Excerpted with permission from "Money Players: How Hockey's Greatest Stars Beat the NHL at Its Own Game," by Bruce Dowbiggin. Published by McClelland & Stewart Ltd., 2003.
The stone walls of the old courthouse in Kingston, Ontario, shimmer in the summer heat. Not even the cooling breezes off Lake Ontario can lift the humidity that smothers this former colonial outpost on Canada Day. On the old cricket grounds in front of the courthouse, people move from one pool of shade to the next as the sun rises to bake the city.
At a restored Victorian home behind the courthouse, early-morning heat radiates from the flagstones of the patio where a lonely figure contentedly puffs his pipe. Gilles Léger is the director of pro scouting for the New York Rangers, and on this most unhockeylike of days he's on an errand from his boss, Rangers general manager Glen Sather. Léger was here the previous night, and, after a few hours' sleep at the neighbouring Hochelaga Inn, he has come back to play the waiting game.
It's been a week since Robin Big Snake and his family returned home from Toronto, dreams of glory set aside for the time being. Much of the NHL has trooped off to rest exhausted bones and frayed nerves, but Léger is eager to restore the Rangers to the playoffs for the first time in many years. Rangers fans and the voracious maw of the New York media demand action from Sather, who arrived in Manhattan with much fanfare in June 2000. Two years after tackling the GM's post, Sather has seen his glory stolen by the Rangers' cross-river rivals, the New Jersey Devils, and the revived Islanders out Nassau County way. High-profile trades for Eric Lindros and Pavel Bure have fizzled. Anything less than a playoff appearance in the spring of 2003 and Sather will be considered a failure in the flash-frozen world of New York opinion.
Like Sather, the unassuming Léger has been around hockey most of his life. If there's a sense of urgency in the balding super-scout, it's impossible to detect as the sun climbs above the trees. This year, Canada's birthday also happens to be Independence Day for the NHL's unrestricted free agents, and Léger is patiently awaiting the opportunity to tell Bobby Holik, Tony Amonte, and Mike Richter why they should be wearing the blue, white, and red of the Rangers next fall.
Léger will not speak directly to these unrestricted free agents. He'll address their agent, Mike Gillis, the former Boston Bruins and Colorado Rockies player who lives in this perfectly appointed heritage home. Gillis is upstairs in pyjama bottoms and T-shirt, drinking coffee and checking voice mail in the un-air-conditioned room that serves as his office. While other agents work from lavish suites, served by squads of assistants, Gillis works alone in the spare room of his family home at an antique wooden dinner table. His tools are basic: laptop, cellphone, office phone, fax machine. The decor is restrained as well; there are no photos of Gillis grinning beside clients such as Holik, Bure, or Pavol Demitra, no scintillating action shots of Amonte, Mathieu Dandenault, or Markus Naslund. There are rustic paintings of Quebec winter scenes on the walls, and wine catalogues and notebooks piled about the floor. The only concession to his trade is a neat stack of NHL jerseys on an heirloom chair by the door. From the whirr of the oscillating fan in the corner, you'd be hard pressed to identify this as the lair of a man who wrote $39,450,000 (all figures in U.S. dollars) in NHL contracts in 2001-02.
The frugality of Gillis's operation draws a crack this morning from Islanders GM Mike Milbury, once Gillis's teammate in Boston. "He just left a message," smiles Gillis from behind the desk. "He says, 'You're such a cheap (skate) to not even have someone answer your phone. Call me!'" Milbury's profane, mocking malevolence is typical in the macho world of hockey, and while Gillis is hardly a jock type any more, the boyish banter of the dressing room still brings a smile to his usually impassive face.
Gillis has reasons to smile today -- millions of them. The forty-four-year-old player-turned-lawyer has been looking forward to his clients' becoming unrestricted free agents under the terms of the NHL's collective bargaining agreement. As of today, they are free to reap the kind of salaries that make NHL management figures weep and ordinary people shake their heads. Gillis, who sold his business to Assante Corporation, a financial-management company, in 2000 and now works under their banner, was up till three in the morning, handling phone calls and awaiting offers from teams eager to bid on Holik, Amonte, and Richter. There were no early bids, and now Gillis has awoken to scan the morning market for hockey stars.
Adam Oates, he notes, is a surprise early signing. The veteran centre inked a two-year deal at $3.5 million a season with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim just after midnight. A brilliant set-up man with more than 1,000 career assists, Oates has been recruited to feed passes to superstar Paul Kariya, who's been languishing in mediocrity with the Disney-owned team. To get Oates at the trade deadline, the Philadelphia Flyers had sacrificed goalie prospect Maxime Ouellet and two first-round draft picks to Washington. But after being eliminated in round one of the 2002 playoffs, the Flyers have let Oates walk to the West Coast for nothing. This leads many to wonder what Bobby Clarke, the Flyers GM, has to do to get fired.
The salary the Ducks have agreed to pay the forty-year-old centre has Gillis licking his chops. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has again promised restraint and sobriety in bidding for unrestricted free agents this summer, but Gillis knows that local market forces will cause many owners once more to ignore Bettman's call. He knows that a flood of platitudes and outright bribes from desperate teams will flow to his clients this day. And he knows that Léger, a former NHL GM, is not waiting on his patio to work on a tan.
