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Hot off the ice

Rochester Business Journal
August 3, 2007
Pittsford sports agent Stephen Bartlett has become the trusted adviser to National Hockey League players, including three from the Rochester area.

Last month he orchestrated a $50 million contract on behalf of Thomas Vanek of the Buffalo Sabres, which on July 6 matched an offer by the Edmonton Oilers, keeping the left winger in Buffalo for at least seven more years.

Bartlett would not disclose how much he made from the deal, but agents typically receive 3 percent of their clients' compensation.

Unlike unrestricted free agents, who can negotiate with any team in the league, offers to restricted-or Group 2-free agents such as Vanek can be matched by the player's team.

"The Vanek deal was one of the more exciting events in recent years for us," Bartlett said. "It became a trend-setting, groundbreaking type of deal, not only for the dollars involved but because of the type of free agent Thomas was.

"Even though they call it a free agent, in reality there's been very few of those types of free agents that have ever changed teams. It's been a frustrating point for those of us on the agent side. They write these rules in the book, and yet there was this unspoken rule, I think, between the teams that said, 'Don't touch our Group 2 free agents and we won't touch yours.'"

Vanek, a 23-year-old left winger, led the Sabres last season with 43 goals and also had 41 assists. His 84 points were second on the team to Daniel Briere, an unrestricted free agent who signed an eight-year, $52 million contract with Philadelphia.

After matching the Edmonton offer, Sabres managing partner Larry Quinn and Sabres general manager Darcy Regier each criticized the tactics of Oilers GM Kevin Lowe, saying they planned to match any offer sheet and that Lowe pointlessly inflated Vanek's contract.

"Steve was doing his job," Regier said. "That's all legal under the collective bargaining agreement. My issue isn't with Steve. My issue is with the club that Steve got to work with him."

Vanek will get $10 million in 2007-08, $8 million in 2008-09 and $6.4 million in each of the next five seasons, reports state.

"Based on today's standards, that's an extremely lucrative contract," Bartlett said. "But even though everyone's eyeballs rolled back in their heads, I'm not so sure that four or five years down the road he may actually seem like a bargain. Personally, I think he will more than answer the bell for this contract."

Bartlett, 56, represents 35 NHL players and another 35 professional hockey players in the minor leagues and Europe.

Father and son

He and his son Brian also represent six lacrosse players with ties to Rochester, including John Grant Jr. of the indoor Rochester Knighthawks and outdoor Rochester Rattlers. Grant is considered by many to be the sport's premier player.

"Hockey is the main focus, but there are a few lacrosse players that, as both the indoor and outdoor leagues grow a little bit, need advice," said Brian, who joined his father in 2005 after graduating from the University of Maryland.

"We've doubled the number of agents in the office," his father joked.

Brian, 24, graduated from Maryland with a 4.0 grade-point average, a bachelor's degree in finance and international business from the Robert H. Smith School of Business and a bachelor's degree in economics from the School of Behavioral and Social Sciences.

He also was a member of Maryland's club hockey team.

"Brian has been a great addition because he's brought in a more youthful approach," his father said. "After 20 years in the business, the age gap between me and the young client is growing. First-year pros are going to be in their late teens or early 20s."

Brian also is responsible for the lacrosse clientele.

"I feel like that's similar to when my father was starting out," Brian said. "Instead of just sitting down with the coach to figure out how much they should make, people are starting to ask advice from somebody who's done it before, a professional to figure out what the market is and where they should be."

Bartlett has been an agent for NHL players since 1984. His firm, Sports Consulting Group, employs three.

"The growth has been gradual and by design," he said. "We're not trying to compete to be the largest agency out there. We want to be considered at the top of the field in terms of the quality of service and the interaction we have with the athletes.

"I purposely stayed away from that corporate image and tried to keep it more personal. That's really what you bring to the relationship, this interaction you have with your athletes and the fact that they know that you always care about them as people first and athletes second."

Rochester stars

The firm's hockey clients include Rochester-area NHLers Brian Gionta of New Jersey, Ryan Callahan of the New York Rangers and Marty Reasoner of Edmonton.

