Sunday, February 3, 2013

THE PROSPECT: Choosing the right agent | Local Hockey | Sports ...

Legendary local broadcaster Pete James has seen just about everything during his half-century around junior hockey, including its rise from a great little game to a big-league business.

Over the years, perhaps as much as anything, what?s underscored that change is the arrival of agents ? real, experienced, NHLPA-licensed agents ? into junior hockey, where virtually every player with pro potential has a relationship, formal or otherwise, with one.

It wasn?t always that way, as illustrated by a knock on James?s front door a few decades back.

Sitting at home, James and his wife welcomed in a London Knights star who?d just been selected in the first round of the National Hockey League draft, but had no clue how to handle NHL contract negotiations.

He knew no one with expertise, so he turned to someone he could at least trust: the team?s broadcaster.

?He was just a kid,? James recalled this week.

?I was sort of close to the guys then. I never gave them any (official) advice. It was just an older brother kind of thing,? said James.

That was then. And this is definitely now.

Never mind OHL players graduating into the NHL flanked by experts offering advice ? of the more than 200 16-year-olds who?ll be selected in April?s OHL draft, most already have formed a relationship with an agent.

For some, the courting starts at age 13 ? and not just by Mickey Mouse wannabes, either. Representatives for the best-known agents are knocking on doors of young teens, building their trust and offering their experience to guide the youngsters (and their families) down a path that may lead to professional hockey.

Now, is this a bad thing? An unnecessary complication intruding on the purity of a teenage game?

Not to James, who sees the proliferation of professional advisers for OHL players as a good thing, with one important caveat: ?You?ve got to have the right guy.?

Unprompted, he offers just such an example: agent Mark Guy. It?s Guy, along with fellow Newport Sports agent Joe Birch, who?s advising Travis Konecny, the Elgin-Middlesex Chiefs star centre who looks like a high pick in April?s OHL draft.

Far from complicating things, Travis?s dad says the presence of Newport has simplified everything, easing their concerns and guiding them through their exhilarating, scary, intimidating, exciting journey.

?We can just enjoy the hockey,? Rob Konecny said. ?We get to just be mom and dad.?

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Believe it or not, inquiries from agents started when Travis Konecny was 13, a scoring sensation from rural Chatham-Kent whose on-ice prowess was already turning heads.

Though he?s an exceptional case even among the elite players ? he?s widely considered a top-5 OHL pick ? that?s illustrative of every hockey agent?s reality: if you?re going to represent an NHL player, the relationship has to be forged when that player?s barely in high school.

(If and when a client turns pro, agents can expect to be paid upwards of 5% of each contract.)

For Travis?s parents, Rob and Terri, the checklist for picking an agent was fairly clear: do their own research, talk to hockey people they trust, get a feel for the kinds of values these agents have ? and whether they mesh with the family?s own.

?Terri and I have always taken an active role in our children,? Rob said. ?That?s exactly how we handled inviting a stranger into our life, knowing down the road they?re going to play a key role in helping your child chase their dream.

?You start to realize hockey people are interested in your son and you realize it?s a business and you have a lot more to learn. I did what I thought was best as a parent, and that was to learn as much as I could.?

Newport is the largest agency in hockey, representing scores of NHL players including superstars Brad Richards, Steve Stamkos and Zach Parise. But the glitz and glamour isn?t what sold the Konecnys.

Instead, it was something much more simple ? a relative had a longtime connection to Newport, providing a fool-proof character reference.

?It helped us to initially get to know them. Once we put them through the same process as everybody else it was a no-brainer.?

The selection, of course, marked the beginning of the trek, not the end. Then the relationship must be developed and the trust built ? because if a teenager decides to go to the OHL, the family no longer really has an adviser. The player has an agent.

That?s when mom and dad have to let go. And that isn?t easy.

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Virtually every child who excels in sports is the product of a committed family.

Hockey is certainly no exception: the long road trips in bad weather, the early mornings in frigid rinks, the at-times-unbelievably expensive equipment.

For Travis Konecny, the support extends beyond dad Rob, mom Terri and older brother Chase. His grandparents and uncles have long been involved, too, in keeping the young player on the path toward something special.

But here?s the reality for those parents: they commit without reservation, motivate their child, provide unending support and, eventually, get pushed to the sidelines.

At every twist in the road, parents lose a little control. In hockey, that could be entry to the OHL, where an agent starts communicating directly with the player more and the geographic distance separating son from family can be enormous.

That fact isn?t lost on the Konecnys, and Newport?s Guy and Birch (both former London Knights players, incidentally) have helped brace them for it.

In some ways, it?s not unlike what?s going on with their older son Chase, who?s ready to end high school and start university this fall.

The university application process, though, is relatively straightforward.

?This other monster,? Rob laughs of the OHL draft, ?it?s not so simple.?

Then again, what choice is there for hockey parents whose child is blessed with remarkable skills?

They must trust that the advisers handling calls from OHL teams will make the right decisions, and keep their boy?s best interests a priority.

They must stay true to their own values as the whirlwind grows.

They must take a deep breath, loosen their grip, and maybe even allow themselves to dream a little, too.

?For a long time Travy?s been dreaming this crazy dream of playing hockey. Something that was so big and so crazy and I didn?t take that seriously at the beginning, it?s starting to come to fruition,? Rob said.

?You have to take it day by day, and stay focused on being parents,? he said, though he admitted: ?Sometimes, if there?s a quiet moment, Terri and I will say, ?This is kind of cool.??


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