As he sips coffee, Gillis learns that the Rangers have offered the first blandishment of the day. At the homes of Holik, Amonte, and Richter, delivery companies have brought crystal Tiffany apples and DVD players loaded with a "welcome to New York" message from Big Apple luminaries such as David Letterman. Meanwhile, Dallas owner Tom Hicks (the man who signed Alex Rodriguez to a stunning $252-million contract to play shortstop for his Texas Rangers baseball team) is loading Stars general manager Doug Armstrong, special assistant Guy Carbonneau, and head coach Rick Wilson into a Gulfstream 5 jet to hop across the continent for visits with their free-agent targets, reportedly including Holik and Amonte. It all augurs well.
But Gillis is in no hurry to finalize a contract before lunch. "We've got to let everybody get in there and throw punches," he says. "First you create a market, get a few offers on the table. Then you stand back and let them fight it out." There have been accusations from Amonte's old boss, Chicago's crusty owner Bill Wirtz, that the entire contract process with his soon-to-be-ex-captain has been orchestrated in advance by Gillis. Wirtz, once the powerful chairman of the NHL's Board of Governors, claims that Amonte will sign for $7.5 million a season with the Stars and that people are fooling themselves if they think otherwise.
Gillis bridles at this impugning of his professional integrity. "Bill Wirtz is full of (explitive). He had every opportunity to sign his captain to a fair contract, and now that he's losing him, he's trying to blame others. I can't stand that stuff."
Perhaps Wirtz, one of America's richest men, feels he can intimidate Gillis, or at least salvage some credibility with his season-ticket holders, who've watched the Blackhawks become a bad joke under his stewardship. If Wirtz does try to bully Gillis, it's likely to be a futile move. Despite a six-year career in the NHL, Gillis is no sentimentalist. His role as an agent is not the culmination of a boyhood fantasy or some thwarted dream of athletic glory. He's not in the profession to hobnob with his old pals from his playing days. He often counsels his clients on how to maximize their talents -- and paycheques -- at the NHL level: "Sometimes you have to take a step back or sideways to get them to understand their own game," he says. A man whose clientele is almost completely made up of players disaffected with their previous representation, Gillis has orchestrated celebrated trades for Pavel Bure to Florida and then to the Rangers in the glare of public criticism. He has traded barbs and epithets with the toughest GMs -- some of them former teammates or opponents. He states his goal succinctly: "Maximizing compensation is the first and foremost part of my job." If Gillis's career were a movie, it would be Unforgiven.
"The agent business is full of guys with (guts)," says one high-ranking NHL management figure. "But Mike Gillis has the (most guts) of all."
You can probably thank his former agent and union leader, Alan Eagleson, for Gillis's intransigence. Eagleson and Marvin Goldblatt, the accountant at Eagleson's Sports Management company, handled every aspect of Gillis's career from the time he was drafted out of Kingston of the Ontario Hockey League by the Colorado Rockies in 1978. Gillis paid Eagleson's standard 10 percent for contracts and financial management. When Gillis's father died, Goldblatt said he became "a surrogate father," advising and supporting him. His injury-plagued career ended in Boston on September 22, 1984, when he fractured his right ankle in a scrimmage. After doctors told him he would never play in the NHL again, Gillis decided to retire and collect the $275,000 (U.S.) in NHL and NHLPA disability insurance to which he was entitled.
He intended to use the money to help finance his legal education at Queen's University in Kingston. But Goldblatt informed him there were problems with the claim: the insurers were balking at paying the settlement. Gillis was devastated. Eagleson eventually told him he would need to employ legal and accounting help to pressure the insurers (who also happened to be Eagleson's friends and the guarantors of the mortgage on his flat in London, England). The NHLPA boss bragged he would bring in another pal, Supreme Court Justice John Sopinka, to help obtain the money. Eventually Gillis was informed that Eagleson had been successful. For a fee of $41,250, Gillis would receive his payout. Though unhappy to have to pay for what he felt was rightfully his, Gillis accepted the deal and moved on.
There it might have rested if not for the work of groundbreaking journalist Russ Conway of the Lawrence Eagle Tribune, a newspaper in the Boston area. Conway had learned that many former Eagleson clients, including Pat Quinn, Dale Tallon, André Savard, Bill White, and Willie Huber, had been charged questionable fees by their agent and union leader to process disputed claims. Conway contacted Gillis to find out about his experience. The young law student rejected Conway's allegations about Eagleson and Goldblatt, whom he trusted implicitly. He and his wife, Diane, wanted to put the incident behind them and get on with their life in Kingston.
When Conway's research was picked up by the Globe and Mail in 1994, however, the Gillises decided to look into their old files in the basement. What they found shocked them. The $41,250 in "legal and accounting" payments had in fact gone to Kingsmar Holdings, one of Eagleson's companies, not to outside experts in the U.K. and the U.S. Worse, it appeared that the fees were unjustified. Gillis's insurance comprised three separate claims and, according to the contract, acceptance of one meant that all three claims were valid. Stung by this betrayal, Gillis launched a legal action, suing to recover the amount skimmed by his former mentor and agent, who by now was under investigation by the FBI and the RCMP. Eagleson countersued Gillis for $244,000, hoping that the prospect of a hefty legal bill would scare off his former protegé.
