Professional Conference Call: Allan Walsh, NHL Agent/Co-Managing Director, Octagon Hockey

Yesterday’s guest as part of Sports Business Chronicle’s weekly conference call was Allan Walsh, NHL agent and Co-Managing Director at Octagon Hockey.

Walsh discussed his days at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles, breaking into the legal profession as a Deputy District Attorney in L.A. County prosecuting murders, how one high-profile case altered his entire career, founding a boutique hockey firm in Can-Am Sports Management Group, securing his first NHL client, working at Octagon Hockey, recruiting up-and-coming talent and much more.

In case you missed it, here are prior calls with professionals from Instagram Sports, Bleacher Report, New York Yankees, The Athletic, Athletes First and Vegas Golden Knights, among other organizations. View our upcoming schedule, too.

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On early undergraduate schooling, attending Southwestern Law School, career journey…

I majored in political science at McGill in Montreal. I played some hockey with the McGill Redmen hockey team. I had zero thoughts at the time about working in the hockey industry. I knew that I wanted to pursue law. I imagined that I would probably end up working in a law firm. I always had a tremendous interest in the law and politics. Near the end of my undergrad, I went through the process that everyone who ends up in law school goes through, taking the LSAT, researching law schools.

I applied to a myriad of law schools across Canada and the U.S. and was setting my sets on Cornell Law School. It was three, three and a half hours from Montreal. Close to home. I had a very close relationship with my dad. I was raised by him. He was a single parent, and I really wasn’t thinking about law schools in the Midwest or in California. One day, in February, there was this massive snowstorm in Montreal. This was in my last year of undergrad at McGill, and I was going up McTavish Street, which is a pretty steep incline. I made it halfway up the street and my car kind of swerved and couldn’t make it any further up the road. I kind of was able to maneuver the car over to the side onto the sidewalk and just basically left it there. Went to classes. Ended up taking the metro, the subway home.

The next day my dad and I came and dug out my car with a shovel. It was that day that I got home, there was a calendar in the mail from Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles, a law school I had never heard of before. On the cover of the calendar was a very attractive blonde in a bikini reading a law book on the beach. I said, ‘That’s where I want to be’. Really half serious, half joking. Applied to the law school, was accepted and then was offered an entrance scholarship to go there. I really don’t know what it was. It was very much spur of the moment. I decided that I was going to go there. My dad thought I was nuts. I had never been to L.A. before. I had no relatives in L.A. I had no friends in L.A. Literally packed up an old Camaro of mine that I had at the time with no air conditioning. My younger brother and I drove from Montreal to L.A. in July through the Utah, Arizona and Nevada deserts at 125 degrees. No air conditioning. Rolled into L.A. and three days later started law school.

On if there was any hesitation in moving to L.A…

There’s naturally a little bit of hesitation, but I was embarking on an adventure. I wanted to live life. I wanted to do different things. I wanted to very early on get out of my comfort zone. Moving out to L.A., people think of it in a very glamorous way. It could’ve been L.A., or it could’ve been some other place. I was moving far away. I was going somewhere I had never been. There would be absolutely no support network at all, and I was going to be literally, completely on my own. That was something I found compelling and very attractive to me. To put myself into that situation.

On how moving to Los Angeles helped him grow personally and professionally…

The times in my life when I intentionally put myself outside my comfort and did something that made the people around you say, ‘What? You’re doing what? You’re going where?’, I think those are the times that I’ve grown the most as an individual, and all of those different experiences, when they’re added up together, give you a certain confidence and survival skills that I think a lot of people are frankly lacking today. I’m the parent now of a 15-year-old boy and a 13-and-a-half, almost 14-year-old girl. As any parent, I’m totally enthralled with my kids. They’re good kids, but they’re certainly living a much more comfortable life than me and my generation.

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One has to sit back at times and wonder whether we’re going to have a whole generation, the next generation coming up, that is not going to know what it’s like to struggle. Just because so much is given to them. Not just materially, which is totally one aspect of course, but information-wise. Part of the journey is seeking out the right information and then using it, processing it and pursuing the next step based on that information. There’s so much out there now. I don’t know how kids are able to deal with that, but for me personally, I found those moments to be moments of tremendous personal growth.

