Monday, November 9, 2009

Pigs

One of the benefits of going to work before the sun rises (aside from the opportunity to observe every phase of the moon in great detail) is the chance to listen to some interesting radio from foreign countries. The CBC overnight service always has something earcatching on, and last week was particularly fun. The BBC feed featured a great reading of George Orwell's "Animal Farm," by crusty, rumbly South African actor John Kani. I hadn't heard the story since I read it in grade nine, but, listening to it again, I couldn't help thinking how much it reminds me of pro hockey agents.

Before the institution of the NHL draft in 1963, pro scouts fought living room wars over the best players. It wasn't uncommon for the parents of a 15-or-16 year old player to sign a "C" form with a team that, in effect, bound their son to that team forever. Or at least until the team decided to trade or release him. Young players belonging to stacked teams like the Habs were often doomed to spend their entire pro careers in the minors because they weren't free to seek NHL employment elsewhere. Those who were lucky enough to land a job on one of the six big-league teams got paid peanuts in relation to their conributions to the owners' bottom lines and their own roles in establishing the pro game. Pillars of the sport, like Maurice Richard, who had to sell fishing line to pay the bills after his retirement, and Gordie Howe, who wrote a bitter account of his post-hockey life without a financial safety net established during his playing days, should have been set for life and instead had little wealth to show for years in pro hockey. It was even worse for the workaday guys who couldn't fall back on their celebrity to score some speaking gigs or spots on boards of directors. In other words, the system used the players and told them they should be glad to have the chance to be used in the first place.

Bobby Orr and the now-disgraced Alan Eagleson changed everything. Orr had superstar talent, charisma and a degree of stubbornness rarely seen in a player of his stature before. The Bruins wanted him badly, but Orr wasn't about to sign on for the piddling $8000 most rookies were receiving. He called in Eagleson to negotiate the deal on his behalf and emerged with a then-shocking $25000 deal, making him the highest-paid player in the league at the time. Players around the NHL looked at the Orr contract with new eyes, realizing that they did have some power after all, and that maybe agents were the way to go toward exercising it.

Just as in Orwell's tale, the mistreated stood up and took control of their own destinies. Player salaries began to increase with the advent of agents and the expansion that opened better competition among teams for players. Then, with the advent of the WHA and some real competition for the NHL, salaries soared. Suddenly, the altruistic agent who may have gotten into the business with some sort of idea of protecting hockey players' best interests could make a ton of money by negotiating a contract on those players' behalf.

In Animal Farm, the pigs began their reign in the barnyard with the well-being of all animals in mind, until power made them greedy and they began to arrange things to serve their own interests instead. I think we're seeing that happening with agents, to some degree. Eagleson is still the most egregious example of an agent taking his players to the cleaners, having swindled many of them, including Orr, out of their life savings. Last year we heard about Sergei Fedorov's ex-agent allegedly bilking him out of 43-million bucks. Those are the headline examples of agent corruption. But lots of times, I suspect it's a more subtle sort of thing. A word here or there about a team that might determine where the player signs and for what kind of deal. A promise made or a message incorrectly passed on or a phone call forgotten could all make the difference in a player's choices and the amount of money in an agent's pocket.

Where the scouts warred for teenaged players in the fifties, these days it's agents. It's rare for a really talented fifteen-year-old to have not at least been contacted by an agent. Many of them already have representatives in their employ. These guys make their money by getting the kids the best contracts they can, and don't always offer advice based on what's good for the player. To make matters worse, some young European players often have two agents...one in Europe and another in North America. As we saw in the case of Alexei Yemelin, when agents collide, the player can be the one who loses out. Yemelin said he intended to sign with the Canadiens last year, only to find his Russian agent had already accepted an offer from the KHL on his behalf.

In the latest edition of agents who cause more trouble for clients than they're worth, Jaro Halak's bonehead representative, Allan Walsh, managed to tick off the hockey establishment on Saturday night by tweeting that Carey Price has only won ten of his last 42 starts. He later claimed the message was meant to be "tongue-in-cheek." I think, however, he's misunderstanding the meaning of that phrase. "Tongue-in-cheek" means "to poke gentle fun at convention." What Walsh said was meant to be disruptive and divisive. There was nothing fun about it and there was nothing funny intended. It has to have been embarrassing for Halak and Price both. The only benefit I can see coming from his statement is for Walsh himself. Perhaps he's hoping if he points out Price's bad numbers it'll somehow get Halak a more lucrative deal from Bob Gainey at the end of the season, from which, of course, Walsh gets a hefty cut.