Eagleson discovered what Bill Wirtz was now learning on the Amonte file: Mike Gillis has a stubborn streak. Gillis engaged the services of Charles Scott, Q.C., a star litigator at Tory Tory Deslauriers and Binnington, the firm where Gillis had articled. Scott, who has represented everyone from the big banks to Harold Ballard's daughter, is not a man to be trifled with in a courtroom. Undaunted by Scott's reputation, Eagleson refused a settlement and pushed his countersuit. A trial began in Toronto in September 1996 before Justice Joseph O'Brien. The high-powered Eagleson, pal of prime ministers and captains of business, intended to face down a young man who could lose everything should the decision go against him.
At issue was Eagleson's credibility. Documents showed that Gillis's claim had already been approved by insurers when Eagleson told him he needed legal help. Although there was no evidence of billing during that time, Eagleson insisted he'd verbally warned Gillis that "the meter was running" on his services long before the claims were green-lighted. Eagleson's evidence rested largely on pencilled-in Daytimers, the testimony of cronies, and the intimation that Gillis was simply a malingerer who tried to take the disability money under false pretenses.
If the trial had a pivotal moment, it grew out of a February 13, 1984, appointment Gillis had had with Dr. Charles Bull, a friend of Eagleson's for forty years and one of the physicians who confirmed Gillis's medical disability for insurers. Bull testified he remembered an early-morning appointment and that Gillis had then gone on to Eagleson's office where, Eagleson claimed, he'd warned Gillis about his mounting legal bill. But Gillis and his wife contradicted Bull's testimony. She recalled they'd timed the doctor's visit to coincide with the sleeping times of their seven-month-old son, Max. The boy, Diane Gillis testified, had been cranky that morning, and she'd been embarrassed by the ruckus he was creating in the waiting room. When Mike's forty-minute exam ended, she told the court, they'd gone straight to her mother's Toronto home to settle her son, not to Eagleson's office. She told her husband he "was on duty" with Max the rest of the day. This, noted Judge O'Brien, was "more than mere differing recollections." But whom to believe?
In the conflicting testimony, it was the evidence of a young mother trying to cope with a fractious son that stuck with Judge O'Brien. "I find Diane's evidence on this point vivid and persuasive," he said. On this key recollection, O'Brien believed the former player, not his glib former agent and union boss. Indeed, O'Brien thought little of Eagleson's evidence and behaviour. Eagleson at one point admitted lying to Gillis about getting Sopinka's help while dissembling to the insurers about the amount of the claims.
In his finding, the silver-haired judge observed that Eagleson had demonstrated "an ability to mislead and lie with documents in his testimony. ... I concluded cross-examination of Eagleson demonstrated he was attempting to mislead the court and he had also attempted to mislead Gillis." O'Brien also witnessed the famous hat dance seen by so many players who'd been denied help by their union leader. While acknowledging the work Eagleson did put in getting the claim approved, O'Brien said Eagleson "never gave Gillis any details of what he was doing nor did he explain in what capacity he was working. ... Eagleson was wearing a number of 'hats' at the time -- acting as director of the NHLPA, player agent, lawyer and friend/advisor. There was a great deal of cross-over activity in connection with all these roles."
As for Goldblatt's performance, O'Brien "found his alleged lack of recollection astounding." The judge awarded Gillis the $41,250 his former agent had skimmed, plus interest, plus $30,000 in punitive damages. Eagleson was also ordered to pay $446,000 in legal costs. Eagleson disputed the legal bill, but Judge O'Brien pointed out that it was his own "laboriously calculated" counterclaim that had lengthened the trial and increased the court fees. As Charles Scott succinctly put it, "Because Eagleson was so greedy trying to screw Michael out of $41,250, it cost him $520,000."
Gillis took little satisfaction in bringing Eagleson to ground (it was the only time the former NHLPA director ever gave evidence on the stand in the seven years between the start of the FBI's investigation and his pleading guilty to six criminal charges in 1997). He had lost the mentorship of Eagleson and the deep personal friendship with Goldblatt. He'd also risked his financial future to expose Eagleson as a liar and a cheat. But few in the hockey world bothered to attend the trial or stand behind him in his moment of need. Both in and out of court, Gillis had to listen to intimations that he was a shirker, a quitter. Moreover, NHL establishment figures such as Serge Savard were suggested as possible witnesses for the disgraced Eagleson.
Had Gillis's mistrust of the NHL power structure not been solidified by the unhappy end to his playing career, it was carved in stone by his emotionally draining, three-year legal ordeal with Eagleson and the deception of his friend Goldblatt. There's no hazy nostalgia, no cozy chumminess, no "for the good of the game" platitudes in Mike Gillis. Not for the first time, the NHL had created its own worst adversary.
In Gillis's view, Bill Wirtz was a part of that recidivist hockey culture when he suggested Gillis was breaking the collective bargaining rules by arranging Amonte's signing in advance -- the old bully-boy tactics. After Wirtz's blast, one thing was clear: none of Gillis's prize clients was going to end up in the livery of the Blackhawks.
