Recently I had an opportunity to chat with agent Jay Grossman, the first time we’ve spoken since the ‘Kovalchuk Saga’ from the summer. In case you are unaware, Grossman is Kovalchuk's agent. He repeatedly called the entire process ‘unique’ and ‘substantial’, and made it sound like a marathon (to no surprise).
Here is part one (of two) of our conversation with his general thoughts on the situation, rumors, and the patience throughout.
RLD: So you had a pretty busy summer… Jay Grossman: Yeah, it was pretty intense. I’ve been through a variety of different negotiations obviously, and this one was pretty unique in terms of if you look at the timeline from July 1 to September 3 when we had the contract registered and approved. It was constant, it was non-stop. We had meetings with New Jersey and other clubs through the process. Then we had an agreement with New Jersey and a press conference. After that, we had meetings because the contract was rejected and subsequently an arbitration hearing which took place in Boston. Then we had further meetings with New Jersey, meetings with the NHL and discussions with the NHLPA. It was quite substantial. The time factor… we put in 14-16 hours days for two months straight. Not to mention, obviously, going back a whole year from when that contract negotiation started with Atlanta.
RLD: Did you have any idea it would take this long? Grossman: No, there are obviously some contracts that can be done in 20 minutes on July 1. It doesn’t mean that they are easier or harder. When you’re on the clock pressure-wise and trying to get something within a certain time period or when something drags out because of time, it certainly has an effect on how or when the outcome is reached. It was pretty unique in terms of that two-month focal period… it was non-stop. Frankly there wasn’t too much time to focus on too much else professionally or personally for that matter.
RLD: Timeframe wise, the NHL really hasn’t seen anything drag on like this… Grossman: Well if they were looking for publicity, I suppose they got it! That’s not what we were looking for. It was something for me where after two or three weeks – you know, I’ve tracked what’s gone on in the social media world pretty carefully, in blogs and ‘non-mainstream media’ – after a while I just had to turn it off. You’ve got a job to do, and you can’t really be worried about what’s going on in the outside world, even within the industry. It was an interesting process to say the least. It was certainly unique because of the magnitude of the contract, the fortitude the player had shown throughout the process was pretty substantial. It took a courageous young man to stand up for what he believed in and what he felt was right. I doubt there are very many players that can handle a situation like that, frankly.
RLD: You mentioned the social media… how much of the rumors/reports were fabricated or untrue? Grossman: Probably 90-percent of it was not entirely accurate or accurate at all. New Jersey conducts their negotiations very private; a very tight circle in terms of the way Lou Lamoriello handles things internally in their organization. I’ve always found with high-profile situations is, as much as I enjoy engaging with people in the media, it doesn’t really serve our purpose to comment much. It wouldn’t have served our purpose to comment a whole lot in this process because there were so many things that were changing and, by nature, were unpredictable. You could not have made a statement and known that five days later things would change drastically or radically. I’ve been through high-profile negotiations before. While the process is on-going, it really serves your player/client best if you don’t say anything. Certainly Ilya, his talent and what he had achieved at 26, 27… going in, we thought he was the highest profile free agent on the market. Someone called me in my office on the morning of July 1 and said to me ‘Well, this should go pretty fast’, and I said ‘I don’t really think so. Part of the reason being that we don’t have a problem if the rest of the market sort of takes care of itself on day one.’ We knew this player would be pretty unique to the marketplace anyway. Right to the very end – and I made this comment to Ilya as time went on – his value didn’t in any way decrease. The level of interest that was shown remained constant throughout. If you look at players within the cap system… they get to mid-July, and some of the panic starts to set in.
RLD: Was Lou Lamoriello patient throughout this process?
Grossman: Lou was extremely patient. I think it goes back to his days at Providence college days of recruiting athletes. We had a meeting on July 2nd. We had a pretty good understanding of where their organization was in terms of what they were prepared to do for Ilya. He certainly gave us the time. Yes, Lou was patient throughout. As it got to the dog days of August and into September, I’d be hard-pressed to say anybody wasn’t frustrated by certain aspects of the way the process went and the way it was completely taken out of our hands by the NHL and NHLPA. To say there wasn’t any frustration on anybody’s part – whether it’s me, Ilya, or Lou, or Devils ownership – wouldn’t be accurate. When you consider the grand scheme of things in a two-month process, certainly I think everybody’s patience was pretty extraordinary.
