Sunday, January 21, 2007

Russian teenagers running NHL agents ragged

From The Ottawa Citizen, June 16, 2002


The cut-throat deals that fuel the NHL's entry draft

On a Thursday afternoon last June a dozen future millionaires mingled in a crowded bistro in Fort Lauderdale. They were easy to spot. They were the ones wearing hockey sweaters, the ones being interrogated by sportwriters and the only ones not old enough to drink.

Every year on the eve of its entry draft the National Hockey League introduces the world's top 18-year-old players to those who will cover their heroics for years to come, a coming-out party of sorts. It's a scene that will play out next week in Toronto before the draft on June 22, but last year the spotlight shone on a dark-haired prodigy in a Moscow Spartak sweater, Ilya Kovalchuk, who a year before had known little about the NHL and still seemed bewildered by the hoopla. In the final years of his junior career, Kovalchuk, a native of Tver, Russia, had courted controversy by shamelessly show-boating in international tournaments and cockily mocking rival juniors in the press. Nevertheless, NHL executives and scouts considered him the most exciting teenage talent since Mario Lemieux almost 20 years before, questions about his character be damned.

It should have been good news for the NHL. After all, the draft sells hope to teams on hard times. Kovalchuk was 6-feet-2-inches and 210 pounds of hope for the Atlanta Thrashers, Ted Turner's struggling expansion franchise and holders of the first pick in the draft.

It wasn't good news for Scott Greenspun of Impact Sports Management, a tiny boutique sports agency based in New York City. Anything but. Greenspun looked at Kovalchuk, saw only lost opportunity, one that would have netted him millions of dollars. Greenspun had once believed he had locked up Kovalchuk as a client. Now, he shrugged it off with a world-weary fatalism. "We're a small agency," Greenspun said. "We had an agreement with him going back a year before. His leaving us was a disappointment but not a surprise. We saw it coming."

Kovalchuk had dumped Greenspun for Jay Grossman, becoming another in a parade of top Russian teenage stars who had stiffed their agents to hook up with Grossman's SFX Hockey agency in New York. SFX describes itself immodestly but not inaccurately as "the world's largest promoter, producer and presenter of live entertainment events."

When agents gather at events like the one in Fort Lauderdale, there are bound to be some hard feelings. Hockey agents could probably teach Mafia dons a thing or two about holding grudges, that's just the nature of their competitive business. But here, the agents viewed SFX's successes as a symptom of a changing business culture, more cut-throat, driven by hard corporate cash. They also viewed the next wave of players out of Eastern Europe as a bunch of baby-faced shakedown artists, and worried that Russian or Eastern European coaches and officials and even the parents would expect cash or cars -- under the table of course -- to ensure their young charges signed.

"It's the way the business is going and it rewards those who can make a huge financial commitment to a player before he has signed an NHL contract," said agent Mark Gandler, who has represented Alexei Yashin and many other prominent Russian stars for more than a decade but came to the 2001 draft without a prospect projected to go in the first round. "To represent the top Eastern European juniors you're going to have to pay up front."

Though not illegal in either North America or Europe, to offer financial inducements would be a breach of the business' tradition, not to mention a violation of policy set down by the NHL Players' Association.

At the bistro Kovalchuk sat in a large circular booth, crowded by reporters. He squinted as the television lights trained on him. Grossman sat across the table, content to blend in with the palm bushes. "I've met with Don Waddell (the Thrashers' general manager)," Kovalchuk said as Grossman's assistant, Vadim Azrilyant, translated. "We talked about cars." He was then asked what make of car he owned. Kovalchuk hesitated, suddenly looking uncomfortable. "I think Waddell owns a BMW," he said. He was asked again what kind of car he owns. Kovalchuk glanced at Azrilyant and then Grossman before uttering "nyet."

A few weeks earlier in the Soviet Sport newspaper, Kovalchuk admitted to owning and driving an Audi around Moscow without a licence. "The Audi is gone," he stated. "I gave it to my parents." He also told Soviet Sport that he wasn't going to need a car because he was taking an extended vacation to the Mediterranean.

