In the hockey business, Ritch Winter is often portrayed as a defiant, headstrong and controversial figure. In the eyes of many Oilers fans, the Edmonton lawyer is the culprit they blame for the departure of popular National Hockey League scoring star Mike Comrie.
But once you get past the tough exterior, there is another side to the powerful player agent that belies his reputation.
When the CEO of The Sports Corporation reflects at length about his career in the hockey business, you learn that there is much more to the man than the almighty dollar and hard-nosed contract negotiations.
You discover a man profoundly affected by losing his father when he was seven, a man who views the 70 National Hockey League players he represents as men before clients, and a man sensitive and deeply philosophical about life and hockey.
|Jack Dagley photo, Business Edge|
|Edmonton hockey player agent Ritch Winter is a veteran in the negotiation wars when it comes to getting his clients the best possible deal.|
1. Did you play hockey during your boyhood in Drumheller?
“Yes. I was not as good a player as I should have been. I was an aggressive winger who didn’t quite have the talent that was necessary to do what my clients do for a living. I played until I was about 17, but I wanted to be a hockey agent from a very young age. It was probably in my early teens that I decided that’s what I would do and it was reconfirmed when I was watching (former player agent) Alan Eagleson’s antics around the Canada Cup tournaments. However, as I watched Eagleson, I didn’t think I would soon be one of the people who would be chasing him into jail (Eagleson was sentenced to 18 months in jail for fraud related to his role as a player agent and tournament promoter).”
2. How do you reflect on your role in the investigation of Eagleson that led to him being convicted of fraud?
“It gives me a lot of satisfaction knowing that the game changed dramatically for the good because of our efforts. Players ended up making considerably more money, they had a better chance to secure their families’ financial futures. It was very satisfying knowing that I was one of a trio of gentlemen (the others were hockey player agents Herb Pinder and Ron Salcer) who organized that charge (against Eagleson) and to some degree liberated the players.”
3. What’s the most important lesson you’ve had to learn to become a successful NHL player agent?
“That common sense seldom applies here and you just learn to live with it. That’s something that’s hard for a kid from a small prairie town of 5,000 to learn because it’s how we lived our lives.”
4. What’s the key to being successful as a contract negotiator?
“I think what’s important is recognizing that the easiest way to get what you want is to work hard to ensure that those you negotiate with get what they want. That’s not easy all the time, but I think it’s a focus. You work hard to get the man you represent what he wants, versus the hockey player. It’s important to understand how the man and the player interact.”
5. What valuable business lesson emerged from the difficult stalemate in negotiations concerning Mike Comrie and the Edmonton Oilers before the two sides parted ways during the past season?
“I learned how satisfying negotiations can really be, knowing that my client in a somewhat difficult negotiation was able to achieve everything he had hoped to achieve in terms of leaving Edmonton. I learned how important it was to follow through on those things instead of letting the traditional approach apply. In a traditional business approach, an agent may have suggested to Mike that it is difficult to meet his objectives and that he might want to play in Edmonton for a few more years.”
6. How did the Comrie situation affect your relationship with Oilers general manager Kevin Lowe?
“It certainly hasn’t enhanced it. What’s sadder is the fact that Kevin Lowe, who at one point was close enough to Bill Comrie (Mike Comrie’s father and the owner of The Brick) to have honeymooned as Bill Comrie’s guest, failed to contact Bill before, during or after the Mike Comrie negotiations.”
7. Do you lose sleep over what people say about you and how your influence may have led to Comrie’s departure from the Oilers?
“It doesn’t bother me because it’s not true. The opinions of the uninformed, although wearisome, are not that relevant. What is particularly difficult is when it affects your kids, when somebody at school is perhaps blaming your daughter’s father for their favourite hockey team not making the playoffs. That’s tough but my kids seem to be able to deal with that. I’ve got a job to do and my job is take care of Mike Comrie. Mike Comrie wanted to leave. He wanted to go to an organization where he felt comfortable. He’s there (Phoenix), he’s happy, he loves where he’s at.”
8. Do you think Edmonton would have made the playoffs with Comrie?
“There’s no doubt that if Kevin Lowe had signed Mike prior to the commencement of the season, the Oilers would have made the playoffs. But that wasn’t my job. That was Kevin’s job. You get frustrated when fans vent their anger at you instead of maybe where it should be placed, at Kevin’s doorstep. That’s life. We never got to money (in negotiations).”
