Lockout created new set of issues for agents

Contrary to popular belief, the NHL lockout has actually made things tougher for agents, not easier.

Updated: June 9, 2005, 2:25 PM ET
By Chris Stevenson | Special to ESPN.com

Well, J.P. Barry got an extra trip to Europe out of it.

So did Steve Bartlett.

Depending on how you feel about Moscow in January, that's either a good thing or one more bad thing.

The National Hockey League's lockout has pretty much been nothing but a Zdeno Chara-sized headache for the agents who represent NHL players.

It's probably something like twice the work for a quarter of the money.

With NHL arenas dark this season because of the lockout, you'd think it would be a great time for hockey agents to take some R&R, maybe take a nice cruise in the sunny south.

Not quite.

This winter was more a case of stormy seas.

In a rowboat.

With one oar.

Brisson/Robitaille
Shelly Castellano/THN/Icon SMIIMG agent Pat Brisson, left, with left winger Kings Luc Robitaille.

"We're in uncharted waters for ourselves and for our clients," said Barry, the director for hockey at IMG, which has 65 NHL clients – including Jaromir Jagr of the New York Rangers, Joe Thornton of the Boston Bruins, Mats Sundin of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Sergei Fedorov of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson and teen sensation Sidney Crosby (who will be the top pick in the next NHL draft, whenever that is).

"It was definitely a winter of discontent and anxiety," said Rochester, N.Y.-based Bartlett, who represents Doug Weight of the St. Louis Blues, Brian Rolston of the Boston Bruins and the hulking Chara of the Ottawa Senators, among others. "No matter what could result [from the CBA talks], our business is not going to be as lucrative and we have to replace that revenue if we want to keep our staff where it was. We've got to keep building a business that's been successful for us.

"It's been a winter of retooling, regrouping and refocusing."

With many of their clients taking refuge in Europe – and playing for a fraction of what they would have made under the old CBA – both Barry and Bartlett wound up making two trips to Europe last winter where one is generally the norm.

While many people might think the NHL lockout means agents were without work, along with some of their clients, the opposite has been true, according to agents contacted by ESPN.com.

"A lot of people would ask me, 'What are you going to do now with the lockout?' We're still busy, if not busier," said Pat Brisson, who represents Crosby, among others, for IMG.

"The thing is, this [the lockout] is new. Everything is new. No one has faced a lockout like this before."

In fact, for many agents, the lockout represented a doubling of their workloads compared to a normal season.

Last summer, for instance, they went about their normal business, negotiating contracts for clients whose deals had expired, doing their due diligence and participating in arbitration hearings for some players, and finding places to play for others.

"It was crazy last summer. We had six or seven arbitrations to prepare for, and that was a ton of work," said Bartlett, who saw it all done for nothing. "That's a summer I'd like to have back."

As the threat of lockout evolved into grim inevitability, the agents began looking for jobs for a few of their clients in the American Hockey League and, for the elite players, in Europe.

Barry and Brisson placed about 40 of their clients with European teams, part of the approximately 400 NHL players who sought refuge across the Atlantic over the winter. Players were faced with other options. Some practiced with junior clubs. Others with college teams. Some had informal practices with other locked-out players.

"In each of those cases, there were different insurance scenarios," said Rand Simon, an agent with Toronto-based Newport Sports Management Inc., which represents about 100 NHL clients. "There were a lot of different nuances we had to deal with in terms of insurance for our clients. We had to find the right insurance products for them.

"Let's just say it was a very challenging year. There were still games to go to, just not NHL games."

With players scattered across the globe, the full-service management companies were also faced with more complex tax issues for their clients who, when all is said and done, might have spent time in the United States, Canada and Europe.

"We still had to service our players," Brisson said. "They wanted news on the CBA if we had any, they wanted to know where they were going to play, where we could put them. We were negotiating with a completely new dynamic with the European teams, whether it's Sweden, Russia or Switzerland."

During the course of a normal NHL season, agents do their share of hand-holding, cajoling and babysitting. Then there are the players who are high-maintenance.

They're unhappy with their situations – a personality conflict with a coach, issues with playing time or unhappiness with a contract situation. The uncertainty of this season led to agents' having even more dialogue with their clients.

"If anything, the communication went up this year because you needed to discuss all of this," Barry said. "A lot of players didn't have contracts. They were nervous about that. How was this going to affect them?"

The normal business of recruiting teenagers, who look like they should be flipping burgers rather than being on the cusp of becoming multinational corporations, continued as usual.

That was about the only "normal" part of the agents' existence.

In a normal year, the Stanley Cup Finals would be getting under way right about now. Instead, talks regarding a new CBA continue to be the news coming out of the NHL. If a new deal is struck in the next few weeks, this could possibly shape up as one of the most chaotic offseasons in league history. Most of the players in the league will need new deals.

Brisson estimated 45 of IMG's 65 clients could need new deals if this past season counts as a regular year and brings players a season closer to contract expiration. Simon said about 60 of Newport's 100 clients will likely need new deals.

What happens if the age for unrestricted free agency is lowered in a new CBA? How might arbitration change? The agents are having to prepare for all options.

"There's a lot of discussions about possibilities," said Barry. "We have to get ready for what could be a very long summer.

"If we have an agreement, I guess this could be the busiest summer we've very had."

That cruise could have to wait.

Again.

Chris Stevenson of the Ottawa Sun is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

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