Reporters at the bistro then asked Kovalchuk about his father, Valeri. "He was a basketball player and now owns a sports school and store," he said. The prospect dodged a follow-up question about a rumour that, as a condition of his signing with SFX, his father had been hired by the agency as a consultant.

Kovalchuk was drawing a wage from Spartak but not enough to give sports cars to family members or flit about with the Jet Set. It wasn't only talent that separated Kovalchuk from the other young players gathered at this party. A kid such as Dan Hamhuis, a defenceman who played in Major Junior in Prince George, B.C., and earned $60 a week, would be lucky to spot an Audi from the window of the team bus on a road trip. And the collegian among them, a defenceman named Mike Komisarek, couldn't let an agent so much as buy him a sandwich without risking his scholarship to the University of Michigan. One day Hamhuis and Komisarek would be professionals. At 18, Kovalchuk already was.


You might not think that it matters when young stars come into their money, whether a 17-year-old is fronted tens of thousands of dollars before his draft year or has to wait, at least for a couple of months or at most for a couple of years, for his signing bonus from an NHL club. Just try to tell league executives that.

They aren't simply nostalgic for simon-pure days. The game is sustained and renewed by its young talent and these executives worry that young players in Eastern Europe have their eyes trained on the buck rather than the puck, that they aren't just dirtied by money but spoiled by it. Hockey players in Russia are approached as 13- and 14-year-olds and any number of them can be drafted from there, the only restriction being that they have turned 18.

In Fort Lauderdale one scout overheard an agent brag that he was representing two Russian prospects, and snarled, loud enough for the agent's audience to overhear: "Yeah, two Jeeps, it took two Jeeps." A Jeep, apparently, is the vehicle of choice among Russian teens and, word has it, the going rate for an Eastern European prospect projected to be drafted in the first two rounds.

A few executives didn't bother with veiled references. "The way the business is being conducted isn't in the interests of the teams or the players," said Craig Button, Calgary Flames general manager. "Teenage kids are hopping from one agent to another, always looking for something on the side. Some teams end up investing and wasting millions in kids who never fulfil their potential because of the off-ice distractions. We're putting at risk some of the best talents coming into the game and the league needs all the talent it can get."

Most agents were no less disgusted. "Everyone knows what's going on and it's unethical," said Kingston-based agent Mike Gillis, a former NHLer who represents Pavel Bure but does not recruit in Eastern Europe. "These (agents) should know better than to be recruiting kids, 13 or 14 years old, waving money and creating an environment of greed that's sure to spread."

Junior players from Tver to Prince George routinely commit to agents before their draft year. Except for U.S. collegians who are prohibited by NCAA rules from associating with agents, virtually all of the 289 players selected at the 2001 entry had representation. If everyone was playing by the rules not one of them would be one dollar richer before signing an NHL contract. Nobody pretends that is the case. No agent nor player will own up to it and neither will they go on the record with the names of agents slipping players cash-filled envelopes or keys to Jeeps. It's not that nobody wants to cast the first stone so much as nobody having the stomach to look under the rock.

The NHL Players' Association's code of conduct is unequivocal: It prohibits agents from "providing or causing to be provided a monetary inducement or any other thing of value to any player to encourage or induce him to utilize (an agent's) services." Proof of a violation would lead the NHLPA to de-certify an agent, effectively drumming him out of the business. (Only agents certified by the NHLPA can negotiate contracts with NHL teams.)

There are grey areas. "Technically, taking a player out to dinner or providing a kid with equipment -- these would be things of value," says Don Meehan of Toronto-based Newport Sports. "Nobody (at the NHLPA) wants to pursue de-certification on those grounds. But there's a big difference between that and a straight cash payment."

The NHLPA claims the moral high ground with its ban on inducements. "It's just a bad way to start a relationship," says NHLPA associate counsel Ian Pulver. "The kids have to understand that nothing in life comes free."

