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Tuesday, November 16, 2004
Agent: '... I have to go for my clients'

By Scott Burnside
Special to ESPN.com

Well, maybe the food will be good.

As many as 60 National Hockey League agents, including those representing the top players in the game, will descend on a Chicago hotel meeting room Wednesday for a tête-à-tête with executives of the National Hockey League Players' Association for an update on the state of the current lockout, which has entered its second month.

With negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement in suspended animation since owners and players last met Sept. 9, any kind of movement, even if it's just to the buffet table, is news. But anyone expecting any kind of revelatory breakthrough as a result of the confab will be sadly disappointed.

"It's going to be Forbes and propaganda," one outspoken agent who requested anonymity told ESPN.com shortly before jetting to Chicago. "It's going to be a love-in. I hate going but I have to go for my clients."

Even with Forbes magazine's recent article supporting longtime claims by the players' association that the NHL has grossly over-reported operating losses, many of the 12 agents contacted by ESPN.com are quietly disgruntled at the fix in which the game finds itself. Many say NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow has boxed himself into a corner by insisting players will never accept the league's proposal of a hard salary cap, even though that cap would still see an average salary of $1.3 million annually.

The current average salary is $1.8 million.

The same argument holds true for NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who has painted himself into a similar, if geographically opposite, corner by insisting he will accept nothing less than a hard cap of some kind.

As a result, the 2004-05 NHL season may be the first one lost to a labor dispute.

But regardless of whose position is the nobler, one thing is certain, the agent said.

"If we don't play this season we've pissed away $1.2 billion. Help me explain that to my clients," he said. "Bob and Gary have both painted themselves into a corner making promises they can't keep and there's no way out.

"There's lots of money to go around. These guys can buy Hummers with $1.3 million."

Given the symbiotic relationship between agents and the players' association, don't expect to see any of that rancor on public display Wednesday in Chicago. Even if agents say Goodenow has misplayed his hand, and there are those who say he has, they also appreciate for the most part that their personal successes are born of Goodenow's bargaining acumen.

When he took over for the disgraced Alan Eagleson in 1992, Goodenow galvanized the players and established the union as a powerful entity that owners could not manipulate or bully into submission. It was Goodenow's confrontational, some would say bull-headed, style that enabled the players to emerge as the clear winners in the 103-day lockout that reduced the 1994-95 season to 48 games.

Under Goodenow's watch -- and with help from agents who exploited flaws in the entry-level bonus structure and salary arbitration system -- player salaries have more than tripled during the life of the just-expired CBA. Of course, it is also under Goodenow's watch that players refused to re-open negotiations on a new CBA when repeatedly approached by the league during the last five years, resulting in the current labor gridlock.

"Everyone is anxious for progress, the fans, the players and yes, of course the agents," IMG's J.P. Barry told the Canadian Press on the eve of the Chicago meeting. "Nonetheless, it is the NHLPA and not the agents who negotiate the CBA. It is their mandate and they have been preparing for this negotiation for at least five years."

Although the union has portrayed Wednesday's meeting as merely an information-sharing session, similar to one Goodenow hosted during the 1994 lockout, it also has the distinct feeling of a pre-emptive strike. Because players are more likely to speak freely with their agents than they are with their union brethren in a union setting, agents have a truer sense of the player psyche bracing for an entire season to be wiped out by the lockout.

The agents are the ones hearing from the traditionally voiceless, that large group of players making below the average salary who have a career window of three or four years and are about to lose a quarter or a fifth of their lifetime hockey earnings. Those are the players who will ultimately break the union, if it comes to that, and Goodenow cannot afford to have agents talking publicly about salary caps and conciliation.

By reinforcing the association's position Goodenow will attempt to curtail any unrest before it breaches the union's solidarity. No doubt there will be heated discussion, but it likely will stay behind closed doors as agents have a great deal at stake, too.

Agents who speak out against Goodenow publicly, especially those who aren't among the small inner circle of power brokers like Don Meehan, Don Baizley and the IMG group, risk being painted as anti-union.

"They can't rock the boat. They can't risk their livelihood," one agent said.

Former player and current agent Mike Liut said he thinks it's dangerous for too much public discussion about the issues by agents -- "If ever the cliche 'too many cooks spoiling the broth' applies, this is where it applies," he said -- but he also dismissed the notion that the players' association is a "monolithic" organization that cannot be approached.

"Nice folk legend, but far from the reality of the situation," Liut said.

The fact Goodenow has not engaged the agents in discussion about the direction of negotiations has led some agents to say that this is his mess and that he, and he alone, will be judged on the outcome.

"I think the PA feels, and I've only heard this second-hand, they'd prefer to have no involvement by the agents nor are they seeking involvement. So, really if that's the way they feel I have to respect that. Which might beg one to say, 'well, what are you having a meeting for?' You'll have to ask Goodenow about that," Meehan told ESPN.com last week.

While some agents have painted Wednesday's meeting as having the potential to effect real change, Meehan is less optimistic.

"I think the more substantial people would feel that if they have any submissions for consideration they would probably feel there's a better environment to discuss those issues with Bob," Meehan said, "because anything that's mentioned in that hearing will be outside the door in 10 minutes."

Any shrimp left?

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.