This article was written by guest writer, Howard Roark with whom our regular readers are already familiar. Hope you enjoy the article.
While we are mere spectators to the drama unfolding before our eyes, it is interesting to speculate about what may be going on. I am not privy to any inside information, but, as an analyst by trade, permit me to speculate a little based on what we do know. One day, this affair will be the subject of a book where the truth will come out, but, in the meantime, it is fun to have some informed conjecture.
The Chess Pieces
The Pawn – Let’s remember that Ilya Kovalchuk was 18 years old when he first came to this country from Russia. While I do not have any idea how intelligent he is or how well he speaks the language (other than listening to him speak), there is no doubt that he has been playing hockey his entire life and possesses, at best, an eighth grade education. Russia is not known for its education system, and Kovalchuk hails from Tver, far from his country’s centers of learning. So you take an 18 year old kid with little or no education, send him to a foreign country whose culture and lifestyle is very different than the one with which he grew up and give him millions of dollars. Add to that his lack of experience in anything resembling the business world and the kinds of people involved in that sphere and you are dealing with an unknown X factor in all of this. If you think this isn’t terrifying, one doesn’t understand human nature. Kovalchuk is not and has never been in charge of this process. He simply lacks the education and business savvy to do so. He is merely a pawn in someone else’s game. One could almost feel sorry for him until one realizes he is going to walk away from the process with millions.
The Bishop – Jay Grossman is Kovalchuk’s agent. To say that Kovalchuk is not totally dependent on Grossman’s advice is completely misreading the obvious. In a world of sharks all trying to exploit Kovalchuck’s talents, Grossman is the only person ostensibly looking out for Kovalchuk’s interests. But is he? Kovalchuk obviously liked Los Angeles. He indicated for a long time this is where he wanted to be. We know this from his wife coming out here looking for a home before this process started. But, there is a problem. While the salary dollars in Los Angeles are not as high, the endorsement opportunities can be even higher for a superstar who can own the town. But, as his hockey agent, Grossman gets paid based on the salary he negotiates for his client. Grossman may not see a penny from endorsement deals obtained by the William Morris’ of the world. Hence, Grossman’s interest may be focusing on salary rather than location or commercial opportunities for his client. There is another factor to consider. Did Grossman completely misread the UFA market and advise his client to reject a $100 million deal from Atlanta? With all the big UFA spenders capped out, there were realistically only two teams bidding for Kovalchuk’s services. If Grossman came up with significantly less than $100 million for Kovalchuk, how many new clients would he acquire? How many existing clients would follow his advice?
The Knight – Jeffrey Vanderbeek made his money on Wall Street at the now defunct Lehman Brothers. He likely does not possess the deep pockets that many other sports owners do. On top of it, Vanderbeek took a huge gamble by personally financing the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, a city that makes Detroit look like paradise in comparison. Vanderbeek hoped that the New Jersey Nets, like the Lakers at Staples Center, would join him and make the Prudential Center the local entertainment capital with huge sales of luxury suites and premier seating. The Nets, however, have chosen to build their own arena, and the Devils are sitting smack in the middle of the ‘hood’ where many of their suburban fans fear to tread. Just look at the team’s attendance figures. And, Newark is not downtown Los Angeles with dozens of empty lots to develop into luxury condos for yuppies anxious to return to the city center. Like the Kings, the Devils are likely bleeding cash, but they are probably not offsetting those losses at their arena or through profitable real estate development. And, their owner likely has no other income to shelter using the tax losses from the team and cannot sustain losing money forever. Thus, we are likely looking at a man possibly desperate to sell the team and arena in a terrible economy where buyers are not lining up to buy hockey franchises. There are at least three NHL teams for sale (Phoenix , Dallas, St. Louis ) and who knows how many more. Vanderbeek’s best hope is to win a Cup and sell the team. Don’t believe me? Just look at how Kovalchuk’s contract was structured. He is only being paid $6 million the first two years. How could that be? Well, perhaps Vanderbeek is hoping to win the Cup now or next season and sell the team and the six $11.5 million dollar check will be someone else’s problem. Lou Lamoriello basically verified this version of events at the press conference where he stated the Kovalchuk signing was all driven by ownership and the desire to win now. What Vanderbeek offered Grossman in return was that elusive $100 million that the agent may have needed to save face after turning down Atlanta. Given the interests of these two players, a Wall Street mogul and a connected agent, who thinks that the poorly educated Russian kid had any say so over what transpired? Do you think he actually said what he did at the press conference or was he handed a card to read by one of Grossman’s people?