This Chicken Soup for the Junior Hockey Player's Soul sounds risible emanating from the NHLPA where the over-riding concern is not building character but rather ensuring ever-rising salaries for its members. In fact, the NHLPA's ban on inducements makes business sense for the players. "If a (draft-eligible) junior received money from an agent in advance of signing a contract, then that agent is going to look for a return on his investment as quickly as possible and a team will use that to its advantage in negotiations," says Brian Lawton of Octagon Sports, which represents 65 NHLers. To maximize his commission, an agent who hasn't bankrolled a player will be more likely to wait for the best deal.

The NHLPA's rules, however, are like Doug Gilmour. They have no teeth.

No agent has ever been warned, sanctioned or de-certified for offering inducements. NHLPA director Bob Goodenow declined to comment for this story. Agents suggested that he didn't want to divide their ranks, especially when he's counting on them to rally their clients -- his membership -- in the next round of collective bargaining and through a probable lock-out in 2004. He did set up a committee of agents to look into the issue of inducements last December but the committee disbanded after a couple of unproductive meetings and Goodenow, they say, has done nothing since to indicate he considers inducements a high priority.

NHLPA officials admitted at first they have no resources in place for enforcement of their own rules and rely on agents to rat on their peers. Later, they back-tracked, saying they deal with such matters internally and refuse media inquiries.

A few agents cut Goodenow and his association some slack. Some suggest any attempt to de-certify an agent would end in court. "It's a difficult issue for the NHLPA to address because these junior players aren't yet NHLPA members," says Mike Gillis. "The one thing is that this is all new – the certification process is new, recruiting in Russia is new. Everything is evolving, so you hope that eventually the problems will be ironed out."

The evolution notwithstanding, agents have always had to keep up their elbows to stay in the game in Eastern Europe, particularly in Russia. When the NHL first tapped into the Soviet Union in the late '80s, agents had to devise strategies for defections or broker authorized passage by building contacts with officials in national federations. By the mid-'90s, free markets might have been evolving but the market for young hockey players was one of the least free. It was easy for players to go to west -- as long as they committed to the agent recommended by their coaches and the federation.

Some agents, such as Gillis, never recruit in Russia and many who do are ambivalent about it. Last year at a meeting with his superiors at Octagon, an international agency with clients in all major professional sports leagues, Lawton proposed abandoning Russia. "We stayed on in Russia because we have a couple of first-rounders in the 2002 draft," he said. "But there's so much jumping around from one agent to another that it's hard to justify the time and expense (with Russian juniors)."

The standard contract between a player and an agent allows either party to cancel out at any time, whether it's an NHL All-Star making millions or a 16-year-old riding the buses in the junior ranks. An agent's one consolation -- and what binds established professionals to an agency -- is that once an agent negotiates a player's contract, he will receive his commission for the duration of that pact. As a result, predatory agents usually find unsigned junior players more attractive than a pro in the middle of a long-term contract. "Before a team signs a (junior) player, there are no guarantees," Finnish agent Peter Lehto said. "You see players switching agents in other places but not like in Russia. Until the contract is signed nobody can be sure who'll end up with the prospect."


Jay Grossman didn't look as if he were plagued by uncertainty at the draft in Fort Lauderdale. A short man with closely cropped hair, Grossman plays things close to the vest and low to the ground, which sets him apart from his louder, flashier, publicity-seeking competitors. He is the object of their snickers whenever he is spotted carrying his clients' hockey bags after a game, which is just not done. And while high-profile agents attend games with sports and entertainment celebrities, Grossman shows up at New York Rangers games at Madison Square Garden with his son. But with Kovalchuk on board and all the leverage with Atlanta, a team with deep pockets and desperate to improve, he seemed to have the last laugh.

Grossman first made hockey news two decades ago while still a teenager. He was hired as a scout by Roger Neilson, then coach of the Vancouver Canucks and the iconoclast who ran the summer hockey school Grossman attended. Grossman's playing career stalled -- he had hoped to be a goalie -- and his scouting assignment was a one-off, but his appetite for the game was whetted.

