"I should just go back to the old clichés all the time."
- San Jose defenseman Brent Burns, after his comment that he hoped his old Minnesota Wild team would go 0-82 sparked a Twitter firestorm from Minnesota fans.
"I should just go back to the old clichés all the time."
- San Jose defenseman Brent Burns, after his comment that he hoped his old Minnesota Wild team would go 0-82 sparked a Twitter firestorm from Minnesota fans.
Vancouver Canucks GM Jim Benning
Vancouver GM Jim Benning said he’d evaluate the deadline situation after they play their next five games, but even if they win every game, the Canucks should be selling come March 1.
With less than two weeks to the trade deadline, the Vancouver Canucks somehow sit a mere five points out of a wild-card spot in the Western Conference. Given the way the season started in Vancouver, that’s nothing short of miraculous because there was a time when fans were thinking more about what number Nolan Patrick would wear when he joins the Canucks than the possibility of post-season play.
The wonders of league parity have been at play, however, allowing Vancouver to pick their way back up the standings, fight their way into the conversation as one of the league’s bubble teams and make the trade deadline all the more confusing than it ever should have had to be for GM Jim Benning. For much of the early season, the Canucks were firmly in the seller category and speculation circled about which free agents-to-be would be gone come March. Now, instead of a fire sale, there seems to be real, honest to goodness talk about whether Vancouver is going to be selling or buying come the deadline.
“We’ve got five more games before the trade deadline,” Benning said in an interview with TSN 1040. “We still have some time. We want to see where we’re at going into the deadline and then, like I’ve said all year, we’ll talk to players, find out what their thoughts are and go from there.”
You can maybe understand where Benning is coming from. The Canucks made the post-season in his first year as the club’s GM, but the 2015-16 season was a disaster and 2016-17 started much the same. The playoffs are enticing, and with the West looking more wide open than in years past, there’s certainly some appeal to trying to sneak in, capture some magic and go on a deep run. But for Vancouver to do anything but sell right now would be absolutely foolish.
It’s not what one would call a bold prediction, but the Canucks aren’t going to win the Stanley Cup this year and it matters naught who they add come the deadline. The pieces, simply put, aren’t there. Daniel and Henrik Sedin still have magic left in their sticks as they inch closer to sailing off into the sunset, but on a team-wide basis, this isn’t a Vancouver club that’s in position to do much damage at all.
Look at it this way: Yes, the Canucks are five points out of a playoff spot with five games to go before the deadline, and yes, that means the Canucks could potentially have 66 points to their name by the time deadline day rolls around, but Vancouver has just 21 regulation or overtime wins to their name, tied for fourth-worst in the league, have a minus-30 goal differential, also tied for fourth-worst in the league, and they’ve produced a grand total of 138 goals this season, which is, you guessed it, fourth-worst in the league.
This is to say that to this point, Vancouver’s reaching this level of success this season has largely been a mirage, something underlying numbers also point out. For instance, Vancouver ranks 21st in the league in Corsi For percentage at 48.6 percent, they have the fifth-worst scoring chance for percentage in the league at 46.9 percent and, as far as expected goals for go, only the Colorado Avalanche and Arizona Coyotes rate worse at 5-on-5.
Even if Vancouver were to wiggle their way into the post-season, the Canucks’ stay would almost undoubtedly be a short one. And if all that adding a few pieces at the deadline is going to net you is a couple home games and a bit of extra revenue, why bother?
In their current position, the Canucks have to be thinking about long-term gain over short-term pain. Getting involved in buying at the deadline would be a fool’s errand for a team that should be retooling at this point. Sure, Vancouver stands to potentially inject some hope, however false, into the fan base, but it almost assuredly won’t pay off. This should be the time for the Canucks to look at the Coyotes, Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs, teams who have stockpiled picks in hopes of a bright future, and bring a piece of that to the West Coast. The rebuild doesn’t have to be the same or nearly as extreme, and it definitely won’t be while the Sedins remain in town, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to be similar.