One of the first calls Gillis receives on Canada Day morning is from client Bobby Holik, at home in New Jersey. After twelve years of being told where to play, the bruising centre will finally call the shots this day. Informed that no offers have materialized so far, Holik is philosophical. "I took a risk that I wouldn't have a good season or that I might get hurt. Why shouldn't I wait a little longer?" he says by phone. "I'm a believer in happy family, happy player. And happy player, happy team. So if my family is happy with this deal, it will be good for everyone." Holik has been resisting the overtures of Devils GM Lou Lamoriello for months now (Lamoriello had made an offer of $8 million a year the previous day), and he's prepared to wait one day more to hear what value other teams put on his services. "He tried to come to me in February to talk about a deal," Holik says, "but I said, 'This is when I'm playing hockey. Talk to Mike.' I even heard he was trying to get my dad [legendary Czech star Jaroslav Holik] involved, but I put an end to that right away."
Holik, Boston forward Bill Guerin, and Toronto goalie Curtis Joseph are the prized players in this year's crop of unrestricted free agents. To some, the notion that Holik (who had 25 goals and 29 assists in 2001-02 for the Devils) might set a new salary benchmark is an unfathomable mystery and indicative of all that's wrong with pro sports. The thirty-one-year-old, six-foot-four, 230-pound centre is no prized box-office attraction. He's not seen in the company of Hollywood starlets or international financiers. His career scoring totals equal about three of Wayne Gretzky's best seasons. He's a frank interview and a hard worker, but if people wanted to see hard work, they'd buy tickets to the production line at General Motors. Yet Holik, Gillis suspects, will be ardently pursued by as many as a dozen NHL clubs, all convinced that the native of Jihlava, Czech Republic, will help them replace Detroit as Stanley Cup champion next June.
Why such keen interest? Holik is an implacable, intimidating foe with massive legs and a torso harder than hickory. He has reduced offensive stars such as Toronto's Mats Sundin to near catatonia in the playoffs, wearing them down with brute strength and punishing two-handers on the arms, wrists, hands, and stick. Like most Europeans, Holik rarely fights; but this doesn't mean he's soft on the opposition. A night battling him in the slot is like a night in the ring with Lennox Lewis. Such players have always been a hallmark of winning clubs, going back to meat grinders such as Bert Olmstead, Gary Dornhoefer, and Clark Gillies. "He battles, he's not afraid," says Devils captain Scott Stevens. "He's courageous, he uses his size well. Is there another player in the league like him? I don't think so."
Most in the NHL agree. Other teams also like the fact that he has a chip on his shoulder the size of Ellis Island because of his treatment by Lamoriello. While Stevens, Patrik Elias, Petr Sykora, and Martin Brodeur received much of the credit for the Devils' two Stanley Cup wins in 1995 and 2000, it was Holik's fierce dominance at centre ice that gave his more celebrated teammates the room to manoeuvre. With Holik as sheriff, they felt secure walking the streets. Lamoriello admitted as much in the weeks leading up to July 1. "I have nothing but the highest admiration for the things Bobby has done for this hockey team. If I'm able to put my players on the order of importance, there's no question I put him on the highest level."
But subordinating his offence to do the dirty work did not translate into dollars for Holik, who began his NHL career in 1990 with the Hartford Whalers (now the Carolina Hurricanes). "Lou likes to play the angles," Holik had explained the previous November. Seated next to his wife, Renee, and agent Gillis in the lounge of the Plaza Athenee Hotel in Manhattan, wearing wire-rimmed glasses and an open-necked shirt, he recalled the way the club rewarded Stevens and Brodeur with handsome new contracts. "Lou could have had me [in the summer of 2001], but I wasn't high enough on his priority list. He had to take care of other people first. So I've decided I'm going to wait and see what happens on July 1." Told Lamoriello had nothing but praise for him, Holik smiled thinly. "Lou will tell you all sorts of nice things. He doesn't like agents. He's been trying to drive a wedge between Mike and me. I've been with Mike for ten years, I trust him with everything. Last year, I didn't have the leverage. This year I do. It's all about the bottom line."
Adding to Holik's determination was his salary arbitration in the summer of 2001. After hearing for years that his sacrifices for the team would be rewarded, Holik was crestfallen when, during arbitration, the Devils pointed to his modest scoring statistics as a reason to lower his salary request. "Nobody respects Bobby's contributions to this team more than me," Lamoriello remarked later. "But you can't just give the money away." Instead of the $4.2 million a season Holik was seeking, he was awarded $3.5 million. His teammate Sykora, a flashy Czech who is much less vigilant than Holik defensively, also went through arbitration that summer. While any hockey student would tell you Holik's contributions to the Devils were more important, Sykora was awarded roughly the same salary by the arbitrator.
As he sipped a soda water in the Plaza Athenee, Holik recalled that decision. "It took me a few weeks of talking to Mike to sort things out. I needed time to absorb everything. To put it in perspective. When the season started, I think I'd done that. Some of my teammates may have had questions about my commitment, but I think I answered them with my play." In fact, Holik's 54 points -- his best output in four years -- and his four goals in the Devils' playoff loss to Carolina were eloquent testimony to his clear-minded dedication. In the heat of July, his earlier estimate of a $7-million salary offer now looked very under market.
