Hot Prospects in Cold Places Seven time zones and 3,000 miles from his Times Square base, agent JAY GROSSMAN hunts hockey talent

June 21, 2004
June 21, 2004

Table of Contents
June 21, 2004


Hot Prospects in Cold Places Seven time zones and 3,000 miles from his Times Square base, agent JAY GROSSMAN hunts hockey talent

During each face-off and stop in play, Katrina and the Waves'
peppy '80s tune Walking on Sunshine danced through the tinny
speakers of the civic ice rink in Pori, Finland. The musical
selection was doubly ironic: There was little walking and even
less sunshine on this bleak February afternoon. Darkness had
descended hours earlier, and the crowd, stiff from the
unremitting cold, sat on wooden bleachers. There had been a run
on kahvi at the concession stands, so most of the javaless
spectators relied on alcoholic pear cider for warmth.

This is an article from the June 21, 2004 issue Original Layout

Still, the hockey games they had come to watch were enthralling.
Easily half of the 200 spectators were, in fact, NHL scouts,
executives or team owners. They had converged on this remote,
thermally challenged outpost on the Gulf of Bothnia and on three
neighboring towns for the Five Nations Tournament, which drew
the top players born in 1986 and '87 in Russia, Sweden, Finland,
the Czech Republic and the U.S.

Among the two dozen NHL-caliber competitors was the likely No. 2
pick in the June 26-27 draft, Yevgeny Malkin, a 17-year-old
Russian forward. With a nascent goatee and a body that's still a
work in progress, Malkin looks like a typical teenager, but he is
fast and creative with the puck, and his slap shots are so hard
they almost tear through the net. "To get this many talented
players together in one place is rare," said Ryan Jankowski, a
Prague-based scout for the New York Islanders. "Why are we all
here? We can't afford not to be."

He got no argument from Jay Grossman, the president of
PuckAgency, an NHL player-management firm. Grossman, 39, watched
the games while tacking between seats in the stands and a
no-frills "suite" high above the ice. He already had a dozen of
the tournament's players under contract. Some he had signed
recently, such as Malkin, who had left IMG just a few weeks
earlier. Others he had repped for years. When he wasn't chatting
them up outside the arena ("Krasnivry gol"--nice goal--he said as
Malkin boarded the Russian team's idling bus), he was dining
across the street from the tournament hotel at a joint that
specializes in reindeer steak. His players stopped by and ate on
his tab like kings.

Grossman's operation in Pori, seven time zones and 3,000 miles
removed from his base in Manhattan's Times Square, provided a
glimpse of the figures who grease the skids for sports' global
labor force. It also revealed the problems these agents can face.
Indeed, two months after the Five Nations Tournament, Malkin
returned to IMG and filed a letter of complaint with the NHL
Players Association asserting that Grossman had paid him $50,000
in cash to switch to PuckAgency. (The NHLPA confirms that it is
investigating the matter and says that it will announce its
findings later this summer. Grossman, citing a gag order,
declined to comment, but he released a statement to SI
maintaining that "when the review is completed, it will be clear
[I] have complied fully with NHLPA regulations.")

Apart from keeping tabs on his clients, Grossman trolled for new
business in Pori. Every player there was known to the NHL; some
had signed with agents when they were as young as 14. Yet each
year there is a late bloomer who catches the scouts' eyes and
suddenly needs representation. "Ideally," said Grossman, "that's
where I come in." The previous evening at a municipal rink in the
blink-and-you-miss-it burg of Panelia, a half hour from Pori, a
little-known Finnish player, Lauri Korpikoski, had scored two
nifty goals against Sweden, and the agent had sprung into action.

As soon as the game ended, Grossman, who had brought five of his
10 employees, dispatched his European associates to make
overtures to Korpikoski and his family. Jarmo Kork (a longtime
Finnish youth coach) and Peter Wallin (a former NHL right wing
who now lives in his native Sweden) invited Korpikoski's parents
to watch their son's next game from Grossman's Pori suite--an
unheated room with an empty refrigerator, two thermoses of coffee
and two rows of seats at eye level with a banner commemorating
Assat Pori's 1971 Finnish league championship. The Korpikoskis
eagerly accepted and arrived at the suite the following evening
just after the opening face-off.

It was immediately clear, by their dress and conversation, that
the Korpikoskis were sophisticated. Like a center on a power
play, Grossman read the situation and adjusted, skipping his
pitch on the value of an agent. "No full-court press," he
whispered to his associate Vadim Azrilyant. Using a few Finnish
phrases, Grossman engaged in lighthearted banter with his guests
and suggested ordering pizza. Fifteen minutes later Kork returned
with eight pies, some topped with herring, others with pepperoni
and lettuce.

How the world has changed. Grossman, a former goalie at Union
College in Schenectady, N.Y., broke in as an agent at 23.
Promising defenseman Brian Leetch and his family trusted him,
appreciated his passion for hockey and overlooked his youth;
their relationship has survived to this day. To recruit
additional clients, Grossman visited rinks in New England, Quebec
and Ontario and made the odd trip to western Canada. At the time
there was a handful of non-North American players in the NHL,
"but they were generally older Europeans," Grossman says. "They
had proven themselves in, say, the Swedish league and graduated
to the NHL in their late 20s."

