TORONTO – Player agents do more good than harm was the consensus among Brian Burke, Don Meehan, and Pat Brisson, the third group to pass through the Great Hall at the Hockey Hall of Fame on opening night of the Molson Canadian World Hockey Summit. The agent for mature NHLers has a fairly straightforward job – to negotiate contracts. But, an agent for a 16-year-old has a much greater role and impact, be it positive or negative.
“There is not one solution,” said Burke, GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs and GM this past season for the United States at the Olympics and World Championship. “Every player is different, his size, his skill, his personality and education and makeup. The agent is a useful part of the process. At 16, a player can use an agent for guidance because the kid hasn’t experience in any matters concerning professional hockey.”
Burke expanded on the process of player-agent relations and making the NHL an objective for all concerned. “When a player signs a contract, we’re all on the same page that day – we all want him to play in the NHL, the kid, the parents, the agent, the general manager. Our best chance to get that kid on the ice is to work with the agent. We’ll give the kid a chance to make it by telling him what his weaknesses are and tell him to improve. But the agent has to reinforce our opinion. There have been times we’ve had to try to break a player-agent relationship because there’s no way the kid can make it if he’s being advised differently by his agent from what we believe.”
Don Meehan, the busiest agent in the business, elaborated on the process from his point of view. “If you’re talking about elite players, there’s no secret any more who the elite players are. Invariably, though, we’re getting calls not from kids but from parents. Like Brian said, we play an important role in managing expectations. If you’re going to be a successful agent, you have to be both a lawyer and a scout. You have to know the business and also have a sense if that player is going to make it to the NHL and what his talent level is."
Contrary to popular belief, agents don’t simply sign any 16-year-old who can skate and promise him a starting position in the NHL in four years’ time. “You have to be realistic and know not all players are going to make the NHL,” Meehan said. “That elite constituency numbers about 725. We have to be realistic from the beginning. I always start by saying to a family that the odds of making the NHL are not very good.”
Colleague Pat Brisson, pre-eminent agent of Sidney Crosby and many other NHLers, agreed. “We try to be selective. We look at many teenagers trying to figure out where they’ll be at 22 or 23 years of age. We approach the parents first, explain what we do, make our sales pitch. Once we make a commitment to a player and family, we stick by our player. We stick to our word, but of course there are times when we and a player part.”
Burke summarized his opinion succinctly: “Parents are the worst judges of talent for a kid. If you think your kid needs an agent at 14, you’re probably wrong.”