Lamoriello's final offer had matched the $8-million-per-year contract awarded the previous summer to Brodeur, but Gillis had concerns about the deferred portion of the salary. The great Mario Lemieux had been stung by taking deferred money in Pittsburgh, only to see the club slide into bankruptcy. Lemieux took ownership of the Penguins to save his millions. "Who's going to even own the Devils in ten years?" Gillis asked as he sipped a coffee. "What guarantees does that give Bobby?"
Holik agreed: "Lou was always trying to mask it, use deferred money. Mike kept telling him, 'What don't you get? He's not taking deferred money. It's got to be up front.'" Gillis's concerns would be reinforced in early 2003 when the bankruptcy of the Ottawa Senators and Buffalo Sabres would jeopardize the deferred money of former players and employees.
Gillis has changed into shorts and a golf shirt by the time Leafs assistant GM Bill Watters calls. A team without a Stanley Cup in thirty-five years (only Chicago has waited longer for another Cup win), the Leafs are under the microscope of a pitiless media and passionate fans. No team is scrutinized more closely, and after another frustrating playoff run ended in a semifinal loss to Carolina -- and a healthy hike in ticket prices -- Watters is under pressure to do something, anything, to get his club over the hump. With Mats Sundin in his prime and Alex Mogilny matured into a playmaker as well as a sniper, Watters knows the clock is ticking to add a dominant element such as Holik to the mix.
The Leafs are widely regarded by agents as a soft touch in negotiations. The previous summer they'd showered $3 million a year to bring the laconic Robert Reichel back from Europe; after 21 goals in the regular season, Reichel scored exactly zero goals in the Leafs' eighteen 2002 playoff contests. They also paid indifferent defenceman Anders Eriksson $1.5 million to play barely half their games. Yet their fans are under the impression that the club is cheap and penny-pinching.
The latest Leafs soap opera involves star goalie Curtis Joseph, who has also decided to take the plunge into unrestricted free agency. Joseph turned down the Leafs' offer of $15 million over two years during the season (he wanted $17 million), and a nasty public-relations war (stirred up by Joseph's agent, Don Meehan) was fought in the media. There were allegations from Joseph's camp that Pat Quinn, the Toronto coach and GM, had left Joseph to rot on the bench during Canada's Olympic victory in Salt Lake City, and that the Leafs didn't appreciate their stalwart goalie. Then Joseph almost refused to shake Quinn's hand at a public ceremony honouring the Canadian Olympic hockey teams at the Air Canada Centre. After a shaky start in the 2002 post-season, Joseph's star turn in Toronto's playoff loss to Carolina preserved his value in the free-agent market. In the days leading up to July 1, it looked as if the two sides might be close to a deal to keep the Keswick, Ontario, native in blue and white. It never happened.
Now, as Joseph becomes a free agent, Watters knows he must make a splash on more than just the goalie front. He has targeted Holik as Toronto's top choice of free agents. Joseph can wait. (Watters's confidence in his ability to re-sign Joseph, combined with an undercutting offer from another free-agent goalie, Ed Belfour, will cause a bitter Joseph to abandon a higher offer from Toronto to sign with Detroit the next day.)
Watters, once the most prominent player agent after Eagleson, is calling Gillis from his summer home in Orillia. After the obligatory small talk, Gillis caresses an offer from the Leafs. "Uh-huh," he says, scribbling in his legal notebook. "That's $38 million ... five years. Right. Any room for movement on that? What are we talking about here? Okay ... I told Bobby we'd gather these offers and I'll be talking to him soon."
Gillis hangs up. "Thirty-eight over five. There's a chance he can bump it to forty. Now we're getting a little traction here."
The phone rings again. It's Tony Amonte, calling from his home in Massachusetts. The Chicago captain is about to meet the Stars' travelling retinue and wants Gillis's counsel on how to handle the meeting.
Amonte is a rare commodity in the defensive-minded NHL, averaging 36 goals a year for the past seven seasons. He's also virtually indestructible, having played 650 straight regular-season games, a phenomenal streak given the physical pounding of the current game. For Dallas, which failed to make the playoffs just three years after winning the Stanley Cup, he seems a natural fit. But the Hawks' soulless capitulation in the first round of the playoffs against St. Louis (Amonte had just one assist in five games) is thought to reflect badly on him. If holding one bad week against a player seems unfair, welcome to the NHL, where "what have you done for me lately?" is gospel. While Holik's value has soared in the past year, Amonte's has levelled off. His seasonal statistics have declined in the past few years. After torturous negotiations that included everyone from Hawks GM Mike Smith through team president Bob Pulford right up to owner Wirtz, Chicago's final offer to Amonte was $5.4 million a year. Gillis estimates Amonte's free-agent value at $7.5 million. Placing Amonte with Chicago's division rival Dallas would be sweet revenge, but there have been hints that the Stars would prefer Boston's 41-goal scorer Bill Guerin. Gillis's worst nightmare this day is for Guerin to sign with the Stars at less than market value, dragging down Holik's value and removing a bidder from the Amonte sweepstakes.
