During each face-off and stop in play, Katrina and the Waves' peppy '80s tune Walking on Sunshine danced through the tinny speakers of the civic ice rink in Pori, Finland. The musical selection was doubly ironic: There was little walking and even less sunshine on this bleak February afternoon. Darkness had descended hours earlier, and the crowd, stiff from the unremitting cold, sat on wooden bleachers. There had been a run on kahvi at the concession stands, so most of the javaless spectators relied on alcoholic pear cider for warmth.
Still, the hockey games they had come to watch were enthralling. Easily half of the 200 spectators were, in fact, NHL scouts, executives or team owners. They had converged on this remote, thermally challenged outpost on the Gulf of Bothnia and on three neighboring towns for the Five Nations Tournament, which drew the top players born in 1986 and '87 in Russia, Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic and the U.S.
Among the two dozen NHL-caliber competitors was the likely No. 2 pick in the June 26-27 draft, Yevgeny Malkin, a 17-year-old Russian forward. With a nascent goatee and a body that's still a work in progress, Malkin looks like a typical teenager, but he is fast and creative with the puck, and his slap shots are so hard they almost tear through the net. "To get this many talented players together in one place is rare," said Ryan Jankowski, a Prague-based scout for the New York Islanders. "Why are we all here? We can't afford not to be."
He got no argument from Jay Grossman, the president of PuckAgency, an NHL player-management firm. Grossman, 39, watched the games while tacking between seats in the stands and a no-frills "suite" high above the ice. He already had a dozen of the tournament's players under contract. Some he had signed recently, such as Malkin, who had left IMG just a few weeks earlier. Others he had repped for years. When he wasn't chatting them up outside the arena ("Krasnivry gol"—nice goal—he said as Malkin boarded the Russian team's idling bus), he was dining across the street from the tournament hotel at a joint that specializes in reindeer steak. His players stopped by and ate on his tab like kings.
Grossman's operation in Pori, seven time zones and 3,000 miles removed from his base in Manhattan's Times Square, provided a glimpse of the figures who grease the skids for sports' global labor force. It also revealed the problems these agents can face. Indeed, two months after the Five Nations Tournament, Malkin returned to IMG and filed a letter of complaint with the NHL Players Association asserting that Grossman had paid him $50,000 in cash to switch to PuckAgency. (The NHLPA confirms that it is investigating the matter and says that it will announce its findings later this summer. Grossman, citing a gag order, declined to comment, but he released a statement to SI maintaining that "when the review is completed, it will be clear [I] have complied fully with NHLPA regulations.")
Apart from keeping tabs on his clients, Grossman trolled for new business in Pori. Every player there was known to the NHL; some had signed with agents when they were as young as 14. Yet each year there is a late bloomer who catches the scouts' eyes and suddenly needs representation. "Ideally," said Grossman, "that's where I come in." The previous evening at a municipal rink in the blink-and-you-miss-it burg of Panelia, a half hour from Pori, a little known Finnish player, Lauri Korpikoski, had scored two nifty goals against Sweden, and the agent had sprung into action.
As soon as the game ended, Grossman, who had brought five of his 10 employees, dispatched his European associates to make overtures to Korpikoski and his family. Jarmo Kork (a longtime Finnish youth coach) and Peter Wallin (a former NHL right wing who now lives in his native Sweden) invited Korpikoski's parents to watch their son's next game from Grossman's Pori suite—an un-heated room with an empty refrigerator, two thermoses of coffee and two rows of seats at eye level with a banner commemorating �ss�t Pori's 1971 Finnish league championship. The Korpikoskis eagerly accepted and arrived at the suite the following evening just after the opening face-off.
It was immediately clear, by their dress and conversation, that the Korpikoskis were sophisticated. Like a center on a power play, Grossman read the situation and adjusted, skipping his pitch on the value of an agent. "No full-court press," he whispered to his associate Vadim Azrilyant. Using a few Finnish phrases, Grossman engaged in lighthearted banter with his guests and suggested ordering pizza. Fifteen minutes later Kork returned with eight pies, some topped with herring, others with pepperoni and lettuce.
How the world has changed. Grossman, a former goalie at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., broke in as an agent at 23. Promising defenseman Brian Leetch and his family trusted him, appreciated his passion for hockey and overlooked his youth; their relationship has survived to this day. To recruit additional clients, Grossman visited rinks in New England, Quebec and Ontario and made the odd trip to western Canada. At the time there was a handful of non-North American players in the NHL, "but they were generally older Europeans," Grossman says. "They had proven themselves in, say, the Swedish league and graduated to the NHL in their late 20s."
Then the deluge. The fall of communism occasioned an exodus of brilliant European players, deft puckhandlers with missiles for slap shots. Some agents ignored this trend, assuming that the European finesse game wouldn't work in the aggressive, physical NHL. Boy, were they wrong. Twenty years ago, 8.7% of NHL players were born outside North America. Today that figure is 32.4%. Of the league's top 15 goal scorers in 2003-04, seven were Europeans.