"I was determined to play a role in the game," Grossman said. "I didn't know quite what I was going to do but I was willing to try anything." As an undergraduate at Union College in Schenectady, New York, he found his niche as a freelance agent, hustling clients for Athletes and Artists, a Manhattan-based sports agency. Even before he graduated with a law degree in 1987 he had made contacts on the U.S. college circuit that would lead to A and A signing Brian Leetch, a future All-Star.

Leetch, today the Rangers' captain, remains Grossman's client 15 years and tens of millions of dollars later, but the agent figures that everything else in the business has changed. He once freelanced, now he is the lead man. He once competed against two dozen agents, now 200 are certified by the NHLPA. There are more territories to work, bigger numbers in play. And many of Grossman's stand-bys such as Adam Oates, whom he recruited as an unheralded forward at Ransselaer Polytechnical Institute in Troy, N.Y. in the '80s, moved to other agents and young Eastern European players have filled the void.

The most profound change, though, is the number of sports agencies that have been bought by international corporations during the last five years. A few big agents remain independent and Don Meehan and his Newport Sports group, the outfit with the largest NHL client list, has so far resisted all comers. But market forces conspire against independent operators. Corporations not only offer agents a chance to profit from the sale but also promise a chance to manage a well-capitalized shop, a comfort few enjoyed as independents in an ever-precarious business.

In 1997, Grossman and A and A were among the first to answer the siren's call when they were acquired by SFX as its only hockey representation. Throughout the late '90s, SFX was the largest acquisitor of sports agencies, scooping up David Falk's FAME (most famous client was basketball legend Michael Jordan), Tellum & Associates (Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers) and the Hendricks Management Company (New York Yankees ace Roger Clemens). Today, SFX represents one-sixth of the players in the National Basketball Association and major-league baseball. SFX has closed in considerably on industry leader IMG, the Cleveland-based international sports agency whose founder, Mark McCormack, invented sports marketing by turning Arnold Palmer from a golfer to a brand in the early '60s. IMG represents, among others, the Pope. The best SFX can counter with is Bono.

Controversy has dogged SFX for years. A few years ago, basketball agents and executives complained that Falk was representing SFX clients who were negotiating with the Washington Wizards whose part-owner at the time was Jordan, not only Falk's reputation-making client but also a source of income from marketing commissions. They feared Falk would favour Jordan and Washington, but before the issue came to a head Jordan sold his interest so he could play with the Wizards.

Last year two top baseball agents, Jim Bronner and Bob Gilhooley, sold their agency to SFX but instead of remaining to manage the division as Falk and Grossman and others, they were fired and filed a $60-million lawsuit against SFX.

Many hockey agents were concerned that once Grossman joined SFX, he would adopt the practices of the mother company. "The way that SFX lands its concert promotions is by promising bands like U2 $100-million up front, before they play a note, and the company makes its money on the back end," said one independent agent who asked not to be named. "If an agent with huge financial resources at his disposal operated that way unchecked (by the NHLPA) it would be very hard, maybe impossible, to compete."

More immediately troublesome for agents and the NHLPA was the acquisition of SFX for $4.4-billion U.S. by Clear Channel Communications, a broadcasting titan whose vice-chairman is Tom Hicks, owner of the NHL's Dallas Stars and baseball's Texas Rangers. The NHLPA and other agents howled about conflict of interest.

The NHLPA ordered SFX to divest its interests in its hockey division, so Grossman bought back his shop this spring and renamed it Puck Agency. The players' association is satisfied that SFX and Grossman have complied, though one agent called it "a paper wall." Grossman's offices are still in Clear Channel's building on 42nd Street and SFX officials admit that they have "a close relationship" with Grossman.

Grossman's agency has operated in the shadow of Falk and his hoops division. At the 2001 NBA draft, Falk landed the top selection, Georgia high schooler Kwame Brown, and nine of the top 28 players in the first round. And though there's no evidence that Falk drew his stable of players by paying them up front, he effectively did so by foregoing a commission on his draftees' first contracts, expecting far higher returns on second and third-year deals. (NBA entry contracts require little negotiation because a cap on rookie salaries is set by the NBA's collective agreement.)