On initial career goals with pursuing the law…

I really hadn’t given it any thought. I was just focused on becoming a lawyer and studying law. I really wasn’t that focused on what kind of law I wanted to practice after graduating. I didn’t really focus on where I was going to live. I didn’t know if I was going to stay in L.A. long-term or move somewhere else. I’ve talked to people who said, ‘I went to law school because I wanted to practice in real estate law, or I wanted to become a corporate lawyer, or I wanted to become a criminal lawyer’. I wanted to be a lawyer. I had read many books about criminal law and a lot of the criminal trials and courtroom dramas, and I was very attracted to the idea of litigating in court. I remember thinking that’s something that would be very interesting and something I would like to do early on in law school, but I wasn’t really focused on this is where I want my career to be.

On his coursework at Southwestern…

Your first year in law school is pretty standard across all law schools. Your contracts and torts and criminal law and property law and so forth. You don’t really have much room, if any, for electives. At least that was my experience. It wasn’t until your third year that you could start taking things that you might have a particular interest in. I took a sports law class in my third year of law school and really enjoyed it. The adjunct professor was the chief counsel for the L.A. Rams at the time. Was very knowledgeable on sports law. I remember going through some of the collective bargaining litigation in the NFL and the NBA, being particularly interested in it, but still hadn’t really focused on hey, that’s something I’d like to be involved in on the sports side.

Just backing up a little bit, so everybody has a sense. I grew up an unusually-obsessed hockey fan. There wasn’t a hockey book written that I didn’t own and read several times. As an eight-year-old, I could recite statistics that were rare for any eight-year-old to be able to recite. I was able to throw out lineups and jersey numbers and stats all through my teenage years. I couldn’t really do that with any other sport. I didn’t know football that well. I didn’t know basketball that well. I wasn’t exposed to it as much. I was what you would classify as a casual fan but when it came to hockey, I would I say I was an unusually obsessive fan in many respects beyond what many people would ever experience in meeting an eight-year-old or 10-year-old or 12-year-old or a 14-year-old. Not only was I playing the game, but it was all I ever really thought about and talked about.

There was a time in fourth grade when my fourth grade teacher called my dad and said, ‘Mr. Walsh, I need you to please come to school the next day, tomorrow, and I need to meet with you about your son’. My dad went down to school. He was concerned. You know, ‘What’s the problem?’ She said, ‘We have a very big problem with your son. The only way I could ever teach him anything is to write it on a hockey puck and shoot it through his head’. That was one of the famous stories in our family. That was very much the way I was until I was 18. If I wasn’t talking about hockey, I was playing hockey. If I wasn’t playing hockey, I was talking about hockey.

On if he collected hockey cards when he was younger given his passion for the sport…

I had about five shoe boxes full of hockey cards from 1970 to around ’74, ’75. When my son got interested in hockey cards, I walked him to his room one day with five shoe boxes full of cards. He and I spent a couple weekends sorting them into binders, and they’re now his. He loves going through the cards and hearing my stories about the different players. Some of them he’s like, ‘Hey, I know that guy. He’s the GM of the Florida Panthers now. I met him once with you dad. Look at how funny he looks’. That was when my son was around nine or 10 years old. I’ve been able to pass down to both my kids my love and passion for the sport. Certainly even today at 53 years of age, I can look through those hockey cards and remember when I got this card or which pack it was when or who bought it for me or whether I got it in a trade with some other kid down the street or at school or won it flipping the cards against the wall and having the card closest to the wall. They all seemed to trigger some kind of very happy memory from a much more innocent time.

On his first job after law school at the District Attorney’s office in L.A. County…

I started working at the D.A.’s office my last year of law school doing an externship. Good friend of mine came into class, sat down next to me and said, ‘Hey, there’s a sign-up sheet outside. I just signed up to do an externship at the D.A.’s office. Go put your name down’. I jumped up and went and put my name down. The deal was if you get the externship, you take one less class in your third year, and you’re obligated to work at the D.A.’s office 15 hours a week.

I was assigned to a felony preliminary hearing unit. In the D.A.’s office and in California, if you have at least at the time, if you’ve completed two years of law school, you’re sitting with a licensed attorney, you can make appearances in court. The person I was assigned to work for was 60 some odd years of age. Had been in the D.A.’s office for 37 years and could not care less if he ever did another preliminary hearing in his life. He very quickly gave me a rundown on how to do them. I watched him do them for a couple days and he basically said, ‘The court calendar is yours now’. I would come down to court at 7 a.m. and start speaking to the subpoenaed witnesses on each of the files and there were around 15, 18 files a day.