"As far as agents go, I haven't heard of a better one than Steve," said Gionta, a native of Greece. "He's not in your ear bugging you. He's there when you need him. He's not trying to contact you every day and telling you you need to play better. It's all business. We've had a great friendship ever since I've been working for him."

Gionta connected with Bartlett after his freshman year at Boston College, where he was a teammate of Reasoner, a Honeoye Falls native and a client of Bartlett.

"Being from Rochester, it was a no-brainer," Gionta said. "With doing research, you found the level of respect that he had throughout the NHL and pro hockey, and you heard nothing but good things about the relationships he had with general managers and teams. It was a perfect match."

Bartlett served as a family adviser to Gionta during his college career, keeping the player informed on his draft stature. New Jersey made Gionta the 82nd player picked in the 1998 entry-level draft.

He set a franchise record with 48 goals in 2005-06, the last year of his former contract, then had to wait out negotiations on a new contract as New Jersey wrestled with the implications of the league's salary cap implemented as part of the new collective bargaining agreement.

Instead of staying away until a contract was signed, Bartlett and Gionta decided it was best for the player to report to training camp without an agreement.

"It's definitely unique," Gionta recalled. "All sides need to trust each other. But we had that feeling, from me being there for five years. It wasn't a matter of being off on numbers. It was just a matter of fitting it (with the cap). I suppose it's a risk, but we were willing to do that."

Gionta's contract was for three years at $4 million a season.

"Steve and I have trust in the team and have had a good relationship so far," Gionta said. "When they were able, we got it done. All that's based on the advisement of Steve, and the talks he had had with the team."

Bartlett also represents Doug Weight of St. Louis, Brian Rolston of Minnesota-"arguably the best American player in the NHL right now," he said-Geoff Sanderson of Edmonton, Cristobal Huet of Montreal and Andy McDonald of Stanley Cup winner Anaheim.

"Steve is tough, honest, honorable and does an outstanding job for clients," Sabres general manager Regier said.

"Steve is very open to having a conversation about the club's options, the player's options and to putting things on the table to examine what they truly represent. Quite frankly, there's not a lot of gamesmanship or posturing, and I think that works to his benefit. On the other hand, he's very good at getting very good deals for his clients."

California native

Bartlett was born in California. He moved to Rochester at age 11 and fell in love with hockey after seeing his first Rochester Americans game.

He played youth hockey and for Monroe High School, earning an athletic scholarship to the University of Vermont. He eventually transferred to the University of Rochester, where he earned a bachelor of science degree in business.

Bartlett owned and operated retail businesses for 10 years, selling motorcycles and snowmobiles, and lawn and garden equipment. He was a part-time hockey agent then, eventually selling his businesses to become a full-time sports agent.

"As I was growing up watching what he was doing, coming into the office to look at the hockey sticks and the jerseys and that, you get to see that he's doing contracts, obviously," Brian Bartlett said. "I had it in the back of my mind that I would like to do this."

"For both of us, it's a labor of love," his father said. "We love the game. We love the relationships we have with the players, and it's been fun working together. Now we'll be working in two different cities."

Brian will leave this fall to attend Boston University School of Law.

"One of the reasons I'm deciding to go to law school in Boston is because there's so much hockey coming through Boston," he said. "Rochester's great for being close enough to stuff. Toronto's three hours away, Detroit's six, Boston's six, New York's five.

"We can drive to games but, other than the great local players we've had around here, it's a lot of travel. Rochester's centrally located, but not close to too many games. Boston's going to be good for having so many universities there, and the NHL and AHL pro teams. I'm going to keep my hand in the business while I am in school."

Brian plans to attend classes till mid-afternoon and regularly go to games at night.

"This business isn't necessarily a 9-to-5, Monday-through-Friday job," he said. "Our phones are always on. It's a little less rigid than being at a storefront waiting for people to come in the door."

He is undecided about returning to Rochester after law school.

