2000-2001

17 2000 . Talking a tough game! Yashin's hard-headed agent Gandler takes heat ( )

By DON BRENNAN
Ottawa Sun

He is considered the most outspoken and controversial player agent in the NHL.

As a negotiator, he plays a dirty, Pete-Rose style of hardball.

He's been described as "unreasonable" and is known to overvalue his players. In a game of give and take, he gives very little.

And in some cases it doesn't matter that you have a contract with Mark Gandler. As he points out, it is only a piece of paper.

"Mark is an aggressive agent who vigilantly works on behalf of his clients," says Bob Goodenow, the NHLPA's executive director. "Some people have disagreed with his judgment and tactics as they relate to hockey and business issues. But, in the end, the results will speak for themselves."

Others aren't so polite.

"He's giving us all a bad name," one agent said recently.

Fewer people agree that the sun will rise somewhere in the world tomorrow.

Gandler, a 44-year-old New Jersey resident who was born in the former Soviet Union, has been an agent since 1990.

He represents dozens of NHLers. Most are Russians, all are Europeans. Included in his stable are Senators Alexei Yashin and Petr Schastlivy, Anaheim's Ruslan Salei, Chicago's Valerie Zelepukin, Pittsburgh's Darius Kasparaitis, Montreal's Sergei Zholtok and Toronto's Dimitry Yushkevich, Igor Korolev and Alexander Karpovtsev.

His services don't come cheap. A former client reveals Gandler's take on contracts is 5%, which is "on the high side" of what most agents
charge.

CLARKE MADE VOW

And his involvement places restrictions on his players. After being unable to re-sign Yushkevich, Philadelphia GM Bobby Clarke finally traded the defenceman to the Leafs, then vowed he will never have another Gandler client on his team. Scratch the Flyers from the list of potential suitors should Ottawa ever decide to deal Yashin.

Yet somehow, Gandler remains in business. How?

It could have something to do with his personality. Gandler may lack scruples, but he is not an ogre. He has a gentle tone, a friendly smile, a warm handshake. He can be an engaging conversationalist, even if he does come across as a know-it-all. No doubt, he has it all turned up high when he approaches a non-represented player for the first time.

"He can charm you, that's for sure," says Bill Watters, a former agent who is now the assistant GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs and a contract sparring partner of Gandler's. "Mark is a very pleasant man."

Gandler's most famous malcontent, of course, is Yashin.

Three times the Senators centre has bolted from the team while still under contract. Three times he has refused to honour deals Gandler watched him sign.

"I don't have any experience with Mark other than in negotiating a deal for Alexei," says former Senators GM Randy Sexton. "But his stance with Alexei has always bordered on the outrageous."

After playing the first year of a five-year contract, Yashin didn't show up for the second. He and Gandler cried that Sexton had promised to renegotiate if Yashin ever lost his status as the highest paid player on the team. Sexton still refers to it as an "invented accusation."

Yashin rejoined the Senators when some "face-saving" clauses were written into his deal. But when then-coach Rick Bowness benched Yashin in a game against Tampa Bay and the centre fell just shy of reaching the point-scoring bonuses, Yashin refused to play for Ottawa ever again.

He relented when Sexton was fired and Pierre Gauthier smoothed out the edges of the contract.

Sexton wasn't surprised when Yashin refused to honour the last year of his existing deal.

"To most people, a $100,000 salary is pretty good," says Sexton. "Alexei makes more than 35 times that much in six months. Now he wants to make 80 times that much. That doesn't garner a lot of sympathy from the average worker."

Many accuse Gandler of being the straw that stirs Yashin's drink of discontent.

"From all the reports I've heard, Yashin's not a bad kid at all," said another player rep. "I just think he's just the victim of some very questionable advice."

But Yashin is calling the shots and said as much at the press conference announcing his return.

Gandler, who was dressed, as usual, in a sweater, talked about Alexei's "commitment" and claimed the player never let his teammates down.

Jaws fell to the floor.

Eyebrows hit the ceiling.

Possessing an impressive education resume that includes a degree at the Columbia Law School in 1991, Gandler also claimed he did not understand parts of the collective bargaining agreement that pertained to Yashin's attempt at becoming a restricted free agent.

Another client might have fired him on the spot.

Gandler was the first agent for Senators prospect Martin Havlat. When his contract expired, he began looking at hiring Jiri Crha, mainly because a couple of his friends were represented by the former NHL goalie. Havlat says Crha also "gave more information about the league" than Gandler, though the difference between the two was discernible.

Gandler made one last pitch at keeping the prized prospect before he signed with Crha.

"He said, `if you come back to me it will be good for you,' " Havlat said recently. "He told me, `I know Alexei Yashin very good. He can help you in Ottawa.' "

The Leafs are currently having their own problems with Karpovtsev, and Gandler is being as loud and preposterous as ever. When talks on a new deal for the defenceman hit a wall recently, Gandler sent the Leafs a fax that said he was putting them "on suspension."

Gandler was trying to get Karpovtsev a contract that would pay him $3.5 million a year. The Leafs were willing to give him $1.8 million. Gandler dissed the organization publicly and threatened to make Karpovtsev a holdout.

"I thought the offer was trash," Gandler told a Toronto paper. "I don't even want to talk to that organization anymore. I'm sick of their gamesmanship and their lack of respect for players. I'm not interested in their shenanigans."

The two sides are once again on speaking terms, but are still a long way from reaching an agreement. And, at least, the Leafs are off Gandler's suspension list.

NOT VERY NICE

"Mark's got his own style and I'm aware of what that style is," said Watters. "The only way to counter it is not very nice, but you have to go about business and play the hand that is dealt you. If I had a wish, I'd wish he could take his players to arbitration and get a league-wide view of their worth. He sees the only alternative as holding out ... my job is to sign players and get them on the ice."

Kasparaitis once ignored Gandler's advice and signed a contract despite being told not to. And still others have paid for his methods with their reputations.

Of Yashin's current $3.6-million (US) salary, Gandler figured that the player would only get about $1.9 after taxes and to make up that money after a lost season, Gandler planned on demanding $2 million more than he would have on Yashin's next contract.

The entire episode has put Yashin, and other players for that matter, in a negative light.

"The whole process has galvanized public attention on Yashin and gives the impression all players are the same," said one agent. "At this point, there are far more serious injustices being done by the other side, but nobody has any time for them. People don't want to hear about it because of Yashin. It's been perfect for owners. It almost gives them immunity to do whatever they want to other players."

Gandler, meanwhile, continues to create his own legacy. To some, that's negative. But to Gandler, it's just business as usual.