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Steve Bartlett, owner of three motorcycle shops in the Rochester area, would shift gears and head to the rink whenever he could. The former stick boy and trainer for the Amerks never lost his passion for hockey, and he’d get his fix by talking with players such as Ted Nolan and Randy Cunneyworth.

One day in 1985, their conversations turned toward money. The players knew Bartlett had a finance background, and the Canadians felt something wasn’t right with their U.S. taxes. Bartlett went over their returns and found plenty of mistakes. That meant $1,000 or so for the players’ pockets, a nice chunk of change for guys living in the minor leagues.

“Even a thousand bucks was probably one-tenth of their salary down there,” Bartlett said, “so I was a hero, especially back at what they were making then.”

Impressed with Bartlett’s work, Cunneyworth and Nolan asked for another favor. They wanted him to be their agent and negotiate new deals with the Sabres. Bartlett did more than that. He got them to the NHL.

While talking with Sabres General Manager Scotty Bowman, Bartlett learned the duo didn’t have a future in Buffalo. The motorcycle salesman went full throttle for his friends and asked Bowman if he could call around the NHL and find a trade partner. Bartlett helped broker deals to Pittsburgh, where Cunneyworth and Nolan played the next season.

“By Christmas of that year, I think I had half the Penguins team, guys calling me up, ‘Hey, I heard great things. Will you be my agent?’ ” Bartlett said. “I said I guess so. I didn’t charge anybody anything. They’d throw me some tickets or take me out to dinner, but it wasn’t a business model I started with.

“After about two years, I was so busy doing that I said, ‘I guess I’m a hockey agent.’ I sold my other business and started doing this full time, so it’s been almost 30 years now.”

The years have been good to Bartlett, who has become one of the most respected people in hockey. He’ll be at the forefront this offseason with three of the biggest free agents in the NHL – Thomas Vanek, Ryan Callahan and Brian Gionta. Bartlett got them more than $87 million for their last contracts, and he could top that this time.

“When I think how fortunate I am to make a living at something I’ve been passionate about since I was a kid, that’s really neat for me,” Bartlett said from his Sports Consulting Group office in the Rochester suburb of Pittsford. “I make a good living and I’m not apologetic about it. Obviously, the salaries have grown unbelievably since I’ve started, but at the same time it’s not money that drives me. I love the relationships I have.”

While it’s easy for someone with money to say it’s not the money – agents make 3 percent to 5 percent of their clients’ deals – Bartlett’s relationships would make movie superagent Jerry Maguire jealous.

“What I respect and like most about Steve is he’s family to me,” Vanek said. “The way I see him, he’s a good person. If you’re a good person, that goes a long ways.”

“I love the man,” said former Sabres forward Andrew Peters. “He’s like a dad to me, and there are a ton of players that feel that way about him.”

Bartlett keeps in touch with his former clients, including the men who got him started. Cunneyworth’s role is on full display. The jersey he wore while captaining the Ottawa Senators hangs on the wall behind Bartlett’s desk. Nolan, the coach in Buffalo, is only a short drive or phone call away. “It’s not like he’s just crunching numbers and worrying about his fee,” Nolan said. “He sincerely cares about your future, your present, your planning – everything.”

The ultimate sign of respect is when Bartlett’s opponents at the negotiating table go out of their way to compliment him.

“For all the years I’ve been in the business, his integrity, his honesty, his straightforwardness and his concern for the players is unwavering, and I respect that,” Lou Lamiorello, the president and general manager of the New Jersey Devils, said by phone. “I have nothing but the highest esteem for Steve as a person and also for his position in the business and caring for the game.”

A family business

Sports contracts are front-page news and big business, but Bartlett insists on keeping a personal feel. His agency has four employees, including himself and sons Brian and Scott. Bartlett has an assistant who helps with the tax and clerical sides, but more often than not the 62-year-old who nearly became executive director of the NHL Players’ Association answers the office phone himself.

“It’s really been fun being a family business,” said Bartlett, who has turned down offers to join the mega-agencies based in Los Angeles and Toronto. “I can make decisions that aren’t generated by the bottom line. If I decide, as I do with a lot of kids whose career is just getting started, that they really don’t owe me anything, no one is sitting in a board room and deciding, ‘Oh, we’ve got to charge this or we’ve got to charge that.’

“From Day One, because it was a friendship-based entry into the business, that’s the way I look at it. I look at my clients as being friends.”

He has lots of friends. Bartlett represents 25 to 30 players in the NHL, another 30 in the minors and Europe, plus prospects. His list of retired players is long and distinguished. A stick from the 1996 World Cup signed by Doug Weight hangs on his office wall near an Ulf Samuelsson jersey. A plaque featuring the hockey cards of Manon Rheume, the first woman to play professional hockey, is neighbor to a Brian Rolston poster in the nondescript suburban office park.

“It’s almost like a mom-and-pop shop with a very high-end list,” Nolan said.

Bartlett stays near Rochester because that’s where his hockey tale starts. He’d attend Amerks games as a kid and became a stick boy. He opened the bench door for Rochester defenseman Don Cherry, who became a “Hockey Night in Canada” legend.

“I was actually the head trainer for the team when they won the Calder Cup in 1968 as a high school junior, of all things,” Bartlett said. “They hired me after they had fired three trainers by Thanksgiving. They said, ‘Kid, you’re doing all the work, why don’t you be trainer?’ ”

Bartlett played hockey for the University of Vermont but decided a better future awaited at the University of Rochester. He earned a business degree and opened his motorcycle shop, which grew to a three-store franchise that also sold snowmobiles, personal watercraft and lawn equipment.

