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Dixon: Wooing UFAs a whole new ballgame

Brad Richards took less from the Rangers due to other factors. (Getty Images)

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Brad Richards took less from the Rangers due to other factors. (Getty Images)

Judging by what occurred this off-season, signing UFAs has become nearly as much of a team effort as scoring and preventing goals.

When Brad Richards became the most prominent man to hit the open market, teams waited in line to make their pitch. The Los Angeles Kings sent an eight-man delegation to the Toronto suburb of Mississauga, where the office of Richards’ agency, Newport Sports, is located. The building was also visited by Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman and members of the Toronto Maple Leafs staff. Richards ultimately signed with the Rangers, who didn’t make an in-person pitch, but did have the trump card of a successful pre-existing relationship between Richards and Blueshirts coach John Tortorella from their Cup-winning days in Tampa.

Still, Columbus GM Scott Howson, who made a splash by trading for and ultimately signing offense-minded blueliner James Wisniewski, believes getting in the same room with a prospective signee is of serious significance. “It can be really advantageous to get in front of the player,” Howson said. “That 1-to-1 personal contact is really important. The player gets to look you in the eye and see what you’re about, or try to see what you’re about, brief as the time is.”

Teams have always made strong, in-person pitches to prospective signees, but the process is evolving now to include entourages that represent all aspects of the organizations, mainly because under a salary cap system, the total dollars being offered by interested parties are more or less the same, even if some clubs are more willing to front-load deals. “Before, you’d just say, ‘all right, someone just blew me out of the water outspending Team X; I have no choice, you kind of have to go,’ ” said Paul Krepelka, an agent with the Orr Hockey Group. “Now, very rarely is that the case, so all these other factors play a huge role.”

Those factors, as one might guess, often include the player’s projected role on the team and the overall direction of the club. But it can also be about the way players are treated within the organization and how a player’s family can make a home in a new city. Huge dollars usually carve out a direct path to anybody’s heart, but with more emphasis than ever being placed on secondary considerations, negotiation rooms have become filled with people who can speak to those concerns. “I think it’s become more sophisticated, more professional, more people involved,” Howson said. “We certainly had our owner, John P. McConnell, ready to talk to people.”

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The Kings’ presentation to Richards reportedly included messages from Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant and none other than Wayne Gretzky himself. You have to think any team would be happy to have No. 99 lobby on its behalf and Krepelka said feedback from current players and potential new teammates does carry a lot of weight. However, while he understands why teams with the means to get celebrities to endorse their city would pull that string, he doesn’t think it does much to sway typically down-to-earth NHLers: “Hockey players, as we all know, are a unique breed and I don’t think they pay any attention to that nonsense. They don’t care if Jay-Z is telling them to come to New York.”

This article orginally appeared in the August, 2011 issue of The Hockey News.

Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesdays.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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