Prominent player agent Allan Walsh — who is part of the Octagon Hockey Group that represents Jonathan Drouin, Victor Hedman, Vladimir Tarasenko and Jonathan Huberdeau, among others — isn’t one to hide his opinions. He is active on Twitter, isn’t afraid to call out teams for how they treat his players, and rarely minces words.
Walsh, a Montreal native, started as an agent in 1995 and since then has negotiated more than $1 billion in NHL contracts. Before his life as an NHL agent, he served as deputy district attorney of Los Angeles County, where he prosecuted over 40 murder cases.
The NHL announced this week that it won’t send players to the 2018 Winter Olympics and the league is still dealing with a concussion lawsuit. On both fronts, Walsh isn’t thrilled with the decision-making at the NHL’s highest levels.
I chatted with him about these topics — and a few others — during a phone conversation on Tuesday. (Note: the text has been edited for length).
ESPN.com: Let’s dive right into the Olympic debate. What kind of reaction did you get during conversations with your players?
Walsh: The players are disappointed … we have a lot of clients who expected to be Olympic-bound. Those who were Olympic-bound are very disappointed. The general feeling among all players, whether they expected to play in the Olympics or not, is that the Olympics are good for hockey.
I don’t agree with the narrative that the NHL gets nothing out of it. You have the unprecedented situation, never to be seen again probably in our lifetimes, where you have two Olympics within four years of each other in Asia, an area the NHL has targeted for future growth. To turn around now and say, “We’re not going to South Korea because we don’t get anything out of it,” is so shortsighted. It’s mind-boggling.
ESPN.com: The league argues that it hasn’t found a metric that shows a quantifiable benefit from playing in the Olympics. Where do you see the benefit? Are there hard numbers you can track?
Walsh: Some of our greatest memories, going back the last five Olympics, have become ingrained inside hockey lore. Take the Czechs’ dramatic win in Nagano. I happened to be back in Prague when the Czech team arrived and went and celebrated in Old Town Square, where a half a million people inside the Czech Republic were chanting and cheering. They said it was the largest crowd since the Velvet Revolution. That’s not bad for hockey.
Wayne Gretzky digging the loonie out of the ice in Salt Lake — that’s not bad for hockey.
Looking at some of the dramatic moments that occurred in Vancouver, which was an incredible Winter Olympics — and Sochi, with the shootout with Team USA … it’s not every year. It’s every four years.
Almost all the players back in ’04-’05 active in the revolt against their NHLPA Executive Director are now working for NHL teams or the NHL. https://t.co/Trl0KP02BZ
— Allan Walsh (@walsha) April 4, 2017
The NHL is enjoying a renaissance of young talent coming into the league like never before. When you’ve got guys like [Connor] McDavid and [Patrik] Laine and [Auston] Matthews — I mean, we’re talking about each one of them [being] potentially franchise players, at or around 20 years of age. You’re denying these players the opportunity to play best-on-best on the Olympic stage. You’ve seen a number of older players, veteran guys, say that the people they really feel sorry for are the younger guys who have never had a chance to [play in the Olympics] and fight for their countries.
It’s a terrible shame. It’s a lost opportunity. If this really goes down the way it appears and the NHL does not make a deal to send their players there, it’s going to have repercussions and reverberations for years to come.
ESPN.com: I keep hearing the word “if.” Do you think there’s still an opportunity to make a deal for 2018?
Walsh: There’s no basis for anyone to express any optimism at this point. I have to take the NHL statement and Gary Bettman at his word when they say the matter is now closed. However, we all lived through 2004-05. In a matter of 48 hours we saw the NHL season canceled and almost uncanceled, if that’s a word. If it’s possible to uncancel a season, even though it didn’t occur … I guess it’s not impossible. I just don’t see any reason to believe something different will occur. I have no reason to believe there’s a deal out there the NHL is interested in making.
Walsh: The number of players who will want to go and say, “I’m going no matter what,” could be significant. What people are losing sight of is that the NHL is going to impose a rule prohibiting their owners from allowing players to go. But without NHL approval and permission, the individual federations — no matter how badly they want the players to play for them — [can’t do anything]. It ain’t going to happen. I think there’s going to be a lot of sincere pronouncements from players saying, “We want to go. We’re going to go.” … But there’s going to be nowhere to go to.
ESPN.com: You think the federations will deny them?
Walsh: I do. I think NHL owners who might support their players individually who want to represent their country are going to have the matters taken out of their hands — a leaguewide rule is coming to address it. I can predict to you that’s the way it’s going to come down.
ESPN.com: Any idea what that punishment might be? What’s your guess?
Walsh: I think the owners will be prohibited from giving approval and authorization for a player to go. I think there will be heavy fines attached to it. I think it will be so onerous, I don’t think I want to go down that rabbit hole. If you’re going to lose a first-round pick, how many owners are going to be on board for something like that?
ESPN.com: If a player goes on his own volition, that’s not on the owner. There would have to be some player punishment as well.
Walsh: I’m sure that will be part of it as well.
ESPN.com: Anything else stand out about this?
Walsh: [The NHL] does not see the players as true partners, and by totally disregarding the players and their innate desire to represent their countries in a best-on-best Olympics, they’re creating a poisonous atmosphere as we inch closer to the next round of collective bargaining. It’s really difficult to have the league kick the players in the groin and then say how much they want to work with them.