That’s why making an acquisition at the deadline, no matter who it is, wouldn’t make all that much sense. First and foremost, the price for any player, no matter who, is upped at the deadline, and there’s simply no point in the Canucks participating if it means they’re giving up assets that could potentially be a fit down the line.
Say what you will for the first round of the upcoming draft — there’s a reason talk has been first-round picks could be thrown around without so much as a second thought — but there’s always the chance one of the draft picks the Canucks would potentially give up could hit. The same goes for prospects who haven’t quite made it yet. It always helps to have more potential, more chances, to find someone who can fit the organization than it does to have less. And you never know when a player might find their game.
The shame of it all is that Vancouver isn’t really in a position to be a big-time seller, either. Alexandre Burrows is the top UFA-to-be on the roster and he could draw some interest as a depth scorer, agitator and penalty killer. There could also be consideration given to shipping out Jannik Hansen or Alex Edler, and maybe someone would be willing to throw a pick Vancouver’s way for Jack Skille and Jayson Megna, both of whom are set to walk in July if they so choose. But even if the return is minimal on what Vancouver does have to sell off, now’s the time to do it.
In the coming seasons, the Canucks stand to bring Brock Boeser, Olli Juolevi and goaltender Thatcher Demko into the NHL, and that can add to a more youthful core highlighted by Bo Horvat, with Sven Baerstchi, Markus Granlund and Troy Stecher as the secondary players. That’s a solid group to work off of and build a future around, but buying and giving away assets now when a Stanley Cup is nothing more than a pipe dream would jeopardize the future. For the young core the Canucks are building to be successful in the future, they need to be supplemented by players who can contribute, not middling players barely able to move the needle.
The next few seasons are going to be the most important for the Canucks, as rebuilding the right way can make the future brighter than it has been in the past. Going in too soon, though, and buying into the status as a bubble team only serves to damage what could be. Regardless of the result of the next five games, the Canucks should either sell or stand pat. They’ll be thankful for it down the line.
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Capitals owner Ted Leonsis and Chinese billionaire Zhou Yunjie.
There has been an explosion of interest in winter sports in China and Zhou Yunjie wants to work with the NHL as a conduit to that market. The feeling is mutual.
LOS ANGELES – High above the ridiculousness that is the NHL All-Star Game, a 55-year-old Chinese billionaire looks on from his suite at the Staples Center. It’s the ultimate juxtaposition on a couple of levels. Chinese billionaires don’t often attend hockey games and this game doesn’t really represent anything remotely close to NHL hockey. At one point, an associate who hands out wooden business cards that cost five bucks each, pulls up a clip on his smart phone of a goalie making a diving save.
“I goalie,” the Chinese billionaire says proudly.
Meet Zhou Yunjie, the chairman of a company called ORG Packaging based in Beijing. In 2016, he was ranked No. 271 on Forbes’ China Rich List with a net worth of $1.2 billion, up from No. 348 the year before. When you’re this rich and accomplished, people call you Mister. So most people in North America refer to him as Mr. Zhou (pronounced JOE). And if he hadn’t already existed, there’s a good chance the NHL would have tried to invent him.
A billionaire whose goal is to grow hockey in the world’s most fertile and unexplored market? Are you kidding? With the 2022 Winter Olympics going to Beijing, there has been an explosion of interest in winter sports in China, a market that is continually grasping the concept of sports as a form of entertainment. And Zhou wants to work with the NHL as a conduit to that market.
“We are looking forward to future cooperation with the NHL,” Zhou told THN.com through a translator during all-star weekend. “I would really like to work with them.”
And the feeling is mutual. Deputy commissioner Bill Daly recently returned from a trip to China where he had meetings with seven different governmental and private sector companies in three days. ORG already has partnerships with the Boston Bruins, Washington Capitals and Los Angeles Kings. In fact, the Bruins will be holding their second ORG Night Sunday when they host the Montreal Canadiens and Zhou will be on hand to conduct the ceremonial faceoff. ORG was a sponsor of the World Cup of Hockey, had board advertising at the All-Star Game and currently has a deal with young Bruins’ star David Pastrnak. Daly told THN.com that the NHL and ORG are “in an advanced stage of discussions,” to have ORG on board as a league sponsor.
