Beyond the contracts, it's doing right and building relationships

  • Article by: KENT YOUNGBLOOD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 19, 2012 - 9:10 PM

Agents maintain that looking out for their clients is the key.

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Pro Sports Agent Ben Hankinson met with hockey client Logan Nelson.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, ALL

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Logan Nelson was sitting at a conference table with Ben Hankinson on his right and Chris McAlpine on his left. They were doing some last-minute prep.

Nelson is an 18-year-old whose hockey journey took him from Rogers, Minn.; to the Russell Stover program in Kansas City; to Des Moines of the U.S. Hockey League, and then to the Western Hockey League in Victoria, British Columbia.

He was meeting with his agents a couple of weeks ago before flying to Toronto for the NHL combine, where draft-eligible players would be poked, prodded, tested and rated.

Open up, be yourself, Hankinson said. Be honest, don't just say what you think they want to hear, added McAlpine.

And they told stories. How the San Jose Sharks, years ago, used to be very tough during interviews trying to find players who could stand up to then-coach Darryl Sutter's prickly personality. How Gophers defenseman Keith Ballard made up for a perceived lack of size in 2002 with a killer handshake and a confident demeanor.

Nelson soaked it all in.

"They might ask you to tell them a joke," McAlpine said at one point. "Do you have one?"

Nelson nodded gravely. This was no laughing matter.

"I'm going to find one," he said. "I'll have the best joke there."

Advise and consent

Agents do more than negotiate contracts.

Ask Hankinson, director of U.S. representation for Octagon Hockey, which represents about 20 NHL players. He has been doing this since he retired as a player in 1998, the past six with Octagon.

Or Neil Sheehy, who grew up in International Falls, then played at Harvard before skating in nearly 400 NHL games. Sheehy, who works with brother Tim and Paul Ostby at Sheehy Hockey, represents 21 players who were in the NHL last season. One is Nashville defenseman Ryan Suter, who figures to draw big interest should he reach free agency July 1.

Both Hankinson and Sheehy are locally based agents who focus largely on college players.

To succeed, you have to be able to spot talent and be facile at building relationships with players and families. You need the connections to do what's right for a player. And you need patience.

Take Nelson. Hankinson recognized his talent early, forged a relationship with the Nelson family, provided advice along the way, hoping Nelson would pick him as an agent once he was eligible.

A player officially can't have an agent until the player gives up his amateur status, opting for major junior hockey or leaves school to sign a pro deal. Until then, an agent can only be an adviser.

"It's taking a leap of faith," Sheehy said. "Herb Brooks always said he looked for players willing to sacrifice for the unknown. That's what you have to do as an agent.''

Said Hankinson: "If you help them out, if you give them good advice, you'll probably represent them some day."

That's what happened with Nelson, who has made several moves for hockey. Hankinson offered advice on many of those moves, including whether to go to college or major juniors.

"It was always going to be college," Nelson said. "I wanted to play at North Dakota, but nothing happened there. I got a little sick of waiting. Maybe I jumped to a conclusion too early, but this has worked out for me so far."

First, a scout

Hankinson was in St. Cloud last week watching a tournament with top 15-year-olds. Two were the sons of guys he played with while with the Gophers -- Rem Pitlick of Shattuck-St. Mary's, son of Lance; and Jonah Bischoff of Grand Rapids, son of Grant.

The competition for potential clients is intense. Hankinson told a story of getting a call from an NHL scout who said he'd been at a game where he overheard an agent bad-mouthing Hankinson to a player's father.

This is not uncommon, and agents battle shots at their reputations.

"I'm a firm believer that, if you do the right things, good things follow," Sheehy said.

And that means helping the player make the right, and often difficult, decision. Most players are drafted at age 18, when they might be finishing high school, or playing in college, or already at some level of junior hockey. And once their rights are held by an NHL team, they might go through a couple of years weighing the advantages of signing a pro contract or trying to keep developing at an amateur level.

Once an agent secures a client, the job gets more complicated. The agent, if asked, might help a player set up off-season conditioning or refer him to a financial specialist. Almost constantly, the agent has to act as a counselor.

Not that a player always listens. Sheehy recalls one client who was offered a three-year, $9 million contract by his team. The player asked Sheehy what he could get on the open market, and Sheehy said perhaps $20 million over five years. "He asked me what he should do," Sheehy said. "I said, 'You really like it there, I think you should stay.' "

The player took the bigger money but found his new team a less satisfying fit.

The big paydays

Still, the big contracts get the publicity. Hankinson's biggest day came on July 1, 2010, when he negotiated more than $40 million in contracts over the course of an afternoon, including a five-year, $25 million deal for Paul Martin and a three-year, $9 million deal for Jordan Leopold

Martin was in the office, and the phones calls were rapid fire.

"I remember [Toronto General Manager] Brian Burke screaming at me for not calling him back right away," Hankinson said.

Hankinson recalled Leopold talking with Martin over the phone, telling Martin how great it was to play for Pittsburgh at a time when the Penguins were deciding not to re-sign Leopold. Martin signed with the Penguins, Leopold with Buffalo. Hankinson also closed deals for clients Tim Jackman, John Scott and Raitis Ivanans.

But even small deals can have big results. The two-year deal Hankinson got for Ivanans in Calgary proved huge when Ivanans sustained a concussion in his first game with the Flames.

Said Sheehy: "It doesn't matter if it's a $5 million deal or it's a player getting a $25,000 signing bonus. I remember when I signed my first contract, the chills I felt up and down my spine, the lump in my throat. I relive that every time I have a player sign."

And there's more. An agent must find the best fit for his clients, or call a GM to plead a client's case if things aren't going well. After a trade, an agent might be asked to handle the logistics of a cross-country move involving a player and his family. Or he will help a player facing a crisis. Hankinson once had a client suffer a knee injury. The team told the player it was a slightly torn MCL when a second opinion arranged by Hankinson showed a torn ACL.

"That was a big battle [with the team]," Hankinson said. "The guy didn't play, got his knee fixed and went on to play five more years."

Agents say looking out for players is the key.

"If we don't do the right thing by our guys, then what happens? Our reputation gets tarnished," Sheehy said of himself and Hankinson. "We've both been around a long time. We're Minnesota guys, we're looking out for Minnesota kids."

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