9. How do you respond to those who say hockey players are greedy and overpaid?
“I tend to smile and think to myself about how that person would have reacted if I were representing him and getting him that kind of money. And I smile because I know he wouldn’t have given it back. I don’t think greed enters into it. For people who make $50,000 a year, it’s hard to understand how someone who makes $10 million or $9 million is fair. But when you’re on the ice with someone you know you’re as good as, you just want to be paid similarly. I don’t think there are many hockey players, although there are some, where greed enters the equation at all.”
10. Some will argue that he’s just a hockey player, right?
“When you compare him to Ivan Rebeyka, the world-renowned pediatric heart surgeon who lives just down the street from me, you think to yourself that maybe Ivan would be a little bit more valuable than Mike. Ivan Rebeyka is very, very important to the individual he’s operating on, and their parents as well. But Mike Comrie is sharing in the fruits of his business, a business that generates an awful lot of interest in an awful lot of people. As important as Ivan Rebeyka is to the individuals he’s operating on, the fact is he’s not as valuable in this community as Mike Comrie from an economics perspective. Moral values and other judgments, of course, come into play, but they’re irrelevant when you’re negotiating about money.”
11. What’s your gut feeling about whether the NHL’s labour issues will be resolved before next season?
“If common sense prevails, we won’t miss a beat, but that hasn’t always been the case. I think that despite them (NHL president Gary Bettman and NHL Players Association executive director Bob Goodenow) being bright, capable, intelligent guys, it’s the old story of the truck lodged under the bridge. The truck is a little too high for the overpass, it’s stuck in there and engineers are trying to figure out how to break apart the bridge without damaging the truck. A little boy comes a long and says, ‘why don’t you just let the air out of the tires and drive it out?’ Which they do. I think that story reflects what’s going on in hockey. My fear is that the NHL and NHLPA, like the engineers working on the truck, won’t see more than one answer. They’re so entrenched in their foxholes that they may not see other opportunities or options.”
12. Do you buy into the NHL owners’ apparent attempts to ‘cry poor’ based on financial numbers released earlier this year in the Arthur Levitt Report (the report, commissioned by the NHL, said the league had an operating loss of $273 million US in the 2002-03 season)?
“Well, it’s hard to buy into it. They made a fatal flaw when they compiled those numbers because they didn’t involve the players’ side in providing those numbers. That was a failure in negotiations by the NHL not to involve them (players) in the process. These are people who tried to control hockey players for a hundred years and who have never seen them as partners. They’ve never seen them as much more than the hired labour.”
13. Would you accept a job as an NHL GM?
“I’m not sure they’d have me. I’m not sure I’d be welcome in that club. I’m opinionated, I’m direct and I’m less inclined to support members of their club than I am rational thought.”
14. Do you have any regrets about being so outspoken?
“Oh, yeah, absolutely, but that’s the risk you take when you stand firm on issues. My parents taught me to speak what I thought was the truth. Sometimes, I could be better at sugar-coating it better than I do, but I don’t regret telling the truth. My stepfather (a funeral director) taught me about honesty and how important people were. As a kid, I was cleaning one of the hearses and I didn’t do a very good job. I told my dad it was just for a funeral. My dad pinned me against a wall and told me: ‘If anybody deserves to go to his eternal resting place in as close to a new car as we can give him, it’s a guy who never had one. Now, you get back there and clean that car again.’ ” 15. What’s your best advice to budding young hockey players?
“Focus on one thing and one thing only – being able to turn to your parents at the end of every single practice and at the end of every single game and at the end of every single season and say, ‘I was the hardest-working player today and I have always been the hardest worker on my team, because those are the guys that make it.’ ” 16. How old are the players when you make initial contact with them?
“Between the ages of 13 and 17. That’s because our competitors are doing everything but showing up at the maternity ward. It’s difficult for us because we don’t have much choice. The fact is that if we wait until a player is 17 or 18 years of age to contact them, they’ll tell you they’ve had an agent for five years.”
