it creates tension.

"If you always agree to a team's first offer, you will be a very nice guy. But are you doing your best job for your client? He is a tough guy, but he's also smart and shrewd."

Not all of those who express admiration for Gandler are his friends or clients. Some can be found among the ranks of NHL general managers.

"I have always found him honest," said Chicago Blackhawks GM Mike Smith, who did not have any noticeable trouble signing Karpovtsev to a long-term contract as part of the trade with the Leafs. "I think he's a pretty good agent. Those are very shark-infested waters that agents swim in, and he does a good job for his players."

Smith's comments will be dismissed by some because he is regarded as a GM with an attraction to Russian players. He also befriended Gandler 10 years ago when the agent was starting out in hockey and became something of a mentor.

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But even Marshall Johnston, the general manager of the Ottawa Senators, found a few nice things to say. His first dealing with Gandler came as a personnel director with the New Jersey Devils, and he managed to get Senators prospect Petr Schastlivy signed without fuss.

"I really haven't had a significant problem with him," Johnston said. "Obviously, that might sound a little strange considering the Yashin situation. But the way I look at it, [Gandler]was simply acting in what he felt was the best interests of his client.

"Who am I to judge what kind of style the guy has? This is the position he took for his client and I respect that, just as the other side has to respect my position. I haven't found [Gandler]has ever said one thing and then done another."

Johnston recalled meeting Gandler at the world junior hockey championships last year and having a cordial conversation. "He likes to talk, and he'll talk as long as you like to listen to him," Johnston said.

This is not to say there is a mushy sentimentalist hiding underneath the tough exterior.

"I am comfortable with this style," Gandler said. "I can't do it any other way."

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He discovered this about himself early in his working life, which is one reason why he became a player agent. It is a style that fits someone who has been an outsider trying to fight his way into the good life.

For Gandler has not made his way in Russian hockey circles because of any ties to the old Soviet system. As Jews living in Kishinev, the capital city of what is now the independent country of Moldova, Gandler and his family faced discrimination along with the lack of personal freedom felt by all Soviet citizens.

The Soviet Union would periodically allow Jews to leave the country as a public-relations gesture to the international community. In 1976, when Gandler was 20, he and his parents managed to emigrate to Brooklyn during one such period.

His father was 62 when they arrived and could not find regular employment, but his mother worked as a cook while Gandler became an economics student at New York University. She still lives in the same apartment the family took shortly after they arrived. Mark Gandler, by the way, is not an Anglicized version of a Moldavian name. "I haven't changed one letter," he said.

Gandler happened to be a soccer player who was good enough to improve what had been a woeful NYU team, and this led to some scholarships and a loan. After receiving a bachelor of economics degree in 1979, Gandler earned a masters degree in economics from Columbia two years later.

Armed with his degrees, Gandler took a job as a management trainee at the head office of the Seagram beverage company in New York. By coincidence, the owners of Seagram, the Bronfman family, also had roots in Kishinev. There are rumours the Bronfmans often found employment for Soviet Jews, but Gandler bristled at the question.

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"I totally disagree," he said. "Sam Bronfman was from the same town as I was, but neither Sam nor his sons nor his family nor any of his employees approached me.

"I got the job totally independent of the Bronfmans, nor was I ever given a promotion. The reason for that is Sam Bronfman tried to forget his roots."

Gandler stayed with Seagram for several years, but grew disillusioned with more than the owners.

"I did not feel like being a middle manager for the rest of my life," he said. "I am not the type to be promoted to executive positions. I am not good at political schmoozing, the proverbial ass-kissing. I am pretty outspoken.

"It took me a while to understand corporate culture. I could not understand why I should yield to a corporate VP in a volleyball game at the company picnic. Now I do."

When the Soviets began to allow players to go to the NHL, Gandler decided his future was as an agent. He also decided that a law degree would help in his new career, so he went back to Columbia at night and hung on to his day job.

When a mutual acquaintance introduced him to Alexander Steblin, then the president of Moscow Dynamo, when the team was on an NHL tour, Gandler had the entrée he needed. Steblin took a liking to Gandler, and introduced him to his good friend, defenceman Alexei Kasatonov, who soon became his first client.

In the next couple of years, thanks to Steblin's position, Gandler had access to all of the young Dynamo players. By 1992, his client list grew to include Yushkevich, Yashin, Karpovtsev and Darius Kasparaitis.

It did not hurt Gandler's influence among Russian players when Steblin became president of the Russian hockey federation. However, such close ties to Russian hockey inevitably give rise to innuendo of shady dealings.

Even the loyalty of Gandler's clients is used in this sort of speculation. NHL players are notorious for their inclination to switch agents as often as their favourite saloons, so there were hints, some of them in print, that fear keeps Gandler's clients in line.

Both Berkovich and Gandler say the connections between Russian hockey and the underworld are greatly exaggerated. The high-profile crimes, such as extorting money from star players by kidnapping their relatives, are individual acts.

"People tend to put all criminal acts under one umbrella," Berkovich said. "These are just criminal acts by people in a poor country. I know a lot about Russian hockey and I don't think it is infested by organized crime, like people say.

"It may have people who don't have clean hands, but that is true about anything. Even in the NHL, you had that guy in Los Angeles [former Kings owner Bruce McNall, who is serving a prison sentence for fraud]"

Leafs defenceman Danny Markov dropped Gandler as his agent when it came time to negotiate his latest contract. Markov, who is one of the Leafs' top four defencemen, wound up with a two-year contract worth $1.55-million (U.S.).

Markov declined to discuss his relationship with Gandler, but an NHL source intimated there was nothing more to the change than Markov's belief he could get more money with another agent. Some people in the NHL think Markov would have been wiser to keep Gandler because if both he and Karpovtsev stayed away from training camp last month, the Leafs may have coughed up more than $1.55-million over two years.

Leafs centre Igor Korolev is a Gandler client who has no trouble discussing a potential break. While Korolev's true feelings are hard to judge because he likes to spar with reporters, he doesn't think Gandler is perfect but also counts him as a friend.

"Not all the time, but most of the time," Korolev said when asked whether he thought Gandler gives him good advice. "Some things are good, some things not."

Korolev declined to say what things constituted bad advice. If he does sever the relationship at the end of this season, when his Leafs contract ends, it appears the decision will be rooted in keeping his personal and business relationships separate.

Korolev thinks it might be better to have an agent who is not a good friend. But, he added, "I'm not sure what is right and what is wrong."

Gandler has no concerns about mixing his business and personal relationships. It is common practice among NHL agents and their clients, probably because agents spend so much time on the job. His social life revolves around his wife and their two daughters and playing host to clients at his home in New Jersey.

"All of my friends happen to be my clients," Gandler said. "They enjoy coming to New Jersey. We have a lot of barbecues at my home.

"I like playing soccer when I get a chance, and I like movies and baseball. But when you are watching two [hockey]games a night on television and have to be at games and travel a lot, it's hard to have a country club social life.

"There is so much minutiae that needs to be done. So you stay up late and work on weekends. You do what needs to be done for your clients."

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