“Hockey is the No. 1 sport on ice. It’s marketable and there’s a big market there."
“We are thrilled with the relationship we and our clubs have established with Mr. Zhou and the interest he has shown, and the investment he has made, in the NHL,” Daly said in an email to THN.com. “Certainly it is helpful to have that relationship as we attempt to broaden and deepen our ties with the Chinese business community. But what we are finding is Mr. Zhou is not alone in his interest in hockey. There seems to be a real appetite in the Chinese business community to associate with the North American sports business. And we think we can be a beneficiary of that.”
The NBA has had a foothold in China for more than two decades now. This past year marked the 10th edition of the China Games featuring preseason games between two NBA teams, something the NHL hopes to replicate next fall with exhibition games featuring the Kings and Vancouver Canucks. The NBA is now a huge part of Chinese culture, aided by the fact that homegrown 7-foot-6 center Yao Ming had a Hall of Fame career with the Houston Rockets. Zhou Qi, a 7-foot-2 forward who was drafted in the second round last June by the Houston Rockets, is currently playing in the Chinese Basketball Association and hopes to follow in Ming’s footsteps.
As is the case with most non-traditional hockey markets, there is almost no grassroots connection to the game and that is a huge obstacle. But even that might be changing. The Chinese government is trying to build between 200 and 300 indoor rinks in the next couple of years and, funded by Zhou’s company, young Chinese players have been making pilgrimages to both Boston and Washington to do skill development with NHL teams. Two dozen young Chinese players just completed a 12-day camp at the Capitals practice facility and 25 more will spend the next couple of weeks working with the Bruins.
Zhou said there are currently about 2,000 kids and 100 clubs playing in the Beijing area, a number he said will grow with more state sponsorship of the game.
“People’s lives in China are getting better and they are turning to the concept of competition in the sports into entertainment,” said Richard Zhang, president of Ocean 24 Sports and Entertainment, who helps Zhou put together his deals in North America. “Hockey is the No. 1 sport on ice. It’s marketable and there’s a big market there. That’s why (Zhou) is putting his energy into this.”
It all started with a lunch meeting during the World Cup. Judd Moldaver, an agent with the CAA Agency that represents Pastrnak, thought it would be a good idea for Kings president of business operations, Luc Robitaille to meet Zhou. The Kings’ parent company, AEG, owns the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai and the MasterCard Center in Beijing.
The two hit it off over their lunch in Toronto and that led to Robitaille inviting Zhou to come to all-star weekend. And the best part of it all? Robitaille also invited Zhou to play goal in the celebrity all-star game that was held the day before the main event.
“He loves the game and he loves Bobby Orr,” Robitaille said. “He really enjoyed himself in the game and I think he and the guys got a big kick out of it.”
Zhou has been on Forbes’ billionaire list for two years now and is described by the magazine as a self-made billionaire. He founded his company along with his mother in 1984, starting with four employees. Almost a quarter of a century later, ORG is a publicly traded company that has about 4,000 employees and boasts Red Bull, Coca-Cola, Budweiser and Campbell’s Soup as some of its major clients. ORG is China’s leading producer of three-piece cans, which are used primarily for food, and two-piece cans, used for soft drinks and beer.
Zhou started playing hockey as a goalie in Beijing when he was 12 and has had a fascination with the sport ever since. He regularly watches NHL games and is interested in hockey not only as a business venture, but in growing the game in China on the grassroots level. According to the International Ice Hockey Federation, China currently has about 1,000 registered players, which means a hockey player is literally one in a million. With that kind of potential for growth, Zhou is using his partnerships with NHL teams to expose young players to the kind of coaching they need to become elite players.
“With people like that wanting to push the development of the game with us, it’s absolutely phenomenal."
