Anaheim Ducks, Boston Bruins, Boston College, Chicago Blackhawks, Finland, Kevin Weekes, Philadelphia Flyers, St. Louis Blues, Sweden, T.J. Oshie, Tuuka Rask, University of Miami of Ohio, Wayne Simmonds
Hockey has taken Eustace King from bucolic Evanston, Ill., to the bright lights of Los Angeles and from between the pipes to the thick of the business end of the game. It’s taken Brett Peterson on a full-circle journey from Boston and back.
Their separate trips have made King, a former Miami University of Ohio goaltender, and Peterson, a former standout defenseman at Boston College, the rarest of a rare breed: African-American sports agents who represent professional hockey players.
As a managing partner for O2K Worldwide Management Group, King is an agent of change of sorts. He represents several of the growing number of players of color who are gradually changing the face of the National Hockey League.
Peterson, the Boston-based director of hockey operations for Acme World Sports, has a client list that includes Tuukka Rask, the superstar Finnish goaltender for the Boston Bruins, and Alex Broadhurst, the talented young center for the Chicago Blackhawks.
King’s clients include Philadelphia Flyers right wing Wayne Simmonds; St. Louis Blues right wing Chris Stewart and his free agent brother, right wing Anthony Stewart; Anaheim Ducks right wings Emerson Etem and Devante Smith-Pelly; and San Jose Sharks left wing Raffi Torres, a Canadian of Mexican heritage.
He also represents Blues right wing T.J. Oshie; Minnesota Wild defenseman Jared Spurgeon, and Buffalo Sabres defenseman Tyler Ennis.
King helped negotiate former NHL goaltender Kevin Weekes’ first television contract with NHL Network and he represents Willie O’Ree, who became the NHL’s first black player in 1958 and now serves as the league’s director for youth development and diversity ambassador.
“I don’t have these athletes who happen to be minorities because I’m black,” King told me recently. “It’s because I’m highly capable and I happen to be black. One critical point is I understand their history and background, being West Indian or being African-American, and being able to relate to them. That’s the piece that makes the bond that we have so much greater and we’ve been able to accomplish the things we’ve been able to do.”
Peterson said breaking into representation end of hockey wasn’t difficult because of the welcoming nature of the hockey community.
“I played hockey since I was two years old,” Peterson told me recently. “Obviously being an African-American hockey player – it was always rare. But the hockey community is one of the best communities that I know, and it was so welcoming to me. It’s such a tight-knit community that I don’t think, for the most part, anybody really judged it as a black-white thing. You’re judged on your work and your ability to have relationships with people.”
Still, making it as a black sports agent isn’t easy. In the four major sports – even the predominately black NBA and NFL – only a few dozen top athletes have black representation while “hundreds of others continue to turn to white agents and attorneys to handle the finer points of negotiation on contracts with teams and corporations seeking their endorsements,” ESPN.com’s David Aldridge wrote last February.
“To say that you’re only a black agent and you’re trying to be extremely pro-black in a non-black environment is challenging, I’ll be honest with you, in hockey,” King said. “It’s not that people are going to be necessarily racist or they don’t want to listen to us. It’s just because sometimes they don’t understand us, or understand the experiences that we’ve had to go through.”For example, when some in the hockey establishment expressed concern about Mark Owuya, a black Swedish goaltender now in the Toronto Maple Leafs farm system, after he performed rap songs on his country’s version of “American Idol” when he was 16 in 2006, King questioned the musical tastes of his client’s detractors.
“If he was a country singer, or he was singing rock and roll or something more relevant to the audience he was trying to showcase his (hockey) skills to, I think maybe it wouldn’t have been a big deal,” King told the Toronto Star newspaper.
King said he’s been able to thrive in the sometimes cut-throat representation business because of his hockey-playing experience and the bond he shares with several of his minority clients – like Simmonds, the Stewart brothers and Weekes – who have Caribbean roots.
He also attributes his success to hard work, good fortune, and to a small village of mentors who’ve helped him almost every step of the way in his professional and personal life. It’s a formula he tries to instill in his young hockey-playing clients.
“I really believe that a young man needs anywhere from a minimum 4 to 6 mentors in his life,” King said. “It’s going to be his parents, his coaches, it’s also going to be friends…the ones that are positive.”
