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.
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.