The highlight of Pat Brisson’s hockey life came in 1985/86. As a member of the Hull Olympiques, he was tearing it up in the Memorial Cup playoffs. Skating for coach Pat Burns, and alongside talented players such as Luc Robitaille, Sylvain Coté and Stéphane Matteau, Brisson was on top of the world.
“I was a little more experienced,” says Brisson of his last year in the Junior ranks, “and I was playing on the power play. I had like 15 or 16 goals and 40 points during the playoffs, and I had the most fun of my career—even though we lost to Guelph in the Memorial Cup final.”
The Guelph team they lost to was one that featured this season’s NHL Comeback Player of the Year—Calgary’s Gary Roberts. And even Roberts, whose professional exploits are well documented, couldn’t match Brisson’s scoring prowess during the Canadian Junior championship tournament.
The low point of Brisson’s career came just over a year later, during the 75-mile drive from Sherbrooke, Quebec, to his family home in Valleyfield, just outside of Montreal. It was then that he decided to stop chasing the NHL dream.
“After being attached to the game for the last 18 years of a 21-year life, you face the people at home and they say ‘What are you going to do now?’ Your whole life you were the hockey player in your town. But suddenly you’re not the hockey player anymore.”
For some people, this might have been the end of a once-promising hockey story. But for Brisson, it turned into a new beginning. A close friend of Robitaille, then a Los Angeles Kings rookie sensation, Brisson moved out to the West Coast.
A self-starter in business—and obviously one with a keen grasp of the local market—Brisson opened a car wash just to make ends meet. His goal was to teach hockey, however, and before long he was doing just that.
“I worked with UCLA, and taught clinics here and there,” recalls the 31-year-old Brisson.
“Here and there” turned into several well-respected endeavors on both sides of the border, including the highly successful “Skate With The Pros” Hockey Schools in Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Las Vegas and Montreal. Brisson’s teaching work, combined with the relationships he had formed while playing Junior and minor league hockey, gained him entry into the professional hockey community. And it was his friend Robitaille who opened Brisson’s first door into the world of hockey business.
“Toward the end of Luc’s first contract (a four-year deal), I began doing his marketing. I was slowly getting into the business, and started doing Robitaille and (Steve) Duchesne’s endorsement deals on the marketing side.”
The timing of Brisson’s entry into the world of marketing hockey and hockey players was fortuitous.
“It started booming in 1988/89,” Brisson says of the hockey market. “There were card shows. Hockey players started to get paid more for their services, both on and off the ice. It started to be a trend. Agents, from that point on, had to be more involved with their players off the ice. Whereas in the past, after the contract (was signed), there were no appearances for NHL players. Baseball players, players in other sports—yes. But not hockey players.
“Then suddenly they started signing sticks and hockey cards. There were even commercials. So I capitalized on that.”
Brisson’s first foray into marketing players was in t-shirts. He put the faces of his friends Robitaille and Duchesne on the backs and chests of newly hockey-hungry fans.
“Luc and I are like brothers—we’re very close—and it’s the same with Steve Duchesne. So when I started in business they came over; they were my first two clients.”
His third client in the t-shirt business was none other than Mario Lemieux, whom he also knew from his playing days. And though he probably didn’t know it at the time, the business connection with Lemieux would perhaps be the turning point of his professional life.
“Mario had just started to do business with Tom Reich, and he put me together with Tom and (nephew) Steve, and that’s how we formed a partnership and started working together on the hockey side of their business.”
Tom Reich, of course, is one of just a few sports “Super Agents” who—until Mario Lemieux came along—didn’t bother with hockey. But with the rise of hockey in the public consciousness—Wayne Gretzky coming to LA, Lemieux developing as the best player in the game today—the sport was soon to become a major part of the Reich’s business. And that’s where Brisson came in.
As a principal in Reich, Brisson & Reich Hockey, Pat Brisson brought something to the table that neither Tom nor Steve had: an intimate knowledge of the game itself, and those who play it. And like the savvy businessmen they are, the Reichs knew how important Brisson’s insight and relationships could be to the foundling segment of their agency. So the three hooked up.
And in the beginning, those players who put their faith in Brisson did so for the same reason the Reichs.
“The players had a lot of trust in me,” says Brisson, “because I knew them back then. And they knew I wasn’t just out there for the percentage. We were friends first. They liked my vision, too, because I thought the same way—we were from the same (French-Canadian) culture.
“And also, I played the game. I played with them, so I can understand a lot of what they go through. After a (bad) game, sometimes a player is really down and doesn’t know where to look. People who either don’t mean it or don’t know what they’re talking about will come up to them and say ‘Oh, you played a good game. You did well.’ But if you can go up to your guy and say, hey, you made a great play there in the second period when you hooked that guy a little bit. And they’ll say ‘Wow, you saw that?’
“These are little things, but they’re important.”
Players saw potential
More important than Brisson’s status as a novice in the agency business.
“The players obviously saw that I didn’t have the experience of a guy who has been in the business for 15 or 20 years, but I’m thankful they saw my potential.”
Now, however, because Brisson himself saw the benefits of a partnership with the Reichs, that potential has come to be realized.