Start organizing which detectives are there, which arresting officers are there, which preliminary hearings are actually going to have live witnesses beyond law enforcement that you have to prep. I’d be doing all of that until around 10 a.m. Judge would take the bench and then it was a matter of don’t waste the court’s time. Be organized. Have your witnesses lined up on every file and boom. Bang it out. Because the judges generally want to be done by 3 o’clock, and that’s taking a lunch break. Court was in session until 4:30, but if they’re done earlier, they get to go home. Between 3 and 4:30, if you’re not done, the judges get increasingly ornery and grumpy and difficult to work with as you’re putting on your cases.

I basically ran the court calendar two days a week, became so enthralled with what I was doing, I started doing it three, four days a week and missing classes because I was just loving the fact that I was in court, objecting and cross-examining sometimes. Putting on direct testimony, making arguments before a judge. It was like a dream, and I was in my early 20s. It was while doing that, I decided, very quickly and early in the whole externship that I wanted to be a Deputy D.A. This was it. I went and met with a couple of the D.A.’s in the human resources portion of the office, who were in charge of hiring, who informed me that the entering class had been hired almost a year previously. That I was too late and there was no chance of getting hired.

I mounted a campaign, where every Deputy D.A. that I came into contact with, I asked them to contact human resources and put in a word for me. About three months of that went by and one day, the person in charge of all the hiring in the office came to me and said, ‘I’m going to make you a deal. I’m going to offer you a position in our class. We’ve got one more spot, and you’ve got it if you promise to call off the dogs and have these guys stop harassing me every day’. That’s how I got hired into the D.A.’s office. I passed the bar. I graduated in May of 1990. Took the bar in July. Got my bar results in November. Thanksgiving weekend. Dec. 5 I was sworn in as an attorney and as a D.A. later that day. We had a two-week orientation program. I was assigned to a felony trial unit and there I was just before Christmas. Maybe a week before Christmas. I was swearing in a jury on my first jury trial. A gang member who had stolen a car and tossed a gun while he was running from the police. I tried probably around 20, 30 cases to jury trial to verdict my first year and a half in the office.

There was a spot open in the hardcore gang division. I interviewed. I was told, ‘You have to be in the office at least five years and have 40-50 trials done before you’d be considered’. I was the youngest person at the time ever admitted into the hardcore gang division back then. During my time in hardcore, I did approximately 40 gang murder cases. It certainly changed my life forever. I was somebody at the time who was very outraged by crime. L.A. had a huge gang problem at the time. There were gang shootings and gang murders on a nightly basis. For almost four years, I was on the front lines of that.

On how he lobbied for his first job…

I mounted a full on PR campaign, and I only had to be there 15 hours a week. I was there some weeks 30-40 hours. I went and showed up on weekends to help attorneys who were in trial prepare exhibits. Helped them in interviewing multiple witnesses on Saturdays and on Sundays. Early, late. I became a very important young person in the office to several top trialers. They knew I only had to be there 15 hours. They knew I wasn’t thinking about a Plan B. This is all I wanted to do, and I was going to get a job no matter what. The hiring deputy said, ‘Call off the dogs’. He wasn’t joking. There wasn’t a day that went by where somebody didn’t go to him and say, ‘You have to hire Allan Walsh. He has to be part of this new class. This guy is made to be a D.A. He desperately wants to be a D.A. He’s done this, this, this, this and this for me. Over and beyond the weekends, or late nights or whatever was necessary to get the job done to help me. This guy needs to be in the office’.

It was a full on campaign. After I became a Deputy D.A. and was in the office for a while, the gentleman who hired me, the hiring deputy, became a friend and said to me, ‘Man, you don’t know the red tape we had to go through to get another spot budgeting-wise. The class was hired, and we weren’t going to hire again for, I don’t know, maybe a year to 18 months. You got your foot in the door’. I was determined to get that job no matter what.

On the pivotal case that made him re-evaluate his career in the district attorney’s office…

First off, that case almost killed me. I survived that case, but barely. There was a high school honor student who was viciously murdered by two gang members. One gang member stabbed him in the heart with a long knife while his associate shot the young boy in the head. They took $500 from him and his vehicle. It was a very high profile case at the time. The victim was already admitted to Stanford. He was a loved kid in the community from a great family. There’s a whole long involved story about how he ended up in an alley with these two gang members. He was trying to help out a friend in need. It was tragic. This family was devastated. The community was devastated. The high school where he went was devastated.

