Question: What do Kings prospects Jonathan Bernier, Kyle Clifford and Andrew Campbell all have in common?
Besides being drafted by Dean Lombardi!
Answer: They’re all represented by Uptown Sports Management, Inc...and one of their primary points of contact is agent Kyle Dubas.
There is so much more to the draft than just the players being selected. Sure, you have the stories about the scouts that have followed them. You also have GM’s trying to forecast the short and long term needs of their teams. However, often one of the untold stories is that of that guy that is privately linked to the draftee…his agent.
And it’s not just contract negotiations that a player uses his agent for anymore. For example, Uptown also has the ability to assist their players with individual marketing, financial planning, professional development, tax preparation…all the way up to post-career counseling.
Not exactly what you get when watching Jerry Maguire, huh?
In the interview below, The Mayor talks with Kyle about his background, a few of the players he has in this year’s draft, dealing with kids wanting to play pro hockey, their parents, Kings prospects, junior hockey vs. college hockey, former Ducks coach Craig Hartsburg and some other stuff you’ll like.
You started scouting at a very young age. What attracted you to that side of the business?
My entire family had worked in hockey. My grandfather coached the Soo Greyhounds in the 60’s and my father and uncles all played and coached at the junior and college level. So, when I had injuries which caused me to stop playing, I began working in the office in addition to working with the coaches and training staff.
When I was 17 and getting ready to go to Brock University, our scout in that area quit – so they asked me if I would like to do it. It was a no brainer because I had always planned on being a hockey player, and when I couldn’t play I knew I wanted to work in hockey.
You were the youngest person to ever be certified by the NHLPA as a player agent. Does being closer in age to your clients provide any sort of advantage over other agents?
I believe it’s a huge advantage because our players are more comfortable and able to relate problems to me easier than they would be to someone in their 50’s and 60’s. That said, I have a combination of youth and experience – I’ve been working in hockey for nearly 15 years – which benefits our clients more than anything else.
We have other guys too, like our Vice President Todd Reynolds, an agent for 14 years…Wes Clark, who played at Maine…and our European rep Christian Sjogren, who won two Swedish Championships and played in the World Junior tournament…all those guys are under 40 too. So, we try to combine youth and energy with experience in an effort to provide the best possible service for our clients.
You’ve spent quite a bit of time with Craig Hartsburg, a former NHL coach who is now in the WHL. That said, would you prefer to have one of your junior players on a team coached by a former NHL coach or somebody more familiar with the CHL? And why?
In a perfect world, I would prefer to have our players play for a coach with experience at the NHL and CHL/NCAA level, like Craig does. The coaches with that level of knowledge know precisely what a player needs to do to be successful at the junior or college level AND then how to be best be prepared for their transition to professional hockey because they know what professional coaches look for with incoming players.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced when attempting to get a player focused on their junior career (i.e. getting them “NHL draft ready”)?
The key challenge whenever a player advances to the next level – whether that be from midget to junior or from junior to pro – is getting him to understand how much stronger, faster and skilled his peers will be at the next level. They have less time to make decisions, with the puck and without, battles are tougher to win, shooting and passing lanes close faster, etc.
Also, for players going the major junior route, we want to ensure that they are working hard at their schooling and keeping their minds sharp. Sitting around playing Xbox all day reduces focus and cognitive response time. Therefore, we challenge our guys to do cross words, volunteer during the day, read, keep their minds sharp.
When you walk into a home and are trying to convince a young player and/or his parents to sign with you, what are some of the key things you try to get across?
Simply, the importance of character and integrity to our company and how they can be sure that they will be surrounded by other clients of elite character and integrity. Over the course of the past two seasons we have had a number of NHL teams say to us “You know guys, when we draft a player who is represented by Uptown Sports, we know that we are getting a person of elite character and work ethic, in addition to a good hockey player.”
That’s a huge advantage and one we will not sacrifice by bringing on a player who shows some questionable traits. Additionally, we’re a full service firm and players don’t get passed along through our company from one agent to the next. The person that recruits you, is who will represent you for up to 25 years. That’s a very uncommon occurrence in our business.
What are some things you say to a player to help manage his (or his family’s) expectations about being drafted?
We give each player the results draft from ten years before which will show that numerous players drafted in the 1st round never make it. While some drafted in the final round – or not drafted at all – go onto have tremendous careers. Very simply, it is what a player does AFTER the draft that will determine whether he reaches his full potential.
For your high end players that attend the Draft Combine, what advice do you give them prior to attending?
The majority of our players prepare for the physical component of the combine at Sports Specific Training in Burlington, ON, where Larry Jusdanis and Sean McBride operate an elite program for the players. One week before the players physical testing at the combine we set up a dry run for the guys at McMaster University, so they experience the VO2 Wingate and so on.