Gillis leans back in his chair to counsel Amonte on strategy. "Here's what you'll say, Tony. 'I care about winning. I've played 650 straight games. I can make your team better.' Don't be afraid of your accomplishments. Let them know how you can make them win again. You'll be awesome."
Amonte asks how things are going.
"A little quiet so far," says Gillis. "Maybe Gary [Bettman] has been urging these guys to wait us out a little. Listen, New York and Dallas say they may want to package you and Holik. I told them they might have to pay a premium to do that. Don't worry. Call me."
Gillis hangs up, presses his voice-mail button. "You have five new messages ..." Reporters from Toronto and New York, and someone from Detroit who hopes Gillis might squeeze in a televised interview. As if.
While Amonte heads off to meet with the Stars in Massachusetts, Canadiens GM André Savard calls from Montreal. He and Gillis discuss the many millions at play for Holik as if talking about the price of lawn mowers. For the Habs, still trying to sign their star goalie José Théodore and veteran centre Doug Gilmour, Holik is the type of player who could push them to the top of the Eastern Conference. Montreal's a small team that could use his bulk. But Holik's price tag for any Canadian franchise outside Toronto is daunting. Gillis hangs up. "Too rich for his blood," he says, crossing Montreal's name out of his notebook.
Next up is GM Dean Lombardi of San Jose, who is also thought to have some interest in Amonte. It's soon clear that the Sharks, who must deal with Teemu Selanne first, are not about to make any firm offers. So Gillis tries to massage the market for his guys. "I know what Gary's saying about the league, but he's got to realize that there's a different dynamic at work in each of the markets. He can't be penalizing large markets who need to do what's good for them." Lombardi makes reassuring noises, but it's clear the Sharks are not players on this day. Gillis hangs up with a few choice words about the NHL commissioner and his efforts to restrain market forces.
Asked how the Rangers can justify the numbers it will take to sign Holik, Amonte, and Mike Richter (who's waiting for his wife to deliver their third child at any moment), Gillis points out that in the cable-TV market in Manhattan there can be as much as a $40-million swing in revenues for the Rangers if they win. In that context, $7 million or $8 million a year for a hockey player can be a worthwhile investment.
Though both his phones are jammed with callers by late morning, it's who's not calling that Gillis notes. Detroit, Atlanta, the Rangers, St. Louis -- all thought to be active bidders on free-agent day -- have yet to show their hands. "Sather's playing Twister with me," says Gillis. Rumour has it that Bettman has imposed a one p.m. moratorium on offers to free-agent players, and the scuttlebutt has some agents getting antsy. Of course, if rumours were wheels, everyone in the NHL would be a bus. The latest rumour has Washington signing centre Robert Lang at $5 million a year for five years to bolster the spirits of ex-Pittsburgh buddy Jaromir Jagr. Depending on whom you talk to, this is either pure fabrication or a done deal (it turns out to be the latter). Such a financial commitment to an 18-goal scorer seems like good news for all free agents.
Gillis heads down to the kitchen for a quick lunch. By the time he's back in his office, Amonte has returned from meeting the Dallas brass. Things went well with Hicks, Armstrong, and Carbonneau, who are now off to see Bill Guerin (he lives near Amonte in Massachusetts). Dallas GM Armstrong (son of former NHL linesman Neil Armstrong) will call back at one-thirty to present Dallas's offers for Holik and Amonte. It will be the pivotal point of the day, Gillis believes. "We have to get someone out of the box, someone to make an offer," he tells Amonte soothingly. "If they give you $7.5 for five, do you want it? Okay ..."
Gillis heads downstairs to meet, finally, with Gilles Léger, who will outline the Rangers' offers for Holik, Amonte, and Richter. The two men know each other well, going back to Gillis's days in the Ontario Hockey League. Sather will be the closer on any deals, but Léger is the trusted emissary. Gillis knows that Sather wants Holik for several very local reasons: he craves Holik's Messier-like toughness for the Rangers (who now ironically include the aging Messier himself); he doesn't want his players facing Holik in a Devils uniform six times a season; and he'd score a public-relations coup against the tristate rivals from New Jersey.
Then there's the Dolan factor. Since Jim Dolan's firm Cablevision acquired the Rangers, the chief executive has become "very, very, very, very involved" in the running of the Rangers, says former general manager Neil Smith. "Cablevision believes if every company has one CEO, we should have ten." That philosophy extends to hockey players, too, says Smith. While he tried to rebuild an aging 1994 Stanley Cup team with younger players, Smith says, Dolan was obsessed with the latest veteran free agents, whether they fit the Rangers or not. When winger Theo Fleury -- who'd already been in rehab for substance-abuse problems -- became a free agent in the summer of 1999, Dolan insisted Smith fly west to get him. "He told me I had to come back with him," says Smith. "If I didn't, I was through." When Smith questioned the advisability of signing the emotionally volatile Fleury, Dolan replied, "It's my money." Fleury was signed, but subsequently checked into another rehab centre; Smith was fired and replaced by Sather. Clearly, Dolan has been telling Sather that he wants Holik on his team in 2002-03.