Yet you could argue that Grossman had a greater impact at the NHL draft than Falk had at the NBA gala. After the Thrashers selected Kovalchuk with the first pick, two players from the Avangard team based in the Siberian outpost of Omsk, Alexander Svitov and Stanislav Chistov, both SFX clients with Grossman their agent, were picked by Tampa Bay and Anaheim the third and fifth overall. Many scouts rated Chistov as the second-best talent in the draft. The key to SFX's fortunes, however, was Kovalchuk.

As a 17-year-old with Spartak, Kovalchuk played against pros in their 20s and 30s in the Russian elite league, scoring 35 goals in 47 games. Before his first NHL shift, Kovalchuk was being compared to Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. The Thrashers signed him to a three-year, $1.1-million U.S. contract (the maximum allowed by the rookie salary cap) but incentive bonuses raised his earnings to $4.4-million U.S. (and Grossman's commission for the year to around $150,000, before endorsements). A finalist for the league's Calder Trophy which will be awarded this week, Kovalchuk astonished even his most optimistic backers by ranking among the league's top scorers until a shoulder injury ended his season in March. "He might be the best one-on-one player in the league," Detroit Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman told reporters. And perhaps the ultimate measure: The value of Kovalchuk's rookie hockey card made a record jump to more than $1,000 U.S.

None of David Falk's clients made a first impression like Kovalchuk's. He seemed to not only have a chance to someday earn $10-million a season but also could offer his agent priceless clout -- as Jordan had for Falk. Those destined for the pantheon not only put their agents in the news but serve as magnets, attracting others into the fold. It is reasonable to suppose that Grossman's association and success with Kovalchuck would enhance his reputation among players he would seek to recruit in Russia and elsewhere no less.

It was certainly a factor in Grossman landing Anton Babchuk, a defenceman with the Elemash club in the Russian elite league, who is projected by scouts to be selected high in the first round at next weekend's draft in Toronto.

Neither would it hurt his chances of representing two young Russian forwards who are inspiring comparisons to Kovalchuk. Nikolai Zherdev, a fleet if mercurial forward, is ranked as the top European eligible for the 2003 draft. Alexander Ovechkin was the leading scorer at the world under-18 tournament in April, which featured most of the top European and American talent eligible for the 2002 draft. But the 16-year-old Dynamo Moscow centre cannot be drafted by an NHL team until 2004. Grossman said that he did not believe that either Zherdev or Ovechkin had representation and hinted that his agency could well be in the hunt.

At the best of times recruiting is a nasty business and the bigger the stakes the nastier it gets. Jay Bouwmeester, a defenceman with the Medicine Hat juniors and the probable top pick in next weekend's draft, is a case in point. Bouwmeester is represented by Byron Baltimore, an Edmonton-based agent who is not a big-name. One high-profile agent privately admitted that he went into this season with two strategies for landing Bouwmeester -- one involved buying Baltimore's business and bringing him on staff, the other, baldly stealing the teenager if Baltimore wouldn't co-operate. (To the surprise of many Bouwmeester remains Baltimore's client and his alone.)

Though Grossman had been a goaltender, he glided like a figure skater around questions about how he landed Kovalchuk.

"It's understandable that there is a lot of turnover -- players changing agents -- in Russia," he said. "There are a lot of agents or would-be agents on the ground there. Though there's a lot of expertise about developing talent in Russia, the business of pro hockey is something still new to them. It's still a culture adjusting to the free market."

To commit to Grossman, Kovalchuk had to fire Scott Greenspun. "Kovalchuk was recruited by an agent we brought in not long before, Andrei Belmatch, a former player and manager of the old Soviet Wings team," Greenspun said. "But a few months before the draft we figured that Belmatch was getting ready to leave us (for another agency) and Kovalchuk was going to go with him."

Greenspun had it half right. He rightly assumed that Kovalchuk and Belmatch were jumping ship but to Mark Gandler.

Gandler, who wasn't in the picture, would only discuss generalities, leaving it to others to connect the dots: "Players will go to people who offer money up front. I won't do that. Some agents have greater resources than I do. I have to look at players who are willing to wait ... and look at the long term. I have had to change my approach and expectations (in Russia)."