We don’t want them dealing with the pressure of the combine and doing foreign tests at the same time. With regards to the interviews – we do not give our players a script, like some agents. We want teams to have a chance to get to know the person that they are considering drafting. If the player has a script, it’s only a matter of time before he is found out to be a fake.
What advice do you give clients prior to attending the draft?
We tell them that when they leave the draft arena on Saturday afternoon they are still the exact same player who entered on Friday afternoon. It’s now up to them to go on and do everything on and off the ice to surpass their peers.
We also prepare them to expect anything. At last year’s draft, we had a player who we advise – Corban Knight – who I would have bet a lot of money on being a top 3 round pick. Corban is a young man of elite character. He tested at the higher end of the combine and every team that talked to him raved about his make up. He was also the AJHL Rookie of the Year in 2009. He had committed to North Dakota, which has produced some elite NHL players. Florida selected him in the 5th round.
It’s tough to explain to a player why he is sitting there in the 5th round after teams are telling him in his interviews that he will be a 2nd or 3rd. In times like that, you are thankful that you work with young men of elite character who have excellent perspective.
Incidentally, part of the reason Corban slipped in the draft was because there was some uncertainty regarding whether he would be enrolling at UND in 2009 or 2010. For whatever reason, teams tend to drop a player if he is not going to college for another season. Why? I’m not exactly sure but inherently I think they feel the player will decline (developmentally) by having an extra junior year.
At the same time, you have a situation with Kyle Clifford where he just kept trending higher and higher through the under-18 and his interviews, then he goes 35th overall (selected by the Kings). The January prior his draft, Kyle and I were discussing him probably going in the 5th-7th round. Then as the second half of the season went on, Kyle got better every game and forced himself onto the U-18 team and then into the 2nd round of the draft. So, you never know.
We give the players a lot of examples – of players from the 28 seasons our firm has been attending the draft and get them to understand that things happen at the draft that do not reflect them as people or players. This season, we will use the example of Corban and Kyle, to show our guys that anything can happen on draft day.
Having been to many NHL drafts already, how do you think things will be different with it being in LA for the first time?
I think the crowd will probably be smaller than those in Ottawa and Montreal, but other than that it should be business as usual. Personally, I am really looking forward to heading to L.A. – maybe something to do with the Angels and Dodgers games that we will work into the weekend.
What NHL player do you reference most when talking to young players about the importance of character?
We reference our own client – Mike Fisher. He is a tremendous person and his character and work ethic have allowed him to overcome some disappointments – like not being selected for U-17, U-18 as a young man…and some injury trouble in the NHL. He’s a high quality guy who does everything the right way off the ice – and gives a lot of his time to charity and helping out in the community. His reputation is unmatched in hockey. Add the fact that he’s going to marry Carrie Underwood and it’s pretty easy to get young players to see the importance of character!
Your team also works with a lot of clients as they prepare for the OHL draft. What’s the biggest difference in getting a guy ready for his junior hockey draft vs. the NHL draft?
The OHL Draft is a much more convoluted process. You have the players parents playing a much bugger role and some players do not want to travel far from home. With the OHL Draft you also have players just flat out refusing to report to some clubs and then you have clubs – whether they admit it or not – trying to get players to say that they’ll not report in order to get them to fall in the draft. That never happens in the NHL Draft. It is a much more efficient and effective mechanism in distributing the skilled work force. The players are all thrilled to be drafted, and are not picky about what team they go to.
When a young player wants to talk about playing junior hockey vs college hockey, what advice do you give them?
We don’t push our players to major junior or to college. We want our players to make a fully informed decision, which can prove to be difficult. What I mean by that is when you have a kid from Ontario or Alberta – the OHL and WHL are so socially ingrained in their psyche that they operate with tunnel vision most of the time. Additionally, the NCAA programs can’t contact the players directly until June 15 of their sophomore year of high school. As a result, the Major Junior leagues hold a monopoly over the information that can be directly relayed over the phone or in person.
Until this past fall NCAA programs have not really had unified voice to promote the benefits of college hockey to young players. When that was the case we advised all of our young players to go and take in a game and do an unofficial visit prior to deciding whether or not to pursue Major Junior vs NCAA. Now, with College Hockey Inc. getting involved, there is some major push back against Juniors at the same juncture of a player’s career (14, 15 yrs old).
Right now, it’s a big time mud slinging contest and the major junior establishment seems to be fairly rattled by the strategy of Paul Kelly. I think that after years of nearly uncontested recruitment of players at the 14 and 15 year old stage, they are a little disenchanted by the fact that College Hockey Inc. is certainly going to alter the monopoly that they once had.
I look at it solely from the perspective that competition will force both entities to be better in their products and that can only benefit our clients, regardless of what route they elect to pursue.