RLD: It sounds like this was a pretty grueling process… Grossman: That patience served Lou really well, because there were a lot of teams that came to us and said ‘every other top free agent signs on July 1st, why aren’t you guys signing?’ I kept turning to them and said ‘hey, this is the best player to ever hit the market at that age in the history of hockey’. You have to know who you’re representing and guide your actions accordingly. You can’t represent every player the same way. You have to make decisions on the individual and where he stands. There were other frustrating moments when we were talking with other clubs when they’d say ‘Why don’t you give us a counter-proposal, why aren’t you negotiating with us?’ I kept saying ‘Well, we don’t really have to negotiate with you, he’s a free agent… if you want to sign him, you’ve got to step up and sign him.’ It’s not to be critical of other clubs, but I think if they didn’t read the situation and were seriously interested in the player but didn’t read it probably, it was their own risk. Lou traded for the player, gained an understanding for the player, and then made his decisions; and (the Devils) make their decisions in terms of what’s good for the organization. In some ways it makes it easier in that stage of the process because of his decisiveness. One of the things that Ilya did that really crystallized things for New Jersey was when – we didn’t have a great feeling coming out of that arbitration hearing, and we had some discussions with New Jersey about how we could rectify that, even before the decision was handed down – at that point Ilya said to me ‘Jay, I want you to negotiate with New Jersey exclusively and get something done with them.’ I think it was really Ilya’s decision to negotiate exclusively, and I think that emboldened them to move further and do whatever it took to get something done.
On Ilya being a free agent… Grossman: Kovy had really made the decision when he got traded from Atlanta that he owed it to himself that he had that opportunity to be a free agent, and that he was going to look on the open market… so we did do that. We went out and looked in the marketplace and I think that it’s probably fair to say that if Lou hadn’t made that trade and gotten a good understanding of who Kovy was and his ability to meet their criteria; and similarly, Kovy’s ability to judge the Devils organization and decide that’s a place that I would very highly consider. I think if that trade isn’t made, I don’t know if Ilya Kovalchuk is wearing a New Jersey Devils uniform today.
RLD: How many teams were seriously interested in signing Ilya?
Grossman: We had a fair amount of teams that were interested. The opportunities came at different junctures. Obviously we had a pretty substantial offer from Atlanta; we couldn’t come to terms with them. There was an actual negotiating in that particular case because the player was not a free agent yet and there is give-and-take in that kind of discussion. It was really their decision to move on in early or mid-January, and ultimately traded Ilya on February 3rd. New Jersey approached us at the end of the season and said that they wanted to sign him. Ilya had basically said ‘I really liked what I experienced in New Jersey. I think there’s unfinished business here. I like the guys and group of players we have.’ He certainly liked playing for Jacques Lemaire. His relationship with Marty (Brodeur) was really positive. It all manifested at that press conference when a lot of those players went through great trouble to make it to that press conference… and that gave Ilya a good feeling about the club. But at the same time, we did say ‘Hey look, we only get this chance once’ and Ilya was determined to sign as long a contract as he possibly could. For the remainder of his career he wanted to be in one place; wanted his family to be in one place. We did speak to a number of other teams early on in July. Some teams came to us with shorter term proposals that were quite substantial on a short-term basis. Some teams offered us the max on a one- or two-year basis. It’s no secret that the most substantive talks we had with other clubs were with L.A. We did fly out there and meet with them, and ultimately came to a point where we felt we had done our due diligence and were ready to make a decision.
Our podcast 'RLD Hockey Talk' is LIVE every Wednesday afternoon at 1:00 ET/Noon CT. Some of our notable guests in past episodes have been Dustin Brown, Doc Emrick, John Buccigross, Dave Strader, E.J. Hradek, Elliotte Friedman and Jay Grossman.