Zhou has arranged for current and former Bruins to go to China to conduct hockey clinics in the summer and this coming summer, Capitals coach Barry Trotz and several alumni players will be making a trip to hold another camp. Zhou has also arranged for players from the Beijing Primary School to attend camps in both Boston and Washington. This week, the Bruins will host 25 players and the Capitals recently wrapped up a 12-day session with 24 players ranging in age from six to 12 that finished with a scrimmage against a group of local players at the Verizon Center between periods of the Capitals game against the Bruins Feb. 1.
“I was definitely pleasantly surprised,” said Dan Jablonic, the hockey director at the Kettler Capitals Iceplex. “I wasn’t sure what to expect, whether it was going to be a learn-to-skate, learn-to-play clinic, but they all could skate really well. I would say the majority of the players had ‘B’ or ‘A’ level travel skills and there were actually two players who were top players, who were definitely ‘AA’ or ‘AAA’ players.”
What Jablonic found with the players he coached was they had a very good handle on individual skills. He found a group of kids that listened well, worked very hard and kept their attention focused even at the end of the second of a two-a-day session.
“To see how well these kids listen was really a coach’s dream,” Jablonic said. “At the end of a two-a-day when most kids are really out to la-la land, these kids stayed focused and would sit and take a knee and listen and watch, even when they were tired.”
Where they are lacking, Jablonic said, was in game concepts and the team game, something he attributed to the fact that so many of the young players receive the bulk of their coaching in one-on-one settings. Jablonic said the one player he classified as a AAA player had tremendous individual skills, but found himself turning the puck over in game situations because he was trying to do too much on his own.
“We tried to get them to understand the concept of them really giving the pass and going to the open area and understanding that you might be skilled, but you have to utilize the other four players who are out on the ice with you to become a better player,” said Jablonic, who played at the University of Minnesota-Duluth and the ECHL before playing briefly in Sweden. “That’s a part of their game that was a little bit of a weakness, but they were willing to learn that. I was surprised at how well they moved the puck over the course of their time there and became willing to pass the puck, get it back and utilize the whole ice.”
And this is where the cultural differences might be something of an obstacle. As is the case in North America, a good number of former players have seen an opportunity to make a living as skills coaches in China and they have been coming from Russia and other former Soviet countries. There are even some Canadians coaching there. It has led to what Jablonic calls, “almost a figure skating model” where coaching is much more focused on the individual. That could change if the government does manage to build all those rinks and makes the game accessible to more people.
But development takes time. Lots of it. The Sunbelt states producing top players is a relatively new phenomenon and kids not having places to play is a barrier to development. Two years ago, the New York Islanders drafted Andong Song in the sixth round. Song was born in Beijing and began playing hockey there, but moved to Canada when he was 10 and now 20, is playing for the Madison Capitols of the USHL, where he has played 33 games with no points. Players who are willing to go to the lengths that Song and his family have gone to develop as hockey players might be the key to that development, at least in its infancy stages. Jablonic said that a number of players who took part in the most recent camp are already making plans to come back this summer for a deke and score school.
“I think it would be great for Hockey Canada and USA Hockey to help them with the proper development model,” Jablonic said. “I don’t agree with what they’re doing right now. You hear some of the coaches talk about it who were with this group and they were saying certain guys come in and they’re identifying players so early and if that coach has a group of really good mites or squirts, that doesn’t predict how good those kids are going to be as bantams and they’re excluding a bigger pool of players.”
There are critics of the development model over here that might complain about the same thing happening, but the difference here is the massive pool of players. But in terms of building the game, that’s where the NHL might come in. At least that’s what Daly found when he visited there.
“What I sensed was a real welcoming and open attitude to having us there, having us do more things there, making our games more available and accessible there,” Daly said. “They were very encouraging of us bringing our teams and games to China, helping and supporting the Chinese youth hockey infrastructure and assisting them in building a national program. In every one of the meetings I had, it was mentioned that while hockey doesn’t have as much exposure as basketball in China, our game was very popular with the Chinese youth and teenagers who were fascinated by the skill and pace of hockey played at a high level.”