Like Greenspun, Paul Theofanous, a Manhattan-based agent, lost a Russian client -- Stanislav Chistov -- to Grossman. Theofanous's consolation was that he had been at least the second agent to whom Chistov had committed.

"I recruited Chistov when he was came over as a 15-year-old and played and went to a high school in California," Theofanous said. "But all the work you do doesn't matter a lot of the time. It's all driven ultimately by money up front. It's not unusual for $100,000 to change hands. That's what happened to me. And the turn-over doesn't stop when they sign. Those who have switched agents once -- or been bought -- are the most likely to switch again."

Grossman insisted that he doesn't play that game. "In terms of support, we can offer a lot that others can't," he said. "Our kids spent a few weeks in Pittsburgh with the top instruction training for the scouting combines (physical tests leading up to the draft). Some agents can't offer that. When it comes to financial services, marketing, investments, SFX can do a lot more than one agent working alone."


The Fort Lauderdale draft was a moment of triumph for Grossman, he and SFX hit a bad patch of ice after that. The story serves as a cautionary tale for agents recruiting in Russia, where too often a sure thing is never as sure as it seems.

Last fall, while Kovalchuk was making headlines with the Atlanta Thrashers, Grossman's other high-profile teenagers from the 2001 draft, Svitov and Chistov, both 19-year-olds, were thousands of kilometres from the NHL. They were stuck in Omsk, Siberia. The clubs that had drafted them, Tampa and Anaheim, were in a tug of war with the Avangard team in the Russian elite league, whose officials wanted to hold onto these young players just as their talents were about to bloom. They believed the players were worth far more than the standard $50,000-per player transfer fees that the club would have received from the NHL. Grossman might have been able to negotiate their release had it not been for Avangard owner Anatoli Bardin, a Siberian oil baron and sports entrepreneur whose gift for the outrageous is two-parts George Steinbrenner and one part Nikita Khrushchev. Bardin recruited the Russian army to help him stymie the NHL teams.

Both Svitov and Chistov had contracts to play the 2001-2 season and through 2005 with Avangard but an agreement between the International Ice Hockey Federation and the NHL stipulates that any player who signs with a drafting club before July 15 can void his contract in his homeland. Svitov signed a $3-million. contract with Tampa on July 14, 2001, and figured on spending the 2001-02 campaign with the Lightning. Chistov didn't sign but he wanted to stay in the U.S. into the fall so that Anaheim's medical staff could oversee his rehabilitation from a knee injury.

Bardin went ballistic. He convinced military officials to draft Svitov and Chistov into the army, relying on another IIHF-NHL pact that prohibits military personnel from signing an NHL contract.

"Tampa contacted the Russian federation about me signing a contract," Svitov told the Russian press. "They sent me (to the army centre) pretty quickly after talk about my contract got out. I was naive to believe such consequences would not occur."

"Bardin (told me) that if I did not return I would be declared a deserter," Chistov said.

But Bardin's plans back-fired in a way he couldn't have imagined. Last fall on a road trip to Moscow, Svitov and Chistov were taken at gunpoint by military police from the hotel where the Avangard team was staying. Army officials then advised Bardin that as servicemen Svitov and Chistov could only play for army teams, not his privately owned Russian league club. For almost the entire season, the two teens made not one thin ruble, not playing, not even skating.

"I ended up in the same (army) division where I already spent (the season) serving military duty playing for Omsk," Svitov told Soviet Sport. "I didn't get to jump with a parachute though I would not have been surprised to serve in the airborne forces for an entire year."

"I spent my time (at the army centre) painting fences," Chistov said. "For 11 days I did not do a thing, though I wore army boots."

Bardin accused Svitov and Chistov of not appreciating his club's role in their development and accused the NHL of an imperialist attitude toward Russian teams. Clearly, he had an ulterior and predictable motive: Having caught a whiff of the money, he wanted to squeeze as much coin as possible from the NHL clubs. "There will be a court session in Florida where we, acting as plaintiffs, will demand that Tampa pay us for Svitov," Bardin said, though he has yet to file a suit against either the Lightning or the Mighty Ducks.

