And the trend is self-perpetuating. With so many prominent foreign players, NHL games were aired in 217 countries last year. Pori residents willing to wake up at ungodly hours can watch live NHL telecasts as often as five mornings a week. European prospects once aspired to play for their national teams and then for professional clubs on the Continent. Now, says 18-year-old Czech goalie Marek Schwarz, "you want to play against the best in the world. Everyone knows that's [the] NHL." At the same time, one reason the players have so much leverage in the current NHL labor strife is that many have high-paying jobs lined up in Europe. Lock us out? So what? We'll just go home and play.
Grossman has capitalized on this tectonic shift but admits that his early success was due to luck as much as to perspicacity. The first wave of Eastern Europeans to arrive in the NHL in the early '90s were often represented by an omnium-gatherum of recent immigrants from their countries. "There were art dealers and middlemen—all these, um, nontraditional types who didn't have hockey experience," says Grossman. When defenseman Sergei Zubov joined the New York Rangers in 1992, the Manhattan law firm he retained was ill-equipped to handle his hockey affairs, so it hooked up with Grossman. His relationship with Zubov gave Grossman credibility with other Russian prospects, and Zubov helped him develop strategic alliances in the former Soviet Union. Today 24 of Grossman's 30 NHL clients are from overseas, representing five countries.
Grossman quickly realized that, with no foreign-language skills and with a stable of clients in North America to oversee, he needed a global staff to help with recruiting. In some cases the associates he brought in were what he calls "hockey guys"—former league employees and coaches. In other cases they weren't, but he trusted his gut. In 1992, for instance, Grossman was helping Swedish defenseman Peter Andersson buy a car in New Jersey and was taken with the charm and salesmanship of the dealer, Ilya Moliver, a sports journalist who had recently immigrated from Russia. As the two spoke, Grossman thought that Moliver could be an asset. He had the Russian work as a translator for him, then hired him full time. Though Moliver is not a licensed NHL agent, he is Grossman's liaison with Russia. (He knows the Malkin family apartment well enough to describe it in detail.) Outfitted in a full-length leather jacket and Cartier eyeglasses, Moliver, 47, flies constantly between Russia and the U.S., recruiting promising players over there and tending to Russian NHL players here.
Nearly 15 years after the initial wave of former Soviet players rolled into the U.S., the recruiting landscape in Russia is still unsettled—the Wild East, as it were. In some cases agents approach players through their youth coaches, a gambit that risks alienating their parents. In other cases they approach the parents, which in some communities is an affront to the coaches. And on occasion dubious plenipotentiaries have insinuated themselves in the picture before the agents arrive. "It doesn't happen as often as people think," Moliver says of the intrusion of Russian organized crime figures, "but when it does, we don't even bother to get involved."
What's more, tactics that are effective in one culture fail in another. "If you're recruiting players from Sweden or Norway, being too aggressive can be a big turnoff," says Azrilyant, Grossman's associate. "But when you're recruiting Russian players, if you're not pushy to some extent, you could be considered weak. There are a lot of cultural nuances you pick up and a lot of psychology you need to pay attention to."
The case of Malkin illustrates how blurry the ethical lines of overseas recruitment can be. In Pori, Grossman said that before Malkin left IMG to sign with PuckAgency, he gave Grossman a list of requests that included equipment, English lessons, travel expenses for his parents to attend his Russian Super League games and medical costs for his mother, who had suffered a spinal injury. These outlays from agents to players are permissible under NHLPA rules as long as there is an agreement that they'll be repaid after the player signs a professional contract. But what Grossman considered standard advances to a client of modest circumstances—the median annual income in Malkin's hometown of Magnitogorsk, a mining town in the Urals, is $190 a month—other agents see as a payoff punishable by decertification.
It's not the first time Grossman's tactics have come under scrutiny. In 2002 his associate Kork was placed on probation by the Finnish Players Association (FPA) for allegedly offering as much as $15,000 to several players to switch to Grossman. "It was so much against the code of conduct that we had to deal with it," Pekka Ilmivalta, chairman of the FPA, told SI. Says one veteran NHL agent not involved in the Malkin contretemps, "Almost every Eastern European player changes agents before the draft because someone else makes a better offer. In a way these kids are being used, but when you grow up poor and someone offers you that kind of money, it's tempting."
Today's border-crossing agents accumulate the kind of war stories you don't get by signing players in Duluth and Saskatoon. Grossman recounts flirting with death aboard an Aeroflot commuter plane from Moscow to the industrial town of Ufa, where he was courting a player named Vadim Sharifjanov. The plane landed safely after an extremely turbulent flight, and afterward the airsick Grossman was reluctant to sample the array of cabbage salads and pelmeni—stuffed dumplings—prepared by Sharifjanov's mother. Moliver pulled Grossman aside and explained that in Russia it is a huge insult to decline a mother's cooking. Grossman and Moliver reached a deal. Moliver, a teetotaler, would reach over and surreptitiously eat Grossman's pelmeni if Grossman drank the vodka and cognac served to his associate. It was a rough night for both, but Grossman signed Sharifjanov, who went on to play for the New Jersey Devils and the Vancouver Canucks, and the agent gained another toehold in Russia.
In Grossman's business, as in most global microeconomies, technology is a driving force. The Internet enables Grossman to scan line scores from youth games in Odessa or to e-mail his European contacts without having to worry about the time difference. He can FedEx a new pair of skates to a junior client in Minsk. Grossman and his associates each talk more than 2,000 minutes a month on their international cellphones. In a richly postmodern scene in the stands in Pori, Moliver used Azrilyant's Canadian cellphone to call Malkin's parents in their apartment in central Russia and give them a play-by-play of Yevgeny's games. "Only a few years ago we were sending telexes and using pay phones," says Grossman. "The world keeps getting smaller, but it keeps getting more complicated, too."
In the past Grossman only helped players negotiate contracts; now he helps them negotiate life in a new country as well. One client needs assistance arranging a visit by his girlfriend. Another needs a new English tutor. A third wants to send money home to Europe without losing any of it to an unfavorable exchange rate. And there are always legal matters to worry about. Los Angeles Kings defenseman Maxim Kuznetsov, who is not represented by Grossman, was detained in his native Russia last fall because of an outstanding fine from a drunk driving arrest in the U.S. in 1997. He missed training camp and was later put on waivers. "Both in recruiting and servicing the guys there are challenges," says Grossman. "Sometimes just getting hold of the right people can be an adventure."