Then the deluge. The fall of communism occasioned an exodus of
brilliant European players, deft puckhandlers with missiles for
slap shots. Some agents ignored this trend, assuming that the
European finesse game wouldn't work in the aggressive, physical
NHL. Boy, were they wrong. Twenty years ago, 8.7% of NHL players
were born outside North America. Today that figure is 32.4%. Of
the league's top 15 goal scorers in 2003-04, seven were

And the trend is self-perpetuating. With so many prominent
foreign players, NHL games were aired in 217 countries last year.
Pori residents willing to wake up at ungodly hours can watch live
NHL telecasts as often as five mornings a week. European
prospects once aspired to play for their national teams and then
for professional clubs on the Continent. Now, says 18-year-old
Czech goalie Marek Schwarz, "you want to play against the best in
the world. Everyone knows that's [the] NHL." At the same time,
one reason the players have so much leverage in the current NHL
labor strife is that many have high-paying jobs lined up in
Europe. Lock us out? So what? We'll just go home and play.

Grossman has capitalized on this tectonic shift but admits that
his early success was due to luck as much as to perspicacity. The
first wave of Eastern Europeans to arrive in the NHL in the early
'90s were often represented by an omnium-gatherum of recent
immigrants from their countries. "There were art dealers and
middlemen--all these, um, nontraditional types who didn't have
hockey experience," says Grossman. When defenseman Sergei Zubov
joined the New York Rangers in 1992, the Manhattan law firm he
retained was ill-equipped to handle his hockey affairs, so it
hooked up with Grossman. His relationship with Zubov gave
Grossman credibility with other Russian prospects, and Zubov
helped him develop strategic alliances in the former Soviet
Union. Today 24 of Grossman's 30 NHL clients are from overseas,
representing five countries.

Grossman quickly realized that, with no foreign-language skills
and with a stable of clients in North America to oversee, he
needed a global staff to help with recruiting. In some cases the
associates he brought in were what he calls "hockey guys"--former
league employees and coaches. In other cases they weren't, but he
trusted his gut. In 1992, for instance, Grossman was helping
Swedish defenseman Peter Andersson buy a car in New Jersey and
was taken with the charm and salesmanship of the dealer, Ilya
Moliver, a sports journalist who had recently immigrated from
Russia. As the two spoke, Grossman thought that Moliver could be
an asset. He had the Russian work as a translator for him, then
hired him full time. Though Moliver is not a licensed NHL agent,
he is Grossman's liaison with Russia. (He knows the Malkin family
apartment well enough to describe it in detail.) Outfitted in a
full-length leather jacket and Cartier eyeglasses, Moliver, 47,
flies constantly between Russia and the U.S., recruiting
promising players over there and tending to Russian NHL players

Nearly 15 years after the initial wave of former Soviet players
rolled into the U.S., the recruiting landscape in Russia is still
unsettled--the Wild East, as it were. In some cases agents
approach players through their youth coaches, a gambit that risks
alienating their parents. In other cases they approach the
parents, which in some communities is an affront to the coaches.
And on occasion dubious plenipotentiaries have insinuated
themselves in the picture before the agents arrive. "It doesn't
happen as often as people think," Moliver says of the intrusion
of Russian organized crime figures, "but when it does, we don't
even bother to get involved."

What's more, tactics that are effective in one culture fail in
another. "If you're recruiting players from Sweden or Norway,
being too aggressive can be a big turnoff," says Azrilyant,
Grossman's associate. "But when you're recruiting Russian
players, if you're not pushy to some extent, you could be
considered weak. There are a lot of cultural nuances you pick up
and a lot of psychology you need to pay attention to."

The case of Malkin illustrates how blurry the ethical lines of
overseas recruitment can be. In Pori, Grossman said that before
Malkin left IMG to sign with PuckAgency, he gave Grossman a list
of requests that included equipment, English lessons, travel
expenses for his parents to attend his Russian Super League games
and medical costs for his mother, who had suffered a spinal
injury. These outlays from agents to players are permissible
under NHLPA rules as long as there is an agreement that they'll
be repaid after the player signs a professional contract. But
what Grossman considered standard advances to a client of modest
circumstances--the median annual income in Malkin's hometown of
Magnitogorsk, a mining town in the Urals, is $190 a month--other
agents see as a payoff punishable by decertification.

It's not the first time Grossman's tactics have come under
scrutiny. In 2002 his associate Kork was placed on probation by
the Finnish Players Association (FPA) for allegedly offering as
much as $15,000 to several players to switch to Grossman. "It was
so much against the code of conduct that we had to deal with it,"
Pekka Ilmivalta, chairman of the FPA, told SI. Says one veteran
NHL agent not involved in the Malkin contretemps, "Almost every
Eastern European player changes agents before the draft because
someone else makes a better offer. In a way these kids are being
used, but when you grow up poor and someone offers you that kind
of money, it's tempting."