We tell our players – educate yourselves on both routes as much as possible, experience both, and then take time to make a decision that you and your family are comfortable with. Then make the decision the right one – by outworking others, and being ready to embrace adversity and overcome it.
In the summer after a player is drafted by an NHL team, how often do you communicate with your client – considering most teams don’t begin negotiations right away?
After the draft, we allow for our players to decompress for a week or so and then have a conversation with their parents about how things proceed from this point. Based on the team that selected the player you have a very good idea of how things are going to proceed. Some teams like to get deals done for their draft picks during the next fall, while others use the entire rights holding period before they make a decision nearly 23 months later on a junior player.
Obviously it is fairly cut and dry for an entry-level deal. We have a system in the office that immediately prepares and updates comparable players who sign or have signed from previous drafts. That system updates live everyday as more players sign and stats are entered. In addition, it takes into account the needs of the team using a combination of statistics and analysis. That allows us to determine demand for the player.
One of your clients in this year’s draft pool, Stephen Silas, has been playing the last few seasons on Olympic size ice in Belleville (OHL). With some NHL scouts being fickle, do you think that hurts him at all in the minds of a few people?
Playing on the Olympic Ice surface has probably helped Stephen, more than anything. He’s an extremely smart defenseman – he is very steady with his positional play, and very composed at all times. Stephen has great poise with the puck and a very high panic threshold. He is a great kid and works very hard in all areas. One of the knocks on Stephen had been his skating – he has an unorthodox upright posture and some teams believed he had a hitch in his step which caused him to lose speed. Well, after two years of competing and having success on Olympic Ice, in Belleville and in international play at the under-18, I’m not sure it’s even a remote concern. If he can win races, and pull away from guys on the bigger ice surface, it will be easier to do on a smaller sheet with less space to cover.
Silas and another one of your clients, Brandon Archibald, both fell a few spots from the mid-term rankings to the final rankings from Central Scouting. How do you deal with clients who might get a little down when things like that happen?
We focus on where the 30 NHL teams have the players ranked, not where Central Scouting ranks them. Like we talked about with Clifford last year – he was rated in the 180’s and the Kings drafted him 35th. He interviewed with 28 teams leading into the draft. Kyle went on to have a great season. If a player’s disposition changes with each ranking then we aren’t doing the job the way we set out to do it.
By focusing on players only of elite character, we also like to think that our clients will have more perspective during the draft year. Though they may have dropped on Central Scouting’s list, I’m pretty certain that Silas climbed on some NHL team lists, while Archibald probably stayed at around the same spot. Silas was helped by playing for Canada at the U-18, while Archibald just did not have any exposure on the ice after March due to the Soo being eliminated in the 1st round of the OHL playoffs.
When you’re quoted in an interview saying something like “We’re not going to lose much sleep about whether he goes first, third, fourth, sixth…Somebody gets a bit of a gift.” Does your client ever come back and say “Hey, you may not care, but I care!”
No they don’t because we are extremely repetitive with our stance on the fact whether picked first or 210th – it is what you do AFTER the draft that will determine whether a player meets his full potential as a hockey player and as a person. Is it nice to go 1st, sure. Will it really determine whether you reach you potential? No. The character and work ethic of the player will determine that….every time.
Another one of your high profile OHL clients is Justin Sefton, who will be eligible for the NHL draft in 2011. Do you ever let guys like him tag along a year early just to take it all in? And/or what advice do you give to guys who will be included in the process 12 months later? Do you encourage them to watch it, study it, talk to guys in this year’s draft class, etc.?
In the past we have had our younger players tag along with us, though we won’t be doing it this year. The players schooling is the primary reason, the guys are all in exams and we aren’t going to take them out of that. They have open access to us and to our older clients who have gone through it. Next year we have a very strong crop of players again – Justin Sefton, Patrick Koudys, Andrew Fritsch, Jonathan Nielsen, Jackson Teichreob, and others who can rely heavily on any of our other clients for advice and wisdom.
What’s the most difficult thing about negotiating a player’s first NHL contract?
The first contract, under the terms of the 2005 collective bargaining agreement, is fairly straight forward. The players signing entry level deals have had their earning power greatly reduced and there is much smaller disparity on the guaranteed remuneration a player will receive when compared across all signings.
The biggest issue of debate is usually how much the player will receive in NHL salary vs. how much of that he will have to attain using games played bonuses. The team we enjoy dealing with most is Florida – they are fair in every sense. They don’t try to knock the player to bring down his value – they work together with you and reach a fair result. With some other teams, they grind every last cent and all that does is have you make a note of it for when the player reaches RFA and then one day – arbitration. We are fair, but when a team tries to work a player over, they’ll pay for it down the road.