“At the beginning, my ability to relate to the players helped to overcome my lack of experience. And I knew I didn’t have a lot of experience. I didn’t know a lot about the Collective Bargaining Agreement, for example. Thank goodness I was smart enough to go to someone who had that experience—Tom and Steve Reich.”
The Reichs schooled Brisson on the fine points of negotiating contracts, talking to general managers and the critical legal aspects of agent-client, agent-management relationships.
“They taught me how important it is not to say something unless you can back it up.”
So far, however, Brisson has definitely been able to back it up, and the group’s client list has grown to include 29 current and future NHLers, including some of the game’s great players. Beyond Lemieux, Robitaille and Duchesne, that list features Chris Chelios, Tom Barrasso, Bill Ranford, Daren Puppa, Mathieu Schneider, Kevin Stevens and Bryan Smolinski.
As for those on the verge of fruitful NHL careers, the names include Anders Myrvold (Colorado), Martin Gendron (Washington), Jason Doig (Winnipeg) and Christian LaFlamme (Chicago). And Reich, Brisson & Reich will also be well represented at this year’s draft, having signed four highly-rated prospects. Josh Holden (Regina Pats) and Josh Green (Medicine Hat Tigers) are both currently expected to go in the Top 10 overall, while Daniel Briere, a diminutive sniper who became the first Quebec League player to pot 50 goals this year, is rated as a late first-round pick out of Drummondville. They also represent Johnathan Zukiwsky, a potential second-rounder who plays with the Red Deer Rebels.
Despite the impressive roster of up-and-comers, Brisson notes the importance of not having your agency plate too full.
“We don’t want to outgrow our market, to outgrow what we can deliver. Client maintenance is very important, and if you have, say, 15 players at a draft, how can you perform? So we’re selective. We try and get two or three kids per draft.”
He also stresses that talent is not the only determining factor in going after a potential recruit—it might not even be the most important factor.
“They have to have tremendous potential both on the ice and off the ice as well. We like to deal with smart kids, and people who won’t cause us or themselves any problems. We try to take some of the negative variables out of the process at the beginning.”
In terms of the recruiting process, Brisson notes that in the small NHL scouting family there aren’t many secrets, and there’s a lot of competition. By the time players are at the appropriate age to be considered potential clients—around 16—everyone’s talking about the same kids. After analyzing a player’s potential and meeting with him and his family—assuming they deem him a worthy risk—the agents make their pitch.
“Sometimes four or five other agents are after the same player, so you just have to explain to a potential client what you can offer and then just hope that it works out. We’ve been very lucky,” adds Brisson, “in that eight out of 10 times it has. But the competition happens a lot, because the players ranked in the top (echelon) are in high demand. They get calls everyday.”
Once a recruit is signed on, the maintenance starts.
“We provide support, starting off the ice, every summer—especially with the young players. We do a nutritional analysis. We put them on a conditioning, off-ice training program specifically designed for hockey.
“We also provide something that a young player doesn’t have,” adds Brisson. “He doesn’t know what it’s like up there in the NHL, so we try to provide, with our active players, a relationship between those young guys and the NHL players. They meet together for lunch, and we have them go skate with the players and talk with them, just to make them feel a little more comfortable. Because there’s a gray area there between the two levels; you don’t know how it is (going to be).
“And we have some great guys. Our active players have been very good for our young players, and in that we’ve been fortunate. For example, at the All-Star Game in Boston we had a few potential NHL players come to dinner, and Mario was there along with Chris Chelios, Kevin Stevens and Mathieu Schneider. And it’s not just a matter of schmoozing; there’s follow-up with our players.”
Follow-up is something Brisson excels at himself. As a founding partner (along with Robitaille, Brad Berman and Jerry Pressman) in the development of LA’s Iceoplex entertainment complex, Brisson is now helping to take the concept national. The group’s Ice Specialty Entertainment has already opened facilities in Pittsburgh, Dallas and Fresno, with more in the works.
But it’s in his relationships with hockey players that Brisson truly shines. He knows what it’s like to have dreams and expectations of an NHL career that don’t always work out. And he understands the fragile emotional balance of the athlete.
“Players go through tough times. They go up and down (to the minors), and at some points they ask themselves ‘Why do I play hockey?’ It happens. And that’s where they need you the most, because they start not believing in themselves.”
That’s a feeling Brisson knows first-hand. It’s his own experience, and perhaps regrets, that he draws on to help his players fight through those emotional slumps.
“It’s hard. It’s never written in the sky...whether you can make it or not. You never know if you should continue because you might eventually get there.
“Confidence—combined with skills, obviously—is very important, and at some point I lost that part. That’s when I decided to move on. But later I saw a lot of players who made it to the NHL or the IHL and I said, geez, I used to perform even better than those guys in Junior.
“You have to make (a struggling player) understand; to be patient. To paint him a big picture that one day he might look back and say, yeah, I’m happy I went through that. I had to learn.”
Perhaps if someone had been there to do that for Brisson he’d be playing in the NHL today instead of his over-30 league. But then who’d be there for the Anders Myrvolds and Daniel Briers of the world?