But Holik wants to play with a winning club. The Rangers, having missed the playoffs five years in a row before 2003, will have to pay a generous premium to persuade him to help Eric Lindros, Pavel Bure, and Brian Leetch revive their underachieving team. The Rangers will have to top offers from Toronto, New Jersey, Dallas, and perhaps other teams, by a considerable margin to land him.
At one-thirty, Dallas's Armstrong phones back as promised. Gillis's pen is poised above a legal notebook, ready for what he hopes will be benchmark offers from a team with deep pockets. He can use the Dallas offers to lever the other Holik and Amonte bidders. No such luck. Dallas is offering Holik $6.5 million a year for four years, Amonte $5.5 million for four. Their current teams have already offered more.
Gillis's thick shoulders sag, but his voice doesn't betray disappointment. "I don't think that's going to get it done with either guy," Gillis tells Armstrong. Indeed, the Stars will sign Guerin much later in the day for five years at $9 million per, and remain non-players in bidding for both Holik and Amonte.
And so the stalemate drags on through the afternoon. Gillis's only consolation, amid a steady stream of calls from reporters, friends, and contacts, is that no one else is getting much business done either. By dinnertime, Detroit -- the big spender the previous summer, when it signed or traded for Dominik Hasek, Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille, and Fredrik Olausson -- surfaces with its offer for Curtis Joseph. The Wings want him to replace the retiring Hasek, but they appear to be coming in below Toronto's offer. Gillis senses that something is happening behind the scenes in Toronto, but it won't become official till the next day that the Leafs goaltending star has severed ties with the club. (Insiders will say that the problems in the Joseph case lie in communication; they believe GM Pat Quinn, who's in Vancouver losing weight and treating a heart arrhythmia, is not being told what's really going on in the top-heavy Toronto organization.) The Kingston agent can only speculate on whether this is good or bad for Holik.
Gillis phones Holik to brief him and wife Renee on the three offers to date. Holik has a high-pitched voiced that belies his massive frame, and the Middle European habit of talking from his tonsils. His questions for Gillis are incisive and, though several clubs have lowballed or made no offers whatsoever, he betrays no anxiety. "We knew it was not a matter of yes or no," he will say later. "We knew it was just, how good is it going to get? So I was calm."
Although Holik would prefer not to move from his home in New Jersey, there's a feeling that the Leafs will bump their $40-million offer, believing they'll become a Cup contender with him. Then there are the Rangers. "Okay, I'll talk to you after I speak to Glen," says Gillis, winding up the call.
By six-fifteen, Gillis has Sather on the phone. The two men are friendly adversaries with a healthy mutual respect. There's no need for flattery; they both know what's at stake. Still, the heat of the day is only now breaking in Kingston, and an urgency has settled in the agent's office, a desire to get this done. This is a typical phase in negotiations, when emotions or fatigue can start to dictate a deal.
"Tell me a number, Glen, that I can take to my client." Sather's not prepared to be tied down, and they agree to speak again within the hour. Gillis calls Holik to tell him he thinks Sather will make an offer soon. "What's it going to take for you to play in New York?" he asks.
"I think $9 million across the board for five years would be good," says Holik matter-of-factly. The two men set to work designing a payment schedule: a $4-million signing bonus and $2-million payments to be made on July 1 each year throughout the life of the contract. They agree they will not ask for personal bonuses or a no-trade clause. Gillis -- who has negotiated these sorts of deals for Pavel Bure (who makes $10 million a year) -- reads back the figures. "Is that what you want?"
There's only the slightest pause. "Yes. I'll have no doubt about it if that's what they offer. That's what it will take."
While Gillis waits for Sather to call back, Gilles Léger pops his head in the door. He's on his way back to Toronto, his work done. There's a twinkle in his eye. At this moment in a long, trying day he may be the only one who believes a deal will get done to bring Holik across the river to Madison Square Garden.
As he says goodbye to Léger, Gillis fields a call from Mike Milbury about Amonte. On the surface, the Islanders look like a good fit for a speedy winger such as Amonte, who could play alongside either Alexei Yashin or Mike Peca. The Isles also look like a team on the upswing, with new owners and their first playoff appearance in eight seasons. The big question is whether, leveraged by the contracts of Yashin ($6.4 million plus bonuses), Peca ($3.25 million), and goalie Chris Osgood ($3.75 million), they can find another $7 million per for Amonte. Gillis tells his former teammate, "Tony understands the importance of players twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five years old like you have, your centre-ice men, your coach [Peter Laviolette]. He likes your team." Milbury and Gillis continue their dance, but there is still no offer from Long Island when they hang up.
Gillis phones Amonte at his home. "Milbury thinks you're a perfect fit with the coach and the situation." He assures Amonte, who was disappointed by the Stars' offer, that there will be a market for him. "At the end of the day, the guys who don't sign Holik or Guerin are going to come looking for you. We're going to get traction on you soon." (In fact, it will take another week and a lot of traction before Amonte finds a home with the Phoenix Coyotes at $6 million a year for four years.)
It's almost eight-thirty, and with the first hint of nightfall, firecrackers bang outside Gillis's window to start the Canada Day celebrations. Inside, too, the fireworks are about to start. On the line is Sather. He outlines the Rangers' offer: $43.75 million for five years, with the signing-bonus schedule outlined by Gillis. That's $8.75 million a year, an epic contract for Holik.