“I had two loves as a kid, motorcycles and hockey,” said Bartlett, who is grateful his career went from bikes to the ice. “I was really sick of retail, sort of that inflexible 9 to 9, employees calling up, ‘Oh, I can’t make it today.’ I was ready for a change, so it was really a nice transition.”

Fork in career road

Bartlett’s career as an agent was nearly as short-lived as his job as a salesman. By 1990, just five years after helping his friends in Rochester, Bartlett had grown such a dedicated following that a group of players wanted him to lead their union.

With Alan Eagleson on his way out as executive director of the NHLPA, the players had a spirited debate about their next leader. The final two on the ballot were Bartlett and fellow agent Bob Goodenow, who was elected by the narrowest of margins thanks to his experience in labor law.

“More than anything, what made me feel good is that a group of players on the search committee felt that my reputation was such that I was a guy they would like to lead their union,” Bartlett said. “At the time I wanted it, but in the end I look back and go, ‘Oh, thank God I didn’t get that.’ The stress level, the time away from the family, that probably all would have been different.”

Despite not holding a leadership role, Bartlett changed hockey forever in 2007. Even he’s not sure if that’s a good thing.

Vanek’s entry-level deal with the Sabres was set to expire, and the winger was clearly a rising star after a 43-goal season. Darcy Regier, then Buffalo’s general manager, had no desire to talk contract with Bartlett as the signing period approached. He believed he’d re-sign Vanek for “market value” as it related to restricted free agents, failing to see that RFAs were no longer untouchable after Flyers GM Bobby Clarke signed Vancouver’s Ryan Kesler to an offer sheet the previous summer.

Edmonton stepped in when the Sabres wouldn’t. The Oilers negotiated a seven-year, $50 million offer sheet with Bartlett, stunning the NHL. Buffalo, which had just lost Chris Drury and Daniel Briere to free agency, angrily matched the contract for Vanek.

“People thought Edmonton was a vagabond rebel there, but there were two or three other teams who were right there, right close to doing it,” Bartlett said. “The fact that they didn’t want Buffalo to match made it even easier for me to draw up the numbers to a ‘let’s try to scare them away’ number, which we did. To be honest with you, once you’re trying to scare a team away, frankly that works into my favor because then you’re going to get overpaid.

“That contract far exceeded market value. I’m the first one to tell you that was probably too much for Vanek at the time, but it’s my job to solicit it.”

The contract landscape changed after that. Teams began locking up their young talent to avoid being poached.

“Not to pat myself on the back, but I think that was an eye-opening, market-changing contract because then other teams suddenly said, ‘Oh, that could happen,’ ” Bartlett said. “As a fan of the game and a fan of business health, I’m not even sure it was good because I think guys were starting to get paid too early for what they had accomplished. Teams started getting defensive and signing guys worried about that, and they overpaid them and paid them longer.

“I don’t know if I helped the health of the league, but again it’s my job to do the best I can for the player.”

Big money at stake

Bartlett and Vanek will be negotiating again this summer. The Montreal forward turned down a $50 million offer from the New York Islanders this season and will be the highest-scoring player on the market. Bartlett also represents Gionta, the Canadiens’ captain who is finishing a $25 million deal, and Callahan, who was seeking more than $6 million per season from the Rangers before being traded to Tampa Bay.

“It is going to be a busy summer,” Bartlett said. “It’s pretty easy to represent the Vaneks, frankly, and the Callahans and the Giontas. It’s not whether they’re going to get signed or whether they’re going to make a good living, it’s more how much.

“Sometimes the more gratifying ones for me are the players you really think you hung in there for and battled for. You can’t play for them, but you can keep being their advocate, trying to convince a team that they’re worth a look.”

Bartlett’s triumphs include Stephen Gionta, who spent six full seasons in the minors before becoming a regular with New Jersey at age 27, and Mark Van Guilder, a 30-year-old who finally got to the NHL this season and played one game with Nashville. “When they announced it in the locker room that he was getting called up, all the guys stood and clapped, and the kid was crying,” Bartlett said. “That’s one of those feel-good moments where you go, ‘Yeah! That’s what it’s all about!’

“To have him get his one game that he dreamed about, those are the most gratifying moments, I think. That’s more important to me than all the dollars and all the million-dollar deals.”

Moments like that keep Bartlett in the business despite approaching retirement age. Working with his sons has also reinvigorated him. Brian, 31, is a lawyer and certified agent who works out of Boston. Scott, 28, played in college and in the minors before joining the company and settling in Chicago.

“The beauty of my sons coming in is now we have my family looking after your family,” Bartlett said. “It’s really cool for me to get calls from GMs that say, ‘Hey, your kids are just like you and we like dealing with them. They’re honest.’

“I really think we take good care of kids, and everybody knows they’re a priority for us whether they’re making a million bucks or nothing.”

Vanek and Peters back up that statement. After Vanek got traded from New York to Montreal, his car was stuck on Long Island. Bartlett flew to New York and drove it to Vanek’s home in Buffalo, changing a flat tire along the way.

Bartlett also represented Peters’ brother, Geoff. The career minor-leaguer never got an NHL payday, but the agent still checks in with him as much as any money-making star.

“After your career, you look back and say, ‘There were a lot of things I could have done differently,’ ” Andrew Peters said. “But there are some things I wouldn’t change, and Steve Bartlett is absolutely the first thing on my list. He was the best decision I ever made, not just because of my career but because of my friendship with him.”

email: jvogl@buffnews.com