The Rook – Tim Leiweke has likely been waiting for this moment for quite some time. Having hired Dean Lombardi to rebuild the Kings from the ground up, Leiweke was finally ready to bring in a superstar and put the Kings on the Los Angeles sporting map. With Kobe Bryant not getting any younger, this is imperative to keep the suites and premier seats at Staples Center sold out. Moreover, season ticket prices are significantly lower for the Kings than with the other hockey franchises in the biggest markets, and, from Leiweke’s point of view, this needs to change. Better yet, the young Russian kid has a wife with a beautiful voice who wants to be in Los Angeles to start a career of her own. Was Kings’ fan Taylor Swift the mysterious ‘musician’ who joined the Kovalchuks, the Leiwekes and the Robitailles at their dinner ten days ago? So, the Kings, apparently against Dean Lombardi’s better judgment, put an offer on the table that will allow Ilya to settle his family in Los Angeles, give his wife an opportunity to make it in the music business and bring in endorsement deals to the city’s latest sports superstar. Unfortunately for Leiweke, Jay Grossman did not see things this way and snatched his client away at the 11th hour. We know this because Helene Elliot had tweeted that the deal with the Kings was 98% done, information that had to come from Leiweke. One can only imagine the anger that ensued at AEG headquarters when these best laid plans had turned to dust.
The Queen – Ever since becoming NHL Commissioner, Gary Bettman has lusted over the Holy Grail, a large national television contract from a major network. Every move he has made has been with this goal in mind. Now, Bettman’s dream is finally within reach. Ratings for both the Olympics and the Stanley Cup playoffs hit new highs. Chicago, home of Michael Jordan, returned to its roots as a hockey town. Another piece of the puzzle was falling into place with one of the league’s genuine superstars about to sign in Los Angeles, the country’s second largest market and media capital. Seeing the rating success of all the Boston-LA NBA finals, Bettman has to know that having a successful team in Los Angeles is critical to a large television deal. But, just as his best laid plans came to fruition, Jay Grossman and Jeffrey Vanderbeek swoop in with a contract that so obviously violates the spirit if not the letter of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. No one should be surprised that this contract was voided.
The King? – There is one other player likely here, one in the shadowy background, staying out of the limelight by choice yet very interested in the final outcome. We know the Russian mob has played a major role in threatening and blackmailing their country’s athletes earning big bucks in the U.S. Who knows what role they have been playing behind the scenes in this saga, but it defies belief that they are not somehow involved.
Note that neither Dean Lombardi nor Lou Lamoriello is a player in this game. They are only swept along by larger forces beyond their control. Lombardi has shown no indication that he wants to mortgage the franchise’s future and, thus, his job to Ilya Kovalchuk. Lou Lamoriello washed his hands of the entire matter at the press conference yesterday. No, this is the story about two ownership groups with competing demands, a Commissioner who is trying to build a legacy, an agent who is looking to ensure the future of his business and a young Russian who is swept up in events he likely has no conception of.
So, one must ask, how does this chronicle end? It is too early to say with any certainty, and there remain many chess pieces left to play. It is hard to imagine that New Jersey can restructure the deal to both pass muster with the NHL and allow Grossman to potentially save face. Now that Bettman is personally involved, it is not hard to imagine that he would want a premier player to end up in a major market, read New York or Los Angeles. Note that these are the two teams most rumored to get back into the chase. The Kovalchuk camp now is up against the clock as teams need to finalize their rosters for the upcoming season and may not have cap space left to sign him. And, there is the mystery of just how far away Kovalchuk wants to be from Brighton Beach and its ‘denizens’.
Remember, the only person who can protect him at the end of the day is Bettman who can get his entire family resettled safely in the U.S. Therefore, ultimately, I believe it will be Gary Bettman, that lovable fuzzball, who will sort this all out. My guess is that Grossman will be ousted to be replaced by an agent with less skin in the game. Grossman will be compensated down the road for stepping aside. Kovalchuk will have to be satisfied with a lesser contract to be replaced with endorsements and a potential record contract for his wife. The NHL will have a marquis player in a major market, and, one way or another, the Kings will finally have their left wing. Chess game or mystery movie, it will be fun to watch it unfold.
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