Hockey fans have long since become accustomed to the mercenary nature of modern professional sports: players whose seven-figure salaries are not enough to anchor them to a team or a town, and even teams themselves that abandon those towns for newer arenas and sweet tax concessions elsewhere. No wonder Alexei Yashin endeared himself to Ottawa Senators fans last March when he decided to give something back to his adopted city - a hefty $1 million to the struggling National Arts Centre, ostensibly to bring more Russian performers to the Canadian capital. There may have been a sense the towering Russian centre was trying to make things right with Ottawa after his holdout during the 1994-1995 season, but Yashin insisted his motives were pure. All he wanted to do, he said at the time, was show gratitude for "the kind of connection I have with the Canadian people, and especially with the people in Ottawa."
In hindsight, those noble-sounding sentiments have the whiff of a hollow "just-want-to-help-the-team" between-periods interview. Yashin has pulled the plug on his donation. His gift, it now seems, may have been more about creative accounting than philanthropy. The player was spreading his $1-million donation in equal amounts over five years - providing him with a $100,000 tax deduction on each $200,000 payment (only one payment was made). But according to NAC officials, $85,000 of each instalment was to be paid to Yashin's parents for loosely defined consulting services. A second side deal required the NAC to pay $15,000 a year to Pat Reid, an independent Ottawa fund-raiser who says he came up with the idea. The NAC even paid $11,000 in legal fees for a lawyer to incorporate Tatiana Entertainment, the consulting company named for Yashin's mother.
It was the NAC itself that blew the whistle on the scandal's details, producing a paper trail to match. Chairwoman Jean Riley maintained the arts centre's board of directors had not been aware of the side deals. Those extra twists were negotiated by its former director, John Cripton, who is currently locked in a bitter war of words with the NAC after resigning last October in a disagreement over budgets. Kim McCuaig, the NAC's former marketing director, was apparently the only other executive privy to the deal - and he was fired in December. Only after Elaine Calder, Cripton's replacement, became aware of the NAC's obligations was the board informed. Calder says when she asked McCuaig about the arrangement, he told her the Yashin money flow would stop if the NAC did not comply.
Calder says she was then contacted in December by Mark Gandler, Yashin's New York City-based agent, who asked her to help draft an invoice for $85,000 - though no services had been provided or requested. Calder refused, and instead sent Pinchas Zukerman, the symphony's exuberant new conductor, to beg Yashin to stick to his pledge. But Yashin could not be persuaded, according to the NAC's version of events. And early last week, he announced the NAC could look forward to no more $200,000 instalments. He cited only "personal reasons."
The aftermath to the revelations was almost as surreal as the original mixing of Ottawa's arts and sports communities. The perennially deficit-ridden NAC found itself again under fire for sloppy management (Calder revealed the NAC spent $1.3 million to raise $1.6 million in sponsorships last year). Operating out of a bunker-like concrete slab alongside the Rideau Canal, the NAC has been unable to keep directors happy and its musicians went on strike last fall. A parliamentary committee is scheduled to begin hearings into the troubled centre next month, and Cripton suggested the allegations were part of a "witch-hunt" to discredit him and protect the board. He did not deny that certain promises were made to Yashin's family, but were meant to "humour" them, he said. "If you look at the agreement, it does not bind the NAC," Cripton declared.
Meanwhile, a tight-lipped Yashin insisted he was innocent of any wrongdoing. "It's a free country," he said tersely before going out to help his team beat the Boston Bruins 3-1 last Thursday. Yashin promised to tell his side of the story this week. And though some Ottawa fans were unsettled by the controversy, there was also a surge of sympathy for Yashin himself. "He's just a kid, a stubborn kid but nice and polite," said season ticket holder Chris O'Brien, whose car rental agency has regular dealings with the Yashins. "He was just trying to take care of his family."
Remarkably, even those burned by the scandal tried to spare Yashin from blame. The NAC's Riley suggested the player "had little understanding of the arrangement," and expressed "genuine sorrow for an extremely capable young man." Promoter Reid, lamenting what the soured deal would do to his image, told Maclean's: "Yashin wasn't even at the table during the talks. Hockey agents often make deals that have bonuses for the parents of players, and you definitely can't blame an agent for getting the most he can." That broad willingness to excuse a star player may reflect how jaded sports fans have become. "Hopefully, it won't cause a problem for the Senators," said Industry Minister John Manley, who represents an Ottawa riding and sounded remarkably sanguine about so dubious a deal. "As long as he keeps putting the puck in the net - that's what we're concerned about."
Maclean's February 1, 1999