Today's border-crossing agents accumulate the kind of war stories
you don't get by signing players in Duluth and Saskatoon.
Grossman recounts flirting with death aboard an Aeroflot commuter
plane from Moscow to the industrial town of Ufa, where he was
courting a player named Vadim Sharifjanov. The plane landed
safely after an extremely turbulent flight, and afterward the
airsick Grossman was reluctant to sample the array of cabbage
salads and pelmeni--stuffed dumplings--prepared by Sharifjanov's
mother. Moliver pulled Grossman aside and explained that in
Russia it is a huge insult to decline a mother's cooking.
Grossman and Moliver reached a deal. Moliver, a teetotaler, would
reach over and surreptitiously eat Grossman's pelmeni if Grossman
drank the vodka and cognac served to his associate. It was a
rough night for both, but Grossman signed Sharifjanov, who went
on to play for the New Jersey Devils and the Vancouver Canucks,
and the agent gained another toehold in Russia.

In Grossman's business, as in most global microeconomies,
technology is a driving force. The Internet enables Grossman to
scan line scores from youth games in Odessa or to e-mail his
European contacts without having to worry about the time
difference. He can FedEx a new pair of skates to a junior client
in Minsk. Grossman and his associates each talk more than 2,000
minutes a month on their international cellphones. In a richly
postmodern scene in the stands in Pori, Moliver used Azrilyant's
Canadian cellphone to call Malkin's parents in their apartment in
central Russia and give them a play-by-play of Yevgeny's games.
"Only a few years ago we were sending telexes and using pay
phones," says Grossman. "The world keeps getting smaller, but it
keeps getting more complicated, too."

In the past Grossman only helped players negotiate contracts; now
he helps them negotiate life in a new country as well. One client
needs assistance arranging a visit by his girlfriend. Another
needs a new English tutor. A third wants to send money home to
Europe without losing any of it to an unfavorable exchange rate.
And there are always legal matters to worry about. Los Angeles
Kings defenseman Maxim Kuznetsov, who is not represented by
Grossman, was detained in his native Russia last fall because of
an outstanding fine from a drunk driving arrest in the U.S. in
1997. He missed training camp and was later put on waivers. "Both
in recruiting and servicing the guys there are challenges," says
Grossman. "Sometimes just getting hold of the right people can be
an adventure."

The rewards, however, can be immense. The average NHL salary is
nearly $2 million. At the standard agent's rate of 5%, Grossman
makes a lot of pelmeni on his 30 contracts. Then there's the
occasional diamond in the rough. Three years ago, at an
international tournament in Switzerland, Grossman watched in awe
as a 17-year-old Russian scored goal after breathtaking goal.
Though Ilya Kovalchuk had an agent at the time, Grossman deployed
his version of the neutral-zone trap and ended up representing
Kovalchuk at the 2001 draft. Now the left wing for the Atlanta
Thrashers is one of hockey's most dynamic stars (Grossman flew
from Pori to the Twin Cities to watch Kovalchuk in the All-Star
Game), and he recently became the fifth player in league history
to score 100 goals before his 21st birthday. Kovalchuk just
completed the final season of a three-year, $8 million contract
and could soon command a salary of $10 million, labor peace

So Grossman will happily rack up the cell minutes and the
frequent-flier miles on obscure airlines, dividing his time
between the NHL's ice palaces and ramshackle European rinks,
schmoozing the likes of Lauri Korpikoski--who, with his parents'
blessing, signed with Grossman a few weeks after the Five Nations
Tournament. "I guess it's like any business," Grossman said in
Pori, exhaling a plume of cold Nordic air. "You have to fish
where the fish are."

Identified as an NBA prospect, a 7'1" Nigerian teenager must
decide whom to trust and where to develop his skill.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVE SANDFORD/GETTY IMAGES EURO THE MAN By signing budding superstar Kovalchuk, Grossman (right) enhanced his already high profile overseas. ILYA KOVALCHUK of RussiaCOLOR PHOTO: PEKKA SAKKI/LEHTIKUVA OY [See caption above]FIVE COLOR PHOTOSCOLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA CROSS-COUNTRIES Grossman's clients include many nationalities. MATTIAS TIMANDER of SwedenCOLOR PHOTO: ELSA/GETTY IMAGES (PIRNES) [See caption above] ESA PIRNES of FinlandCOLOR PHOTO: DAVE SANDFORD/GETTY IMAGES (LEETCH) [See caption above] BRIAN LEETCH of the U.S.COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA [See caption above] TIM TAYLOR of CanadaCOLOR PHOTO: MARTTI LARIKKA/SATAKUNNAN KANSA HOT ITEM Grossman's recruitment of Malkin (above) is under investigation.

When Grossman wasn't chatting up his clients outside the arena in
Pori, Finland, he was dining at a joint that specializes in
reindeer steak.

One client needs help arranging his girlfriend's visit. Another
needs a new English tutor. A third wants to send money home
without any penalty.