The world’s new practice of social distancing can take on many forms, as Ritch Winter learned through a phone call earlier this week.
“One player I reached on the phone was driving somewhere and I said, ‘where are you headed?’ and he said ‘I don’t know, but my wife needed me to get out of the house as much as I needed to get out of the house,’” said the Edmonton-based player agent.
“I had another player ask me, ‘how can we have a season – we can’t even work out? How can we even think about proceeding without a training camp?’”
NHL player agents have long worn many hats. It’s the nature of the gig.
But some of the ones they’re wearing these days are significantly different given the unknowns the world is facing with COVID-19 and the abrupt halt it brought to pro sports.
“I would say I’m as busy as I’ve ever been,” said Allan Walsh from his home office in Los Angeles where he deals with a large clientele of Europeans.
“The NHL and AHL said players are on their own for booking flights, so first and foremost it was a mad dash to get some of them home before borders and flights shut down. But the primary thing at a time like this is providing players and their families information, which is key.”
Some players are on social media and staying up on the latest developments, while others are, well, in the dark.
“I have one player in the AHL who was holed up in his apartment, thinking he had to stay there, as per the league’s original instructions,” said Dallas-based Jarrett Bousquet of Titan Sports Management.
“I said, ‘did you not see the memo two days ago where all players can go back to their homes worldwide?’” He said, ‘oh really?’ – and he got the next flight out. Some of the players don’t check emails regularly, or refresh Twitter every 45 seconds like I do. So we’re making sure they’re getting the NHL and NHLPA memos and enforcing their rights.”
Bousquet said that because things were changing on an hourly basis last week, he was on the phone non-stop, trying to answer questions his players had.
“The number one thing we’re telling guys is, ‘respect the disease and take it very seriously,’” said Bousquet, who represents players at every level.
“We’re telling guys to stay home, keep in shape, eat well and be ready because they are still being paid.”
It’s easier said than done as some players have exercise equipment at home, while others either rely on hotel gyms or must do modified workouts in their apartment.
With so much uncertainty surrounding the ramifications of COVID-19’s spread, players, like everyone else, have concerns.
And in many cases, agents are turned to first for answers, support and direction.
“When people ask me at sports law conferences or on the radio, ‘what’s the one resource you provide to players more than anything else, I say, ‘it’s being a psychologist,’” said Walsh, who has a large stable of clients through Octagon Athlete Representation.
“That’s what you’re doing on a daily basis. They’re calling you and they are up or down or frustrated and angry. Your job is trying to bring them into neutral as quickly as you can so they can focus on what they need to do. Guys panic, overreact, underreact and you’re the one who can help them more than anyone else, even parents. Right now there’s a lot of that going as every player has got a different situation.”
Some veterans are wondering if they’ve played their last NHL game, while all free agents worry about what this stoppage means to their future.
The initial logistics of moving players around the globe once various seasons were paused or cancelled included agents being travel agents and even negotiators with landlords trying to extend or shorten leases for players.
Some players aren’t feeling well and wonder what their course of action should be.
That sort of concern was echoed by many who worry, like many around the world, about their children, their wife, their parents and their grandparents.
Understandably, this is all a little overwhelming for some.
“Players sometimes just want someone to talk to,” said Neil Sheehy from his office in Minneapolis, where he is also busy trying to broker NHL deals for some of his U.S. college grads.
“Guys are asking, ‘what should I do?’ I say, ‘go to the place you are the most comfortable.’ The more veteran guys really don’t say too much. The younger guys now have a plan and they’re getting home.”
Every agent says one of the hardest things for their clients to navigate through is the absence of structure, which has dominated their lives to this point.
“These guys have been on a schedule every hour of their life since they were ten, so when that goes away they get uncomfortable,” said Bousquet.
“People have their own space and time through a lifestyle they’ve developed, and they’re all home now,” added Winter.
“A hockey players’ life is the same every day unless they are on holiday. There’s a big void now in terms of, ‘what can we do?’”
One thing the large majority of players aren’t doing is media.
“I think there’s some nervousness of players not wanting to say the wrong thing,” speculated Winter.
“They’re probably getting phone calls from everybody they know and no one knows for sure what’s next.”
Until they do, they’ll continue to lean on agents more than ever.
Perhaps the best news is that teams, players and agents have all worked well together to try making these trying times as easy as possible for everyone.
“What I’m hearing is there has been unprecedented cooperation between the Players’ Association and the league,” said Walsh.
“There really is a sense, ‘we’re all in this together.’”