So perhaps hockey isn’t just a unique fascination of one of the country’s billionaires, though having someone like that advocating for the NHL and the game certainly doesn’t hurt. As Daly pointed out, building and growing winter sports there is a priority at the highest levels of government. Hockey can’t help but benefit from that, but the NHL has to be there to showcase its product in more than just pre-season games. That will require it to send players there for the 2022 Olympics, which could be good news for those still holding out hope for 2018 in Pyeongchang. If the International Olympic Committee draws a line in the sand and says no Beijing without Pyeongchang, that could be enough to prompt the NHL to rethink its position.
Zhou, meanwhile, will keep pushing. He has had a number of meetings with both Daly and commissioner Gary Bettman and the two of them held a breakfast meeting during the all-star festivities to discuss business opportunities. And if the NHL is looking to maximize revenues, it could do worse than turn its efforts to a country with 1.4 billion people.
Or as Robitaille said: “With people like that wanting to push the development of the game with us, it’s absolutely phenomenal. It’s a great market and at the end of the day, if you grow the game, there’s more money for everyone.”
Bill Belichick. Image by: Steve Babineau/Getty Images
Love them or hate them, the New England Patriots know how to win, and here are five things the Patriots do that NHL teams should be doing more of.
So the Super Bowl was on Sunday, and you'll never guess who won.
Oh right, you would, because it was the team that wins all the time. The New England Patriots captured their fifth title of the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era, and second in the last three years. Factor in two other AFC championships and thirteen division titles in fourteen years, there's little doubt that the Patriots have established themselves as the model franchise in not just the NFL, but all of pro sports.
So what can NHL teams learn from them?
That's a bit of a tricky question. Hockey and football are very different sports. And many key Patriot trademarks, like smart drafting and development and game-planning to take away an opponents' strengths, are things that every team tries to do. More importantly, not every team can have an all-time legend at the sport's most important position fall into their lap with a sixth-round pick.
But there are some lessons that we can learn from the Patriots' success that would be applicable to other sports, and NHL coaches are apparently already taking note. So love them or hate them, here are five things the Patriots could probably teach your favorite hockey team.
Don’t be afraid of trading
Mention a trade to most NHL GMs, and you'll get a familiar refrain: It's too hard. The cap complicates everything, prices are too high, the market isn't quite set yet. You don't want to trade when things are going bad, because that's when you'll be pressured into a mistake. But you also don't want to trade when things are going well, because then you'll mess up your chemistry. Better to just sit back, play it conservative and stick with what you've got.
Meanwhile, the Patriots do this:
Patriots have made 62 trades outside of draft day since 2001, including 8 since the start of last offseason; both figures, most in the NFL.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) February 5, 2017
It's true that the trading landscape is very different in the NFL, the deadline comes much earlier in the season, and player-for-player trades are far rarer.
But the point is that the Patriots don't sit around looking for excuses to stand pat. They reshape the roster aggressively, even when they're having success, and they do it with every tool available to them. More than a few NHL GMs could learn a lesson from that.
For what it's worth, many of those Patriots trades fall into a specific category that could use its own section.
Deal your way down the draft
Belichick is the master of trading down in the draft, stockpiling picks along the way. It's become almost a punchline, and it doesn't work out every time, but the philosophy is clear: More picks are better than high picks.
We're seeing this sort of thinking trickle into the NHL, with mixed results. The Maple Leafs seemed to be following the Belichick model in 2015, trading down twice to turn a late-first-round pick into an early second, another second and a third. Then that first round pick turned into Travis Konecny, which might give some GMs pause when it comes to following the Leafs' lead.
Still, once you get past the top few picks, the NHL draft starts to feel like a lottery, and the best way to win a lottery is to have as many tickets as possible. The math says that trading down is usually smart, and it wouldn't be surprising to see more teams applying the idea as much as possible.
Belichick takes it one step further, occasionally trading a pick in the current draft for a better pick in future years. Legendary Habs' GM Sam Pollock was the master of that move, but today's NHL teams don't do it very often, leaving it as a tactic that could be open for exploiting.
Character counts, but don't pay for it
NHL teams love to talk about knowing how to win. To hear them tell it, winning isn't just an end goal – it's a skill, one that some people have and some just don’t.