"Bobby told me he wants $9 million," says Gillis, not missing a beat. "If you tell me you'll do that, I won't go back to any other teams. We'll have a deal." On the other end of the line, Sather is the one playing Twister now. The Rangers GM, a proponent of fiscal sanity when he managed Edmonton, a small market, is now fuelled by the Cablevision money that runs Madison Square Garden. He asks for a little time, knowing his window of opportunity could close quickly and allow other teams back into the bidding.
Gillis calls Holik again with the latest number. If the rugged centre is happy, you wouldn't know it from his voice.
"So what do you want to do?" asks Gillis.
"I want $9 million," Holik says.
"I think you're right," says Gillis. "I'll call him back."
"He definitely wants the $9 million," Gillis tells Sather. "He'll take the signing bonus as per your offer. No no-trade clause. If that's all right, you can have him right now." Sather asks for a moment. Gillis smiles as he cups his hand over the receiver. He has two dozen phone messages waiting, but this game is heating up. "Glen says Brian Leetch is telling people he's happy because he won't have to play against Bobby any more. Brian must not know how hard Bobby practises."
The phone rings: a reporter asking, "Any news?" Gillis fobs him off with a few cryptic comments. The wink while stringing along a media source tells bystanders that Gillis is in his element.
Sather rings back. It's a done deal: $45 million over five years; $4 million to sign; $2 million on July 1 in 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2006. The rest in salary. Just one wrinkle: Holik must purchase half a corporate box per game for charitable purposes.
"How much is that, Glen?" asks Gillis. Sather says he'll get a price on the charitable donation. Gillis wonders how they'll announce the deal. "Are you going to call Bobby? He wants to know how to handle the press." Sather says his staff will take care of the announcement.
It's nine o'clock. Gillis has been up since seven that morning, with only a pause for lunch. Downstairs there's some special wine for a small celebration with family and friends. Diane Gillis, once a world-ranked long-jumper for Canada, sticks her head in the office door. All day she has shepherded their three children to summer camps, friends' homes, and shopping, keeping the house quiet. She remembers when Mike was a struggling law student with a bum leg and a crooked agent. She's been friends with Bobby and Renee Holik for years, many of them spent in tough hockey towns, battling injury and disappointment. Perhaps no one besides her husband can better understand the joy, the relief of this day.
"Holik's done," Gillis tells her. "Nine million, five years."
Diane shakes her head in amazement, exhaling loudly.
"Now you can buy the curtains," he adds. Player representatives typically charge anywhere from 1.5 percent for simple contract negotiations up to 10 percent for a full package that includes financial management, promotion, and legal work. Whatever Gillis's take on the Holik deal, Diane will be able to afford new curtains.
An hour later, Bobby Holik's voice comes across the TV, discussing his new deal. There is the same level tone to Holik's voice. This is clearly a cool customer. Gillis sips a 1989 Château Clinet in his well-appointed kitchen. As he unwinds from the Holik deal, his ear is cocked to the sports news. Robert Lang is confirmed at $25 million in Washington. Curtis Joseph is undecided in Toronto. Bill Guerin looks like he'll land in Dallas for the $45 million also won by Holik. There's work to do tomorrow: Tony Amonte and Mike Richter are still unsigned. "It's a way different market this year," he'd told Richter earlier in the evening. "It's like pulling teeth. Glen's going to grind the snot out of us."
Sather does indeed grind Gillis and Richter for three days before the acrobatic goalie re-signs with the Rangers at $4 million a year for two years. The idea is that Richter will split the netminding duties with young phenom Dan Blackburn in order to rest his surgically repaired thirty-six-year-old knees. (Unfortunately, Richter will suffer a severe concussion in December and miss the rest of the season.) Amonte, a week later, will sign with Phoenix. The public will gasp that someone was willing to pay Bobby Holik $45 million at a time when Gary Bettman described the NHL as teetering on financial ruin. Toronto fans, angry not to have landed a marquee free agent, will batter the Leafs for not getting Holik, Guerin, Amonte, or defenceman Darius Kasparaitis (who signs for seven years at $2 million a year with the Rangers).
The disbelief at such rich contracts is all the more marked because the NHL had been the sport that traditionally kept a lid on salaries. While baseball, football, and basketball saw huge salary leaps in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, NHL stars were compensated meagrely in comparison. As recently as 1990-91, the NHL's top salary was the $3 million doled out by Bruce McNall's Kings to Wayne Gretzky. Just ten other players, including Mario Lemieux and Brett Hull, made more than a million that season.
By Bobby Holik's final year in New Jersey, ninety-one players were making $3 million or better; 346 were paid a million or more. The league's player payroll had shot from $195.2 million in 1991-92 to $1.1 billion in 2001-02. And while team revenues had also soared, Bettman moaned to anyone who'd listen that they hadn't kept pace with salaries. How had this happened in the span of ten seasons? What caused a modest, anachronistic little business ("the Albania of pro sports," as one journalist called the NHL) to lose fiscal sanity?
Gary Bettman could be forgiven if, replying to that question, he borrowed a line from the Bard: "But I am fortune's fool."