And King relies on minority NHL players past and present to pay it forward and mentor the new generation of players of color.
“Kevin Weekes, for example, used to mentor Chris Stewart and Wayne Simmonds,” King told me. “Now I’ve got Chris Stewart and Wayne Simmonds mentoring Devante Smith-Pelly and Emerson Etem. “
The son of Jamaican immigrants, King grew up in Evanston, Ill. where his father was a veterinary assistant and construction worker and his mother a nurse. Hockey served as a de facto baby-sitter for King: practices at the local recreation center rink were in the afternoon – times when child care was either too pricey for his parents or too hard to find.”It started off me watching Northwestern University hockey games, Northwestern had a club hockey team,” King told me. “I could barely see over the boards and eventually the coach said ‘Hey, do you want to play?’ I started that way.”Fate intervened at age 7 when the goalie on King’s youth team failed to show up for one game and the team’s coach asked King to strap on the pads.
“They put me in there and I got a shutout,” he recalled. “At that point, my coach back then put out a little carrot for me that they would help me with my hockey – pay for it, kind of scholarship me – which led to me saying ‘Hey, I could play goal.’ The first four or five games, I gave up three goals. So I was pretty pumped about that. I was getting my hockey pretty much subsidized, because my family didn’t really have a lot of money to be able to pay for that, so it worked out.”
His goaltending skill led to a scholarship at the University of Miami of Ohio. There, he compiled a record of 5 wins, 6 losses, 2 ties and a 3.90 goals-against average in his senior year in 1995-96 – stats that hardly screamed “draft pick” to NHL scouts.
“I never really got to be the starter and be the guy until my senior year, at that point I didn’t have the resume I needed to,” he said. “But I did have offers to play pro hockey and I could have played and gotten a contract from, at the time, a team called the Dayton Ice Bandits who were in the (Colonial Hockey League), and I was going to do that.”
But King said a close friend’s father “talked me into the real world.” So he took his Miami of Ohio degree in communications into the advertising world.
From there, connections and mentorships took over. Bryant McBride, an entrepreneur and hockey enthusiast, joined the NHL and became one of the league’s highest-ranking black executives. McBride created the NHL Diversity Task Force – the forerunner of the league’s current “Hockey is for Everyone” program – and brought O’Ree into the fold to help with diversity efforts. O’Ree had been monitoring King’s on-ice and off-ice career and encouraged him to work for the NHL.
“He said ‘Hey Eustace, you’re not playing anymore, you’ve got a great background, we want someone like you to come over to the NHL,'” King recalled. “So I went there and started working in the marketing and business development area.”
As King progressed at NHL headquarters, McBride left the league offices to become a sports agent. He helped Jason Allison secure a $20 million contract with the Los Angeles Kings in 2001.
McBride decided to get out of the representation business about the time King and his partners launched 02K in 2004. Their first client? Jason Allison.
“Really, this whole thing in hockey, in my whole experience, it’s all about relationships and mentors that bring people to the next stop,” King said. “It’s almost like a pay it forward in our group. We have a mindset in our group where everyone from the NHL down to the younger guys, they’re all interconnected and we make sure that they all have access to each other.”
Peterson started playing hockey at such a young age that he barely remember when he wasn’t on skates. A Massachusetts native, he was a smooth-skating defenseman on the 2001 Boston College NCAA championship hockey team.
After college, he had a solid minor league hockey career, playing for the East Coast Hockey League’s Atlantic City Boardwalk Bullies, Johnstown Chiefs, Florida Everblades and Phoenix Roadrunners. He also spent time in the American Hockey League with the Albany River Rats before hanging up his skates with the AHL’s Grand Rapid Griffins in the 2008-09 season.
Like King, Peterson made the leap into sports representations through past hockey connections.
“I met with a group that represented a bunch of my roommates when I played at BC, kind of formed a relationship with them. The sports agency business was something I always wanted to get into,” Peterson told me. “It just kind of fit that along the time I was thinking about stopping playing hockey they wanted me to come on and work with them.”
“It’s one of the rare cases that it kind of worked right from the start,” Peterson added. “It’s been unbelievable ever since.”