That's why teams are so eager to get into bidding wars for players who have a reputation as a winner, and so eager to move on from anyone who doesn't fit that mold. Every year, we see huge chunks of cap space spent on character and intangibles. Never mind that those same deals often end up being among the very worst mistakes made each year, NHL GMs can't get enough of them.
Compare that to how things work in New England. You could say that they don't need to pay for winners, because they've already won. But that's the whole point. To the Patriots, a winning environment is something you build from the inside out, not something you go out and buy on the open market.
If anything, the Patriots go the other way – they target players who've been discarded elsewhere over concerns about attitude or intangibles. From Randy Moss to Chad Johnson to Corey Dillon to LeGarrette Blount, the Pats focus on skill, and let the character lesson take care of itself. Most hockey teams seem to prefer the reverse, and they pay for it.
Loyalty is for losers
That sounds harsh, but it's hard to argue that a big part of the fabled "Patriot way" involves discarding anyone who no longer fits the plan. That includes fan favorites, beloved veterans, guys who've won rings with you -- everyone. From Drew Bledsoe to Lawyer Milloy to Vince Wilfork to Jamie Collins, Belichick and the Patriots won't hesitate to send a star player packing if he doesn't represent value anymore.
Even Brady has suggested that Belichick would "absolutely" trade him too if he thought it made sense. He's not wrong.
Compare that approach to most NHL teams, who view loyalty as a sacred virtue. Letting an established player walk away for nothing is considered a cardinal sin in NHL circles, so GMs scramble to lock in as many players as possible to long-term deals. And if that player has helped you win a championship, well, you make sure they're taken care of. It's how otherwise smart teams end up signing albatross contracts like Bryan Bickell and Dustin Brown.
Granted, the NFL's lack of guaranteed contracts makes it easier to move on. But if anything, that should make NHL teams even more careful about falling into the loyalty trap, knowing how much it will cost to escape from those deals. Instead, GMs can't seem to help themselves.
Not the Patriots. When it comes to putting the best roster in place, they're absolutely heartless. That can be tough on fans who see their favorite players tossed aside, but it helps in the win column.
Exploit every advantage
Belichick and the Pats are famous for finding and exploiting every possible edge. New England fans call that smart. Fans of other teams have been known to call it "cheating," which is a debate for another day. But even if we put aside the video-taping, deflated balls and malfunctioning headsets, the Pats' mantra is clear: Do absolutely anything, no matter how small, that might help you on the scoreboard.
In a sense, this doesn't feel like it should be on the list, since it basically boils down to "always do everything you can to win." What team doesn't do that?
Well… plenty of NHL teams don't, at least when it comes to certain areas. Take offer sheets, for example. Young players just entering their prime are gold in today's NHL, and you'd think that poaching one from a rival would be a top priority for any GM. Instead, there's a virtual league-wide ban on taking advantage of a tool that's sitting right there for anyone to use.
That's just one example. Some teams refuse to ask their players to waive NTCs. Some still don't bother with analytics. Some refuse to exploit CBA loopholes. The list goes on. In the grand scheme, most of those examples are small things. But the Patriots realize that in a parity-driven league, the small things add up to big edges.
Let's face it, put Bill Belichick behind an NHL bench and he'd be calling for illegal stick measurements on every second play. Why? Because he could. Doing everything possible to try to win games shouldn't seem like a controversial stance to take, but in the NHL, it sometimes seems to be.
Sean McIndoe has been writing about the NHL since 2008; you may know him from Twitter as @downgoesbrown. His e-book, The 100 Greatest Players in NHL History, is available now. He appears weekly on TheHockeyNews.com.
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Illustration by Ben Shannon.
In the war to secure talent, agents are going after kids before they even hit their teens. Is it time to curb the chase?
There is a boy playing minor hockey in Toronto you haven’t heard about yet but probably will before too long. Then again, he could be out of hockey in three years or become a marginal player in junior or college hockey. We have chosen to not publish his name. But he’s very, very good. He’s attending an elite hockey academy in Toronto and is thriving a year above his age bracket for one of the top Triple-A organizations in the Greater Toronto Hockey League. He’s big and he’s skilled and he has lots of promise.