Chistov maintained it was just a ruse. "(Bardin) wanted us to fire Grossman," he said. Perhaps, but word in Russian hockey circles was that Bardin was willing to deliver Svitov to Tampa Bay for $500,000 U.S., 10 times the player transfer fee to which he was entitled under agreements between the NHL and the IIHF.

Grossman allowed that the impasse with Bardin might not only be a setback for his players but also have a chilling effect on the NHL, scaring teams off from drafting Russian prospects. "The agreement between the IIHF and the NHL is pretty straightforward and (Bardin) clearly tried to circumvent. Hopefully it can be straightened out in time but (going into the 2002 draft) some NHL teams might have concerns about drafting Russian players." No doubt NHL teams other than Tampa and Anaheim were watching Svitov's and Chistov's progress with interest.

By December, Svitov and Chistov had made it as far as Moscow. They were skating with a Russian army club but they couldn’t play in league games. They still had a chance to showcase their skills at the world junior tournament in the Czech Republic over New Year’s and at another tourney in St. Petersburg in April but it was going to be hard to be in game shape. Svitov admitted to feeling “psychologically empty,” Chistov to being “bitter at how things turned out.” Every agent recognized this discontent and despair as the stuff of which client defections are made.


Early last January, at an arena in Pardubice, about 100 kilometres east of Prague, Stanislav Chistov skated off the ice with a gold medal around his neck. The Russian team had just won the world under-20 championship with a thrilling 5-4 victory over Canada. With the Canadians ahead 3-1 in the second period, Chistov scored a sensational goal on a Russian powerplay and started a four-goal rally. In the scouts’ opinion he was the best player on the ice. For his part, Alexander Svitov struggled in that final game as he had throughout the tournament. He only distinguished himself when he was suspended following an opening-round game for spitting on a Canadian forward. Nonetheless scouts still rated Svitov an elite talent.

Grossman’s clients were at least playing and this should have been good news. Yet he didn’t seem as happy as his competitors.

Rival agents were taking delight in the rumour that Svitov was ready to fire Grossman and that Svitov was shopping for his fourth—or was it his fifth—agent. The rumour gained validation when a letter appeared in the Moscow-based Sport Express, a letter signed by both players and addressed to the NHLPA. The letter was dated November 5, 2001 and in it the players state (in Russian): “Jay Grossman and his associates have paid certain sums to our parents (and we were) under pressure to work with him.” The players cited this tortuous and frustrating season as the reason for their request to break their contracts with Grossman. (The players later recanted, claiming that they had been coerced into the signing the letter. NHLPA officials would not comment about the letter nor confirm that they had received it. The players took no subsequent action against Grossman.)

The glory of the under-20 tournament would fade once Svitov and Chistov were back in Moscow, practicing but not playing, eating army rations and envying Kovalchuk’s millions.

Grossman and Azrilyant knew this when the Russian team skated off the ice with their medals. Chistov hardly looked in the mood to celebrate. Pats on the back from his agent didn’t help his mood. When questioned by English-speaking reporters he feigned complete ignorance of the language. “I could have done more if I had a chance to paly in more games this season,” he said with Azrilyant translating.

Grossman and Azrilyant went to follow their client down the corridor to the Russian dressing room but were blocked by a beefy Czech policeman. He pointed to the laminated passes around their necks and said that they need the ones designated for team officials. Behind the policeman, meeting Chistov in the doorway to the dressing room, was Mark Gandler, who was wearing one of those team passes. As Grossman peered around the big cop Gandler gave Chistov a bearhug and then the two disappeared from sight.

Grossman was slack-jawed but only for a moment. Nobody plays the agents’ game with these precocious talents is naïve enough to believe that getting clients will be harder than keeping them. Gandler didn’t scalp Chistov or Svitov that night nor was he necessarily trying to. They would stick with Grossman through this lost season. But with these players and in these arenas the threat is constant and though there are rules it seems the only ones enforced apply to the passes required for access to the dressing rooms.


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