About six weeks after the victim was murdered, his father woke up in the middle of the night next to his wife and he said, ‘I see our son talking to me. I see him talking to me’. He was having a nightmare. He woke up in the middle of his nightmare, had a heart attack and died right next to his wife. That was six weeks after his son was killed. This case was passed around from one Deputy D.A. to another over the course of one year, and it was an extremely difficult case to try because one of the key witnesses was a girlfriend of a gang member and extremely reluctant to testify.

When I got the case, I went to the crime scene. I met the victim’s families. I spent hours with the detectives. I went with them, met one of the key witnesses and determined that she was at such risk if she had testified that we ended up putting her and her mother into the witness protection program. Completely relocated them out of L.A. County. The case ended up, I tried it with dual juries. There were two gang members on trial. Each of them gave conflicting statements to the investigating officers after they were arrested, and I actually impaneled two separate juries in the same courtroom, who heard 90 percent of the same evidence except when one defendant’s statement was coming into the record one jury, the other jury left the room. We switched when I put on the other witnesses, the other defendants’ statements to the police, then the other jury heard. We actually had two separate verdicts. Guilty of first degree murder with special circumstances, and both defendants were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

That trial lasted several months. I wasn’t sleeping. I was barely eating. My suits were hanging on me. My hair was falling out. I couldn’t sleep at night. Didn’t sleep much, if at all. I worked every Friday night late past midnight. Full day Saturday. Full day Sunday. There’s a certain feeling when an attorney is in trial, actually in trial, you’ve got to have your witnesses lined up. You can’t just show up at 10 o’clock in the morning on Monday and say, ‘Well, your honor, my witnesses aren’t here today. Can we come back tomorrow?’ You had to have everybody lined up. It’s almost like putting on a Broadway production and making sure everything runs smoothly. Not only are you trying the case, but you’re also the producer as well. When that case ended, I remember feeling to myself that I was burnt out on this. When the jury came back guilty of first degree murder, I was sitting at counsel table sobbing. The detectives were sobbing. The entire courtroom was filled with the victim’s friends from high school and their families. Everyone was crying. The court reporter was crying. The judge was crying. It was one of the most heartbreaking moments, raw emotional moments in my life that I will never forget. I thought afterwards, I can never go back to that place and can’t give of myself. I gave a piece of my soul to that case that I’ll never get back. I just couldn’t give away any more pieces of my soul. That’s when I started thinking to myself of what comes next after being a prosecutor after almost six years.

On taking time off after the final verdict to re-evaluate his career…

I had so much overtime built up at the D.A.’s office that they instituted a policy where if you hit a certain number of hours, you’re basically forced to stay home to reduce your acquired overtime. After that case, I had four weeks off with pay. I went back to Montreal and was staying with my dad. Spent a lot of time talking with him about my future and told him the way I was feeling. I don’t think my dad was ever very happy about me being a Deputy D.A. as any parent would. He was concerned for my safety. Was always asking what comes next and what I’m thinking about the future.

I remember vividly. We went to dinner one night and I started talking about my love for hockey. I put to him, maybe somewhere in the sports business. I started thinking about different positions. Maybe work for a team at the time. Possibly working as an agent. I had over the years played with some players who went on to play in the NHL. One of them was playing for the San Jose Sharks when the Sharks were in the playoffs. I was talking to the player and he was like, ‘Hey, why don’t you come up to San Jose for the game and we’ll go to dinner after?’ I went up to San Jose. He left a ticket for me. After the game, we met up, went for dinner, and we had a long talk. There were a bunch of his teammates also in the restaurant sitting around us, but he and I were kind of sitting off to the side. I started talking to him about who’s your agent, what does he do for you, what do you like, what don’t you like? We talked about the agent business and a couple of the other guys on the team got involved in the conversation as well.

I think after that dinner, I became solely focused on going into the agent business. While back in Montreal, my dad had a friend who he had grown up with who was a very high-profile hockey journalist, specifically in the city. He arranged for us to get together for lunch. I met this gentleman. We had a great conversation about hockey. I believe he was impressed with my ability to recount games and know rosters from even back in his era. He was a much older gentleman at the time. He said, ‘You know what? You should give my pal David Schatia a call. David was a big agent in the 70s. He’s out now, but he had built a real big agency, and he could probably give you some advice on how to get started’. I came back from lunch, and I opened up a phone book, found the name David Schatia Law Offices, called the number and left a voice message. ‘Hi Mr. Schatia, My name’s Allan Walsh. I’m a prosecutor in L.A. I was born and raised in Montreal. I’m a friend of so-and-so. He recommended I give you a call. I’m interested in getting involved in hockey agency and representing players. Here’s my number’.