ESPN.com: Is that your way of saying to prepare for another lockout?
Walsh: I think it’s premature to say prepare for a lockout. What I will say, the players have been through two rounds of collective bargaining, including 2004-05, which resulted in a lost season and a lockout that lasted half a season. I think the players have now figured out what Gary’s strategy is when it comes to collective bargaining, and that’s: Lock the players out, soften them up, have them go without paychecks for half a season, and then go in for the kill. I doubt the players are going to sit back for a third time and allow the NHL/Bettman lockout strategy to just happen again.
ESPN.com: You’ve been vocal in keeping the concussion conversation at the forefront. What’s something people might not realize about the concussion lawsuit and risks players have taken over the years?
Walsh: Many people believe [the lawsuit] is about throwing money at these guys. The league propaganda was, “All these guys are looking for is a free handout.” If you actually dig down into what’s going on here, it’s just not true. It’s misleading. It’s a false narrative, it’s a lie.
Good to see the NHL and Gary Bettman always looking out for the good of the game. So much for that grand partnership with the players.
— Allan Walsh (@walsha) April 3, 2017
If you look at what the players are asking for, they’re looking for medical monitoring. They’re asking for their medical expenses related to this issue covered. They’re not looking for 3 or 4 million dollars to drop out of the sky so they can go on fancy vacations, buy a new car and upgrade their home.
It’s been portrayed like that for too long, and too many people have allowed that narrative to take hold. The truth is, many retired players in hockey are suffering from serious neurological issues that impair their day-to-day quality of life on a spectrum where players are dealing with severe depression, memory loss, anger and anxiety issues, seizures — to the point where they cannot keep a job.
I had a former client who I represented for years call me last year, and he said, “Allan, I need some help. I was driving home from the supermarket — I live two miles from the supermarket and I got lost and couldn’t find my way home. I called my wife in tears, ‘Help me come home. What street do I turn on?’ I’ve been doing this drive for 10 years and I can’t get home anymore.”
That’s the kind of stuff that is going on, and that’s what people need to know and understand. When Gary Bettman wants to challenge the medical consensus out there now and say the study of CTE and concussion is still in a nascent state, he’s wrong. The medical consensus out there now amongst all serious medical researchers, neurologists and doctors — peer-review studies — is that subconcussive blows to the head have a causation factor with the future development, potential development of CTE. There’s a lot we don’t know. We do know this: CTE does not exist except in the brains of athletes or people who had concussions. It’s not something found in the general population amongst people who have never had a blow to the head.
ESPN.com: The league will counter that they’ve had a concussion working group with the players that goes back years, that they were the first professional league to do so. Do you think the treatment and prevention in the current game is now in a good place?
Walsh: It’s funny how they use that. They spread that false information about how they were the first professional sports league to set up a concussion working group. What the discovery process and lawsuit has shown is yes, they’ve had a concussion working group. They assembled some data. Years and years went by, they did nothing with the data, they dissolved the group entirely without any findings, without even examining the data.
It was nothing but a vehicle to allow Gary Bettman for upward of a decade to say, “We’re the first professional sports league with a concussion working group.” The fact is that concussion working group was a sham that did nothing and was ultimately dissolved without doing anything. Then what did they do? They created a new concussion working group. I would say today — with no thanks really to the NHL, I think it was motivated more by fear of liability than actual concern for the players — player safety has gotten better. But player education has gotten better too.
ESPN.com: All right, I don’t want to end this without at least a couple of lighter questions. Who is the general manager you most enjoy engaging in contract negotiations with?
Walsh: Lou Lamoriello.
ESPN.com: What was your favorite negotiation with Lou?
Walsh: Every negotiation with Lou has been my favorite. I’ve always enjoyed my interaction with him. I’ve always enjoyed those negotiations. They’re colorful. They’re interesting. I’ve always considered Lou to be a man of his word.
ESPN.com: Any Lou Lamoriello stories that stand out?
Walsh: Only after I retire will I share any of those stories.
Walsh: Steve and I are good friends. We’ve always been good friends. I respect that Steve has a job to do. He has always respected that I have a job to do. Ninety-five percent of the time, our interests align. I want the player to do well, he wants the player to do well. Our interests in a player’s development and success are completely aligned. Five percent of the time, based on circumstances that are usually beyond our immediate control, the team’s interest and the player’s interest do not align.
He may have said things at some point in time that I don’t like. I may have said things at some point in time that he doesn’t like. We’ve always respected each other. He’s always acted as a man of honor in all of our dealings. I actually enjoy working with him very closely.
In the playoffs last year, after Tampa won the first round, I was in Tampa around the dressing room area in the corridor. There was a bunch of media around. Steve came walking around the corner and saw me and we kind of gave each other an embrace. We spoke a little bit, he walked away; a few people in the media came over to me and said, “Did my eyes actually see you and Steve hugging it out?” The portrayal of the fact there was any ill will that existed on a personal level, I think Steve and I both find humorous.
ESPN.com: Great. So can you tell us what Jonathan Drouin’s next contract will look like?
Walsh: We’ll have to wait and see. [laughs]
ESPN.com: Had to take a shot. Thanks, Allan.