17. Do some agents have too much control over their clients?
“It sure seems like it (a reference to David Frost and his relationship with troubled NHLer Mike Danton). We tell the general manager, ‘I don’t know if I can do that, I’ll have to talk to Mike.’ They’ll say, ‘oh, we know you control Mike.’ That’s not the case. We’re lawyers. We review things with our clients and then see what their instructions are. We do have some influence and the player does turn to me for guidance and will sometimes ask me what I would do. But the fact is that ultimately it’s their decision. There is an element that some parents need to watch out for. When they’re sending their 15- and 16-year-old sons off to be billeted by people they don’t know and guided by people they’re not very familiar with, they’d better get to know the people their kids are living with, they need to get to know the environment they’re surrounded with and they need to get to know the people who are guiding and directing them.”
18. How do you convince players that you’re the best match for them?
“I hope to convince them that our experience and passion, when matched with theirs, give them the greatest chance of success in this business. There’s a lot of satisfaction in taking a young man who people said couldn’t play in this league, believing in him and working with him to achieve exactly that (an NHL career). As an agent, it’s gratifying to be able to coach a young man to achieve things that others and at times he never believed were possible.”
19. If God taps you on the shoulder and says you can change one thing in your life, what would it be?
“I would wish my dad didn’t die when I was seven years old. I wish my dad could have seen the success I’m having. I was blessed to have a stepfather who stepped in and was an all-star.
My dad committed suicide and it was largely financially related (he was a senior manager and owner in the grocery business). It’s something that takes a lot of time to understand. My dad obviously did not have a real good perspective on life when he did what he did. I’m sure that to some extent he is overseeing what we do. The connection I can and do make at times with my athletes is in some sense a replacement in some ways of the lack of relationship I had with my genetic dad. I think it’s one of the reasons why I think I’m a very good father today (he has five children).”
20. What’s your most important life goal?
“The same as Abe Lincoln’s. If I can paraphrase, he said, every man is said to have his peculiar ambition. Whether it be true or not, I can say one (ambition) that I have no other is so great as that of being truly esteemed by my fellow men. I render myself worthy of their esteem. How far I shall succeed in gratifying my ambition, he said, is yet to be developed. A good example of that is ‘Wild’ Bill Hunter (legendary hockey executive and promoter). He became a good friend of mine toward the end of his life (when he was dying of bone cancer) and I took my daughters to visit him one day. While we waited for him to wake up, a large number of people arrived to visit with him. My 10-year-old daughter looked at me and said, ‘Wild Bill must have been a very nice man.’ It just hit me then that if I could have as many visitors by my bedside as Wild Bill Hunter had at his, I will have been a great success. Bill Hunter is one of the few guys in hockey who gave more to the game than it gave back to him financially. But when I saw all those admiring people gathering around him in his last few days wanting to be with him, I thought that I’d like to conclude my life with the same kind of warmth and affection that Bill Hunter experienced.”
THE COMPANY: THE SPORTS CORPORATION
* Brass: Ritch Winter, CEO; Steve Kotlowitz, president.
* Profile: The Sports Corporation is an agency representing National Hockey League players (currently 70) and employs 25 people in offices in Edmonton, Czech Republic and Sweden.
* Key Clients: Mike Comrie, Dominik Hasek, Roman Turek and Petr Bondra.
* Headquarters: 2735 Toronto Dominion Tower, 10088-102 Ave., Edmonton, Alta. T5J 2Z1.
* Phone/Fax: 780-421-8777/425-6937.
* Strange but true fact: The Sports Corporation has no website.
IN PROFILE: RITCH WINTER
* Title: CEO, The Sports Corporation.
* Born/raised/age: Edmonton, Drumheller; 47.
* Education: University of Calgary, law degree (1983), Red Deer College (commerce).
* Career: Winter began his career in the sports agency business in California in the late 1980s and established The Sports Corporation and law practice out of the basement of his Edmonton home in 1984.
* Claim to fame: In 1989, Winter was one of three player agents who led the player revolt against agent Alan Eagleson, which led to the latter's conviction of fraud over his involvement in hockey as a player rep and promoter.
* Heroes: Hockey Hall of Famer turned player agent Bobby Orr, Benjamin Franklin.
* Pastimes: Participating in triathlon, fitness, reading and “not golfing.”