"I'm betting he doesn't come back," his father said. "Boston's a great city. And, frankly, it makes sense for us to not be in the same city because he's not just a support person. He's doing everything I do. He's recruiting his own clients. He does the tax work. I think it makes sense to get our footprint spread out a little bit."

If Brian stays in Boston, the firm will have to find a replacement in Rochester, Bartlett said. He may not have to look any further than the family tree, to his 21-year-old son Scott.

"My younger son, who may eventually come into the business, is going to be the captain at Middlebury College, which is a Division III powerhouse," Bartlett said. "They've won two national championships since he's been there. They lost in overtime last year or it would've been three out of three.

"He'll be the most talented of the three of us in terms of our hockey-playing ability."

With the success of Gionta and Callahan, Rochester is becoming known for developing hockey talent, Bartlett said. USA Hockey for the last four years has held camps at the ESL Sports Centre in Brighton for leading 14- and 16-year-olds in the country.

"We try to pick five to six kids in each age group to recruit," he said. "Sometimes they're not the most highly touted players. We do our own evaluations. We like the personalities of the people that we talk to, and we like their potential.

"We're also not front-runners. I still get calls from guys from 10 years ago that never played a game of pro hockey who ask a personal finance question or how to do something on their taxes. To us, it's a people business. I never got into it because it was totally profit motivated, and I'll never change my attitude that way."

Agents can no longer represent coaches. The National Hockey League Players Association decided several years ago that representing coaches along with players was a conflict of interest.

"That was unfortunate because half of my ex-clients are coaches in the NHL now," Bartlett said. "I think I have six or seven former clients coaching in the NHL."

Sabres coach Lindy Ruff is among them. Bartlett also represented former Sabres coaches Scotty Bowman and Ted Nolan, Rochester Amerks' Coach Randy Cunneyworth, and former Amerk Jody Gage, who is general manager of the Amerks, Knighthawks and Rattlers.

Sports Consulting Group will limit its business to hockey and lacrosse, Bartlett said.

"We've made a conscious effort not to chase the other sports," he said. "The seasons are so darn long now. Also, with the amount of time and effort it takes to get the contacts and reputation within a sport, you're diluting the product.

"Hockey's the game we both played and we both know. After 20 years, I have a tremendous amount of contacts. I'd rather concentrate where I have the familiarity and knowledge and contacts, and the reputation."

Union job?

Because he was runner-up in 1990, Bartlett is considered by many to be the leading candidate for NHLPA executive director. The association's executive board last month formed a search committee to identify and interview potential candidates.

Bartlett is not interested in the post, he said. Bartlett was a finalist for the job in 1990 but lost out to Robert Goodenow, an attorney with extensive experience in negotiating union contracts.

"I never say never," Bartlett said. "But it's nothing that I'm aspiring to. I've really enjoyed the things that Brian and I have going here. We've worked hard to build it. If someone convinced me that I was the absolute best guy and they couldn't do it without me, I care about all the players and I care about the game. But I'd say it's 95 percent right now that I have no plans to do anything other than what I'm doing."

Goodenow resigned in 2005 after a lockout that canceled the 2004-05 season and less than a week after the new labor agreement was reached. His replacement, Ted Saskin, was fired in May after a union-backed report concluded that Saskin had hacked into player e-mail accounts.

"Looking back on it, I thank my lucky stars I didn't get the job," Bartlett said. "I love the lifestyle I have. I love dealing with the players on a smaller, less stressful basis than what that job would've been. Having gone through a strike and a lockout and everything else, and the media scrutiny, it's been a tumultuous 15 years or so for the players.

"The NHL, generally, is still a great game. The league is in good shape, for the most part. And the players have done very well under the direction of the NHLPA. When I started in this business, the average NHL salary was $140,000. Now it's close to $1.5 million."

If he were to become executive director, he also would have to divest the Sports Consulting Group.

"I'd have to hand it off to Brian or bring in someone and sell the business," he said. "I certainly couldn't wear two hats."

tadams@rbj.net / 585-546-8303

08/03/07 (C) Rochester Business Journal


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