About a half an hour later, I got a phone call back. ‘This is David Schatia. How can I help you?’ I repeated my little spiel and he said, ‘Come down to my office. I’ll give you 20 minutes. Tomorrow. 12:30′. Then, he hung up. I went down there the next day at 12:30 and sat in his waiting room for half an hour. HIs office receptionist led me into his office. It was palatial, and David was sitting behind a huge desk that looked like the resolute desk in the Oval Office and a massive chair that looked like a throne. I get ushered into this office and sit down and we start talking. He starts telling me his story. In the 70s, he represented many players who became hall of famers. Players like Denis Potvin, Bryan Trottier and Larry Robinson. He had the No. 1 pick in the NHL Draft for five years in a row in the 1970s. He represented four Rookies of the Year between the NHL and the rival WHA in the 70s. He had 140 players.

Around 1981, his first marriage broke up. He had two young kids. For a variety of reasons, got completely out of the agent business. Opened up a very successful law firm. From ’81 until 1995, he’s completely out of hockey. He also, when he was an agent, represented several Major League Baseball players, most notably Fergie Jenkins when he was winning Cy Young awards. Carl Morton, players on the Montreal Expos. He represented a number of wrestlers. For a while, he was representing Andre the Giant. A number of Canadian entertainers. David was extremely charismatic, very experienced. Incredibly intelligent and a very kind, open-hearted man with an extremely gruff exterior that was intimidating to everyone including me.

I went there thinking he was going to give me 20 minutes. After four hours of talking, he said, ‘You know, I always regret getting out of the agent business. It was a mistake. I haven’t made many in life, but that was one of them. I would love to get back in. What do you say we become partners?’ He made it very clear that he didn’t want to travel. He had done all of that in the past, but he knew so many people and had the knowledge on how to build an agency, that if I was going to be the guy to do all the work, he would be the guy to possibly open doors, assist with negotiations, assist with the relationship with clients. I reached over, and I shook his hand, and we were partners for 15 years until we retired. That’s how I started in the hockey business.

On securing his first NHL client…

My first NHL client was Dean Chynoweth, who at the time was a defenseman of the Boston Bruins. His father was the Commissioner of the Canadian Hockey League, Ed Chynoweth. A legendary personality. Larger-than-life figure. He was the Commissioner of major junior hockey in Canada for many many years. He was an institution. Also, he was a huge guy, 6-foot-4, 250 pounds and did not suffer fools lightly. David and Ed had gone back together since the early 1970s. David called up Ed and said, ‘Ed, I’m back in the business. I’ve got a young partner, and I’m sending him out to meet you’. David called me and said, ‘Ed is an extremely powerful person in junior hockey’. He was very close to David for many, many years. Hadn’t talked in over a decade. David said, ‘Get on a plane. Go to Calgary and meet him’.

There was no talk about his son at all between David and I. I went out to Calgary and ended up in Ed’s office. We talked for a couple hours. He certainly was sizing me up and testing me during the conversation. At the end of the conversation he said, ‘You know, Al? My son on Boston, he doesn’t have an agent. I took care of his contracts with the Bruins up until now. The last one didn’t go very well and the GM of Boston at the time was Harry Sinden. Harry and I got into it a couple of times. We need someone else to work with Dean. So, you go meet Dean, and I’ll call Dean and tell him his new agent is coming to see him’.

We ended up meeting Dean and very quickly became his new agent. That was our first client in the NHL. Other memorable story when I was first getting started. I got a media directory for the Canadian Hockey League, the Ontario league. I start calling the GMs and coaches, introducing myself. ‘I’m Allan Walsh. I’m an agent in L.A. I’m a former D.A. I grew up in Montreal. I’m now representing players as a partner of David Schatia. This is who David represented way back when. I’d like to come and meet you. Would you be open to a meeting to allow me to introduce myself to you?’ Some general managers in the OHL at the time, this was 1996, were just, ‘We were with an agent. We have our relationships. We have no interest in meeting you.’

I called the coach of Kingston and he said, ‘Yeah, pal. You’re going to come here from Los Angles? You’re going to come to Kingston, Ontario, from Los Angeles? Hey pal, you ever come to Kingston, Ontario, you knock on my door. I’m happy to meet you.’