He’s also just 12 years old. And his family has been getting calls from player agents. The same agents who represent multimillionaires playing in the NHL have been contacting the parents of a 12-year-old kid. And he’s not the only one. Players, particularly in Canada’s biggest city, have become accustomed to being contacted by agents during their bantam years, (ages 13 and 14) and some of them already have representatives.
“He’s the one people think is ‘The Next One,’” said Anton Thun, a longtime player agent of M-Five Sports, of the player in question. “People think he might be the next Connor McDavid or John Tavares. Numerous agencies have spoken with the family and, quite honestly, we have spoken with the family. We’ve gotten information into his hands to let him know we exist. We’re not going to let other agencies come into our backyard and take the best player.”
Said another agent who requested anonymity, “It’s brutal and it’s getting out of hand. I don’t want to do it, but if I don’t, I’m going to be out of business. Now it’s not about who wins the battle, but who gets there first.”
Whether the NHL Players’ Association, which certifies and regulates player agents, is prepared to do something about it remains to be seen. Setting age restrictions was a hot topic at the NHLPA’s meeting with agents in the summer, and the union has since sent out a missive to agents to determine whether it’s an issue that needs to be addressed. And as the self-appointed pseudo-governing body for agents, it appears the NHLPA is the only institution that can save the agents from themselves on this one.
“The matter of the age restriction regarding recruiting is something that is somewhat on hold while the Hockey Summit discussions regarding draft age, development are ongoing,” said an NHLPA spokesman in an email, referring to the Hockey SENSE meetings that took place this summer, the second of which spent a good chunk of time focused on youth hockey.
As a group, the agents want to have age limits put on them when it comes to contacting prospects. For one, it levels the playing field for everyone. And it also means they can spend their time doing more productive things than chasing bantam players around cold local arenas. And lastly, the agents want this for the same reason Pat LaFontaine and his group are looking into a 19-year-old draft. The longer they give players to develop, the less chance there is for a mistake to be made by everyone involved.
“Back in the 1980s, we recruited 18-year-old kids,” Thun said, “but now I’m being asked to go watch a hockey game where there’s a 13- or 14-year-old kid.”
The only problem is that if one or two rogue agents chase after kids barely in their teens, everyone is forced to do it or risk missing out on the best players. It’s pretty much the same principle that guides the salary cap in the NHL. There’s no age limit on when U.S. college teams can recruit players, and there have been examples of kids barely in their teens committing to programs – albeit making commitments that are not binding when it comes to choosing between major junior hockey and the NCAA. The WHL has a bantam draft, and there is always talk the OHL might follow suit. So young kids are being expected to make monumental decisions, including whether they need an agent or family advisor.
But like so many other things it does well when it comes to dealing with young players, Sweden appears to have come up with a great way of dealing with this problem. There are about 50 agents/recruiters in Sweden, and they have an agreement with the Swedish players’ association that they cannot approach or be approached by any player prior to Jan. 1 of the year he turns 16. That coincides with the first time they have an opportunity to be selected for a national team. Every fall, the country holds its annual TV Puck tournament featuring the best 15-and-under players. That’s basically the first time elite players are identified, and by January, they can make contact with an agent. Agents who directly or indirectly contact players prior to the set date are first warned, then fined, then risk having their licenses revoked.
And the agents are also working with the Swedish Ice Hockey Federation to try to put sanctions in place that penalize players whose (often overaggressive) parents reach out to agents or sign an agreement with one.
“If I get a call from a parent looking for an agent, the first thing I ask, ‘So, you don’t have an agent?’ ”said longtime Sweden-based agent Claes Elefalk of CAA. “The second question is, ‘How old is he?’ And if it’s before Jan. 1 of the year he turns 16, I have to say, ‘Oh, we have a rule that means I need to hang up the phone immediately and you can only call me back the first of January.’ I’m not allowed to even speak for five minutes or send an email or anything. I must say it has been working really well in Sweden.”