If I were Halak, I'd think about getting rid of Walsh. Alex Ovechkin and his mom negotiated their own deal with the Capitals, and everyone seems happy with that. At least you know his mom probably really does have his best interests in mind, rather than her own cut of somebody else's kid's money. Of course, not every NHL player is capable of or interested in negotiating his own contracts. But it seems to me that retaining a guy at ten percent of your salary to work out a contract every couple of years is a waste of money. It would make more sense to hire a lawyer to do that at contract time, and save the rest of your dough. The bonus is the lawyer probably wouldn't be actively trying to pad his own wallet by publicly embarrassing your colleagues.

By the end of Animal Farm, nobody could tell the pigs from the humans and things were right back where they'd begun. Maybe NHL players could take a lesson from the story and understand that they're still being used, only the parasites these days aren't their bosses.

10 comments:

David said...

Brilliant. This should be required reading for the NHLPA.

Howard said...

Very interesting comparison. I have to wonder how much Matt Kator contributed to the traitor's becoming a traitor. Rhymes with Kator. The traitor used to be my favorite player so it was very disturbing to find he had signed with the unmentionables!

commentvatonclub said...

I think it may be the single best sports piece I've read this year so far, at least coming from Montreal. And before I go on, I'll tell you my credentials.

I own the top 15 sports books of all time (including The Game, Ball Four, Boys of Summer, Breaks of The Game, Moneyball, etc) and I've read many more, including Sometimes Life Gets In The Way by Michael Farber (yeah, you're like a young Farber out there). I've also managed to read the best sports pieces of all time ('Lawdy, Lawdy, He's Great' by Mark Kram being the definitive masterpiece). So I know a little bit about sports writing.

Now, I don't know what you do for a living, but whatever you do, keep writing this blog. I've learned a lot about writing the last 6th month I've been reading you. It even helps me with my own shit (Comment c'qui va ton club?). And that, my friend, is the highest praise I can give to a writer.

Keep it up!

Max

sheldon said...

The stat , 10 wins in his last 42 starts , is simply brutal, but it should not be looked at without saying that:
1. Price had just returned from an ankle injury.
2. The team was in a downward spiral.

Many,many more things to say here ,see Sk AK and mobster, but bottom line is ,it's Montreal and nothing hockey related is "tongue in cheek". Brutal move, looks terrible on Jaro, not sure if he will, but he should fire the pig.

Great post JT

J.T. said...

Thanks for the comments guys...they keep me writing!

Mr Trivia said...

Good stuff J.T.

I've had a beef with agents (and most unions) for quite sometime now. Once, as you mentioned, they were necessary for the good of the players, now they are greedy, bureaucratic entities looking out more for their own interests than the good of their clients...

But that's capitalism, right?

The agents are doing what they need to do to succeed. They argue, they negotiate, they play dirty. And then they get their big fat paychecks.

It's sad, but it's the system that we live in. Most of us are guilty of just going along with it.

Thanks for speaking up.

Michael said...

i hope you're getting paid to write these things, if not, you should think about getting yourself an agent.
seriously though, great read as always.

darren said...

Terrible article, J.T. Just the worst...

No, really, I wonder to what extent the dickish nature of a given agent may or may not effect that actual psychological attitude of his or her client (e.g., Halak). I mean: was Halak as blindsided by his agent's comment as the rest of us? Probably not, I'd think. But then I imagine his agent like some sort of poisonous eunuch, whose ill-intentioned whispers can effect an entire team. Dear lord, who else does this guy represent? Does his career offer any precedents of rocking his client's boat that we'd do well to look to as further warning?

Also, of all the reasons to like Ovechkin, the fact that his mother is his agent is a very great one.

Lyse said...

Bravo!

Excellent stuff. You are an inspiration.

Unfortunately, I'm still a newbie blogger but a long time reader...

Shan said...

From the agent's perspective, his intention may have been to rile people up, at the expense of dignity, fair practice, class, or even the best interest of himself or his client. But there are people who will do that, creating trouble just for the enjoyment of creating trouble. The effects of this one had to be fun to watch and at some point, when the dust settles, people might notice the stat itself. I'm not excusing what he did, but speculating why.

I wonder if I should still read Animal Farm considering the spoiler here.