About a week later, I flew to Montreal. I rented a car and drove from Montreal to Kingston, Ontario. Parked at the rink in the early afternoon on a game day. Walked into the rink. Found the coach’s office. Knocked on the door. Heard a ‘come in’. Walked in and said, ‘Hey, I’m that agent from L.A. you talked to last week. I’m here’. He looked at me and goes, ‘You’re the guy? I said, ‘Yeah’. ‘The guy from L.A. who called me last week?’ ‘Yeah’. ‘You actually came?’ I said, ‘Yeah’. He said, ‘Pal, I’ve gotten about 20 calls in the last year from guys saying they’re in the agent business and wanted to meet me. You’re the first guy that ever showed up’. He said, ‘Come down here after the game, and we’ll go for dinner’. The game was over. I went down to the coach’s office, and we went to a chicken wing spot in Kingston, Ontario.

He brought his two assistant coaches with him, and we spent 2-3 hours having a couple of beers, eating chicken wings. They were giving me the lay of the land of the agency business in the Ontario Hockey League. At the end of our meeting, the bill comes, and they picked it up. The GM says, ‘Here you go, pal. For all the great advice we gave you. Thanks a lot. We enjoyed it’. I paid the bill, left and that person became a good friend of mine over the years. I’d say about within one year from that period of time, I represented seven players on his junior team. He told me one player was looking for an agent, he would help facilitate a meeting. He would never recommend me. He would just say, ‘This is someone I know. I’ve met him. He’s reputable, and he’d like to meet you. If you’re open to meeting him with your parents, I’ll give him your number. If you’re not interested, I won’t’.

From one client on his team, I think by word of mouth and one player being happy, it spread to another player to another player to another player. Ended up having seven players on his team within a year. I was going into OHL cities, Western Hockey League cities, Quebec League cities, doing that literally around the clock nonstop. I was living on the road doing that. Within a year or two, I was getting on a plane doing the same kind of thing in Czech Republic and Slovakia. A year later, I was doing that in Russia. I was flying to Moscow and meeting with team presidents and general managers and coaches and scouts, getting my name out there. Looking for players who weren’t represented and looking for representation and trying to get in front of them and have meetings with them. From ’96 until around ’99, that’s all I did. I was literally going from team to team, house to house, player to player, parent to parent, recruiting, building a business.

On how he transitioned to Octagon from founding Can-Am Sports Management Group…

Leading up to the 04-05 NHL lockout, I would agree that our firm went from a startup to a boutique to a mid-sized firm, and we had a number of really good young clients at the time. Marc-Andre Fleury had been drafted No. 1 overall and was close to starting his NHL career. Had players live Martin Havlat, who was runner-up for NHL Rookie of the Year. There was a lot of consolidation that had started in the agent business, beginning with Leigh Steinberg, Jeff Moorad and Assante. SFX was on the scene. Of course, there was Octagon and a couple of the bigger agencies had reached out to us about possible merger acquisitions. I was most attracted to Octagon. I liked the people there a lot. I was attracted to the culture of the company.

Everyone I interacted with had an enthusiasm about their business as well as the agent business that I found refreshing. The issue with David and I, we always had an extremely powerful and strong relationship between us, but he was significantly older than I was. I think at a certain point in time, he’s looking to slow down. What Octagon allowed us to do internally between us was to formulate an exit strategy for David over a certain number of years that allowed him to leave the business when he wanted on his terms. Those kinds of situations could get problematic, and I think that working with Octagon allowed us to work through those issues, so that everyone was happy and getting exactly what they wanted. Around just a couple weeks before the lockout was declared, we sold our business to Octagon. We were acquired by them and we were merged into the existing hockey division of Octagon. At the time, consisted mostly of Brian Lawton, who a few years later left Octagon and became the General Manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Mike Liut, who I still work very closely with today. From 2004 until today, we’ve grown Octagon Hockey through some strategic acquisitions and growing the business organically in different areas to one of the top, if not the top agency in hockey right now.

On the evolution of the hockey agency business…

It was always my philosophy even before Octagon to be a full-service agency in every way. That means having an in-house concierge aspect to the business. Not being one of the people at the table with a client, but being the quarterback and having all the people that are part of your team there that can service a player in literally any aspect of his personal or professional life. The one area, the one gap in my vision, was the financial aspect. The financial management aspect. What Octagon had and what really attracted me to Octagon was a developing financial services division. Octagon financial services, where bank accounts can get opened, including players from other countries. Debit cards, credit cards, accountants who do tax returns.

