Why agents are targeting younger hockey players

Damien Cox talks about the top prospects approaching the NHL draft, with some top rankings (aside from Auston Matthews) still being shuffled around.

St. ALBERT, Alberta — The 38th annual John Reid Memorial Bantam AAA tournament opens here today, one of the premier tournaments for 14- and 15-year-olds in Western Canada. In the stands will be scouts from all 22 Western Hockey League teams, and a few NCAA scouts as well.

And in 2016, a third group will be hanging around the rink in this Edmonton suburb: Agents, whose business has evolved to the point where they’re approaching bantam-aged kids and their parents as possible clients.

“Back in the day when I started (1985), there were literally probably a dozen agents,” begins veteran, Certified Player Agent Steve Bartlett of Sports Consulting Group, over the phone from Pittsford, N.Y. “Most of my recruiting came from word of mouth, and anyone I did recruit was 17, 18 years old. Entering the NHL draft. I was comfortable with that.”

Today, the NHLPA certifies nearly 200 separate agents who advise players that sign Standard Player Contracts with NHL teams. There are an unknown number of non-certified agents who may try to lure clients well ahead of their draft year however, making contact at tournaments like this one and often working for a fee as bird dogs for the big agents.

“Until you start negotiating a professional contract, an agent is not necessary,” said former NHL goalie and Sportsnet analyst Corey Hirsch. “Not for a contract with a major junior team. The money and education packages are pretty much standard, and if you’re paying them to do a junior contract, you’ve got the wrong agent. That advice should be free.

“And if they buy you anything – anything — if they spend one penny on you, your NCAA eligibility is gone.”

Hirsch actually hired Bartlett to do his first pro contract, and I’ve known Bartlett for 25 years. All I can say about him is the most complimentary thing one could say about a player agent: If my own son was going to be a professional hockey player, I would trust his professional affairs to Bartlett.

Not all agents are trench coat-wearing, promise-making, sleazeballs, as portrayed in the movies. Most are honest professionals, and as a parent the chore is not to get fooled by the sleazy ones before finding the honest ones. And believe me, I’ve known both.

Today, as they gather in St. Albert to watch a bunch of kids who are preparing for the WHL’s Bantam Draft, their business has forced them to places many didn’t ever want to go.

“I’ve been around long enough. I have enough clients,” one older mega-agent told me a few weeks ago. “But the young guys in my firm, if they want to build a stable they’ve got to build it at places like (the John Reid tournament).”

Years ago when there were 30-some agents, there were plenty of players to go around.

“Now we have a situation where there are between 150 and 200 certified agents,” Bartlett explains. “This isn’t a traditional marketplace, because there are always going to be 700-750 NHL players – whether there are 200 agents or 500 agents. It becomes a feeding frenzy, because 200 people are dividing that 750-player pie, not 20.

“(Incoming agents) realize that every good 17-year-old is aligned with an NHL agent. So they go after the 16-year-olds. Then the 15-year-olds. Now they figure ‘It’s OK to watch 14-year-olds.’”

It’s comparable to how today’s Connor McDavid has become a one-sport kid, said Hirsch, where Wayne Gretzky used to put his hockey gear away in May and pick up a ball glove or a lacrosse stick for the summer. Year-round hockey is seen by parents to be a necessity to keep up with the others who have chosen that route.

Then a few of those kids’ parents align with an agent for their 14-year-old, and the other parents stress out over holding their son back by not giving him the same guidance. “It becomes a status issue. Parents think they’re missing out,” said Hirsch, whose 15-year-old son plays for the Jr. Coyotes Midget AAA team in Arizona.

“One, we’re robbing kids of their childhoods,” Bartlett said. “They should be more concerned with getting better, than the business relationship.

“Two, as a business model, trying to decide whether a 14-year-old is going to be an NHL player at 21 or 22 creates a problem for the agents,” Bartlett said. “When is it going to stop? Are we going to ne hanging around maternity wards with good blood lines soon?”

Agents can begin advising a player at age 14, but he likely won’t sign his first pro contract until he is 20. Agents get about four percent of a player’s salary, so if a mid-round draft gets a two-way deal worth $70,000 in the AHL and $700,000 in the NHL, the agent makes $2,800 per year when he’s in the minors, and $28,000 if he plays in the NHL.

The John Reid boasts that about 110 participating players have gone on to play in the NHL. This year there are about 300 players on the 16 teams. Times that by 28 years, and between 15-20 percent have gone on to the NHL.

“I have a real ethical dilemma with what we’re being forced to do to be competitive in this industry. And I’m not above the fray,” Bartlett said. “That’s the evolution of the biz, much of which I am embarrassed about, to tell the truth.”