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Burke a trailblazer for agents who cross over

by Dan Rosen

When Anaheim Ducks GM Brian Burke looks back on his six years as a player agent, he sees himself wearing an imaginary lab coat.

"Having worked as an agent for six years, I got to see how every team does things," Burke said. "It is a marvelous laboratory environment for learning the business."

Burke, a Harvard Law graduate, traded his imaginary lab coat for a sport jacket in 1987 when he shifted to the other side of the negotiating table to work for the Vancouver Canucks as the VP and Director of Hockey Operations. It was a bold move at the time as he became the first former agent to be employed in an NHL front office.

The practice isn't so strange anymore.

A year after Burke joined the Canucks, Dean Lombardi left the business of representing players to join the Minnesota North Stars as the assistant GM. He's now the GM of the Los Angeles Kings, and former player agents Peter Chiarelli (Boston), Ray Shero (Pittsburgh), Mike Gillis (Vancouver) and Brian Lawton (Tampa Bay) have also changed sides and are currently managing clubs.

Mike Barnett, who famously represented Wayne Gretzky during his playing career, worked for "The Great One" as Phoenix's GM from 2001-06 and is now in an advisory role to Glen Sather with the New York Rangers. After 21 years as an agent, Pierre Lacroix became the President and GM of the Quebec Nordiques in 1994. He's now the president and alternate governor of the Colorado Avalanche.

"When Dean and I moved over at roughly the same time, it was a big story and there were some NHL people that refused to talk to me or return my calls," Burke said. "Now it's accepted."

It's accepted mostly because the aforementioned agents-turned-executives built and managed their client-base and relationships in a professional manner. Lawton, who is the VP of hockey operations in Tampa Bay, said the stereotype that agents are greedy and dirty doesn't apply to most in the hockey business.

"You have some horror stories," he said, "but that's a small percentage of people and it's not representative of agents."

David Poile of the Nashville Predators, who has been a general manager in the NHL for more than a quarter-century, believes the key to success for all of the former agents turned executives is, simply put, "they're hockey guys."

"Ray (Shero) was a college player and then he became an agent, so he's a hockey guy," said Poile, who hired Shero to be his assistant GM in 1997. "Brian Burke played college hockey and minor pro and wanted to be in the hockey business. Mike Gillis and Brian Lawton were first-round picks. They're hockey guys, and the goals are the same as all of us who came up in a different direction."

Of the many advantages to being a former agent in an executive role, Lawton said the obvious comes from your prior experience. Working as an agent for some years allows these guys some perspective at the negotiating table.

"To put someone into my role seven days before free agency without any experience would be ludicrous," said Lawton, who was put in exactly that position by Tampa Bay owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie this summer, "but I have negotiated hundreds of millions of contracts so I quickly got used to doing what I was doing."

It helped that he knew who he was working with.

Poile said part of the reason he hired Shero in 1997 was because he knew how the other side of the business worked and who was on it. Not only was Shero an agent for seven years, he negotiated most of the contracts for the Ottawa Senators during his six years as Pierre Gauthier's assistant GM.

"I was negotiating all the contracts and (Poile) loved it," Shero said. "He could stay out of the fray and I could deal with the agent and the players. It gave him some distance and I could be the bad guy. Sometimes, that's the way it was."

It's not just easier for the agent-turned-executive to manage the negotiating table. Pat Brisson of CAA Hockey, who now famously represents Sidney Crosby and recently signed upcoming star John Tavares, said he finds it easier to relate with former agents who are now working for NHL clubs.

"He often has been there before regardless of the situation or the subject we are talking about," Brisson said. "It's easier to relate in many ways, especially when it's someone with lots of experience in the business."

While experience at the negotiating table matters greatly, Shero said the greatest benefit of his seven years as an agent were the relationships he built from his interaction with players and team executives.

Those relationships allowed him to make a seamless transition into a front office role. Ironically, Shero's assistant GM in Pittsburgh, Chuck Fletcher, spent two years as a player agent.

"Having worked as an agent for six years, I got to see how every team does things. It is a marvelous laboratory environment for learning the business." -- Ducks GM Brian Burke

"Numbers are numbers and contracts are contracts, and that was beneficial, but the relationships you built up with players, GMs, assistant managers, scouts, college coaches, junior coaches, and people in Europe are the foundation of the contacts I still have today," Shero said. "I made some of those relationships as an agent."

While most of the agents-turned-executives make the transition look seamless, switching sides has its challenges. Barnett said one of the biggest is learning how to work with a budget.

"Essentially you're dealing with the same working tool, the CBA, and knowing the intricacies of that and everything related to it are critically important on either side," Barnett said. "The big difference is obviously dealing with budgets, whether it's a League-imposed cap or an ownership-imposed ceiling. You don't have that to worry about when you're representing players."

You also don't get the chance to win the Stanley Cup when you're representing players. Barnett watched Gretzky do it five times and he no doubt took part in some of the celebrations, but Burke and Lacroix built Stanley Cup championship teams and own the rings to prove it.

Shero nearly put a ring on his finger last season. Lawton is hoping the plethora of moves he made during his first summer on the job turn the Lightning into a contender again. Chiarelli, Gillis and Lombardi are fueled by the same goal of winning the Cup.

"It's not even close," Barnett said. "The competitiveness of working with a team, of trying to get the two points every night, fills your competitive juices to a much greater degree."
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