Anybody can go find a competent accountant that does athlete returns to do the returns, but here’s somebody who’s in-house, who’s an Octagon employee and a tax expert, who works only with athletes. Familiar with athlete returns and he’s now our guy. Financial management. Full bill-paying services. It was all of those resources that were available to us now that allowed me to be able to connect all the dots and really implement the vision I had for how I wanted to represent players and how I wanted to work with them. That’s why Octagon was such a great team and why I transitioned so smoothly into their company and into their culture. Really financial services became a tremendous partner in working with players together.

I think it’s logical. It made a lot of sense to be able to sit with players and say, ‘OK, on the hockey aspect, I can advise you on your career and negotiate your contracts. Now, whatever else you need from tax returns being filed to bank accounts being set up, to credit card bills being done, help with buying houses, selling houses, getting your cell phone hooked up. There’s people here, in-house, part of our team that can do that without having to go outside of the company for anything’ That proved to be a very successful formula for us over the years. 

On recommendations for those who want to get into the agency business and/or sports law directly following law school…

For me, looking back now, after so many years out of the D.A.’s office, I learned a lot of skills as a prosecutor that I don’t know if i would’ve learned anywhere else. I learned a lot of tools. Put to use a lot of tools. Cross-examining witnesses. Putting on cases. Organization. Management. I said earlier being a prosecutor is much like being a Broadway producer. At the same time, I didn’t get into the hockey business until I was 29, almost 30 years of age. I may have been much further along had I entered the business earlier. Let’s say 25 and not spent those years as a prosecutor. If someone were to come to me now and ask me what my advice would be in your situation, it would probably be you want to work in the NFL, whether it’s with a team or as an agent, get started as quickly as you can. Get in there. You’ll learn on the job. I don’t know many sports agents who started as prosecutors. There may well be some out there. I think my way of doing it was circuitous and somewhat unique.

On if he’s considered working for the NHLPA given his outspoken stances/positions, supporting clients and NHL players as a whole, etc…

Since I became an agent, I’ve honestly not thought of doing anything else. I can sit here today after all these years and still say there is nothing that I love more than representing players. I’ve certainly been a big supporter of the NHLPA and the positions they’ve taken in collective bargaining over the years, and I’ve been very vocal about it. I love what I do, and I’ve never thought ever about going to work for the PA or anything else.

On the evolution of recruiting talent in hockey, which begins when players are 12, 13, 14 years old…

I think recruiting has gotten much more sophisticated now. When I first got started in the business, I was doing all my own recruiting. Part of recruiting is identifying talent and spending time calling parents and talking to parents. Going out and meeting parents. As part of a bigger agency, we have amazing people working in different regions who are identifying the top talent and making contact. Certainly, we get involved at a certain point in meeting people and establishing the relationship. It’s become much more of a team-focused approach. Any player that I’m known to represent, you may know my name because perhaps I’m local or you follow me on Twitter, but there truly is an entire team behind and with me. The players and their families are familiar and work with many different people on the team for lots of different reasons and needs. That’s one thing that’s certainly different from working in a boutique kind of firm to working with a much larger agency right now.

On advice to students looking to break into the sports agency industry…

If you truly want to be a player in the agent business and you’re looking for an entry point, I’ve had many people over the years call me, email me and ask how to get started. I think that it’s shocking sometimes how people really don’t prepare themselves for what they say they want to do. If you’re really someone who wants to work on the agent side, you need to on your own become an expert in anything and everything to do with being an agent. Read every book that’s ever been written by an agent. They’re incredibly instructive and educational, and you can live your life with each of them by reading each of their books. There’s literally hundreds of books out there that you can read from noteworthy agents over the years. Not just in sports, but also in entertainment. I think you should do that.

I think you need to be familiar with the collective bargaining agreements. Become familiar with the standard contracts. Literally, you can find anything online. You can get an advantage I think just by becoming a real student. Just as you study for the bar exam as a lawyer, you can study the agency world and the agency business as you’re trying to break through. That can really help you and show, I think, how serious and determined you are to be successful. Let’s face it. Many people want an entry into the business. It’s incredibly competitive. The ones who seem to succeed are the ones who really prepare. They educate themselves, and they never, ever take ‘no’ for an answer.

About Mark J. Burns

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