Because of the violent acts they have committed here on ice, on Judgment Day many professional hockey players may have trouble getting into heaven. If such comes to pass, it is inevitable that a Toronto lawyer named Robert Alan Eagleson will step forward out of the assembled multitudes and say a few hundred thousand words on the players' behalf. At the end of his harangue, if the Lord does not give all the hockey men no-cut contracts replete with fringe benefits, the chances are Eagleson and his clients will turn their backs on heaven and see what kind of deal they can make with the other league.
Both the Lord and the Devil are hereby warned. Beware of Eagleson when he comes bargaining. Superficially he looks like a pushover. Bespectacled and modishly dressed, Eagleson has the immaculate, almost antiseptic air of a bright, polite attorney who is adept at codiciling wills and managing family trusts. The illusion disappears whenever he opens his mouth, which is frequently. In the heat of a debate he spatters out hard facts like slugs from an old Colt .45, sometimes taking dead aim on the issue, sometimes blazing away from the hip at random targets and nicking himself in the process. During discussions in which legal gibberish abounds, he prevails with plain talk, punching home his strong points with the first cuss word that comes to mind.
For the past seven years Eagleson has been the executive director of the Players' Association of the National Hockey League. At present he also serves as legal and financial adviser—and when required, as father confessor, hand holder and foster parent—for about a third of the active players in the association. His involvement in the brawling business of hockey is a consequence of a lifelong zest for any competition in which brains count and alley scrapping is not totally prohibited. He has won and lost in politics and loved it all. When he got out of the University of Toronto law school 17 years ago he devoted himself largely to cases of common and indecent assault and at the same time played lacrosse, another tough Canadian game. In 1958 in the town of Oakville, Ontario, he took on an assault case while sporting a bulging black eye and two facial gashes from lacrosse. When he informed the court that he represented the accused, the judge opined, "You look more like the victim."
Such is the blind love of Canadians for the heroes of hockey that in any clash between players and club owners, the latter usually are the villains. That is how the people see it, so that is how it forever will be. And that is why, as the players' mouthpiece, Eagleson rides an endless wave of popularity. In the big cities and towns across the land he is known as the man who stormed hockey's feudal gates armed only with legal wit and a gift for repartee, and liberated the playing serfs from the greed and oppression of the sport's barons. In 1967, when the Players' Association was formed around Eagleson, the average NHL player's salary was $15,500. Today, thanks to the constant pressure of Eagleson and the competitive bidding of the 2-year-old World Hockey Association, the average is about $60,000. The best-paid clients now managed by Eagleson are virtually walking conglomerates, fiscally diverse and tax-sheltered, and so well propertied and funded in annuities that without a program it is hard to tell a playing serf from an owner baron. Last summer, with Eagleson drumming for him and the World Hockey Association also bidding, Wilf Paiement, a 50-goal amateur wingman of the St. Catharines (Ontario) Black Hawks, got a three-year contract for more than half a million dollars from the Kansas City Scouts, an NHL expansion team that had not yet put a blade on ice.
October 20, 1974
For all his days Eagleson, the liberator of the serfs, will be equally remembered as one of the heroes who in the blazing September of 1972 won back for Canada pre-eminence in the game it gave the world. That September, for the first time, a team of Canada's professional elite met a team of Russian nationals who for nearly a decade had dominated so-called amateur hockey in world competition. As almost any Canadian lad can relate, with one tie and three wins apiece the Canada-Russia series of 1972 went down to the last game, a raging squeaker won by Canada. The real victory was carved out on ice by two Espositos, two Mahovliches, a Park, a Clarke, a Cournoyer and a last-minute miracle maker named Henderson, but it was Eagleson who had first embraced the Russian bear three years earlier and mace all the sweet carnage possible.
During two years of negotiation and through the eight-game series itself, in the face of the vagaries and intransigence of Russian officials, Eagleson's role deteriorated from matchmaker to peacemaker to troubleshooter to troublemaker. When Wingman Jean-Paul Parisé raised a stick at an official and was thumbed out of the final game in Moscow, it was Eagleson who leaped over two rows of spectators and scurried to the far side of the rink to cool off Canadian coaches who were throwing furniture onto the ice. With seven minutes to go in the last period, when Wingman Yvan Cournoyer punched in the tying score and the goal light did not flash, it was Eagleson who again jumped over the spectators trying to get to the scorer's table. In his haste he collided with Russian police. They shoved him. He shoved them. They started hauling him toward an exit, and that brought all the Canadian players across the ice to the rescue. A few hardy stickmen went over the boards, wrested Eagleson from the Commie cops and escorted him back across the ice to the Canadian bench. As the Russian fans whistled contempt Eagleson raised a clenched fist. That epic brawl and retreat across the ice in Moscow was seen via satellite by 16 million Canadians, breaking the record TV rating set by Astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon. Today from Halifax to Vancouver, in Yellowknife and in Flin Flon, Canadian viewers vividly remember Eagleson's defiance.
Eagleson has spent so much time of late under the bright lights of hockey that most Canadians do not realize that he has always been a multipurpose man. Many who approach him in lobbies and air terminals to shake the famous hand that defied the Russians do not know that Eagleson is provincial boss of the Tories, the controlling political party in his native Ontario. In the past decade, as an unsuccessful federal candidate, as a backbench member of the Ontario legislature and as party leader, he has spoken out unmincingly on a variety of national problems ranging from nuclear fission to irresponsible ice cream vending, but voters outside his home riding would be hard put to recall how he ever stood on what.
Before becoming director of the NHL Players' Association, Eagleson served as president of the Toronto Rifles, a football team that played U.S. rules in the old Continental League. The Rifles won back-to-back division titles but were such a box-office flop that they folded in their third season. In the mid-'50s when blonde Greta Patterson, a shapely water ballerina, was making news by finishing high up with the best males in swimming marathons, she frequently appeared in press photos with her coach. The shots of Greta in a taut swimsuit are unforgettable, but only the most trivia-minded buff could now recall the name of her coach, Robert Alan Eagleson.
Although millions of U.S. and Canadian TV viewers saw the 1959 Orange Bowl game between Oklahoma and Syracuse, probably fewer than a hundred were aware that during the playing of The Star-Spangled Banner before the kickoff, the man in street clothes standing a few feet from the vocalist was Alan Eagleson, acting manager of the University of Toronto basketball team. At a major bowl game that attracted dignitaries galore, how did the acting manager of a college basketball team rate such a place of honor? It happened this way. The basketballers were on an eight-game tour of the U.S. Southland and laying over New Year's Day in Miami. Because he has a constant itch to be present at large sporting affairs, Eagleson went to the Orange Bowl hoping to scrounge a ticket. That proved impossible. Realizing that the gates must open at some time to admit the marching bands, he infiltrated one and began chatting with the trumpet players. As they marched through the gates, he stepped along also, still talking. When he was just inside, a voice cried out, "Hey, who in hell is that guy?" After a short chase through the stands, Eagleson lost his pursuers long enough to slip onto the field, where he introduced himself to Cliff Ogden, referee of the game, as a Canadian football colleague who wanted a close look at top-notch U.S. officiating. Considering that Eagleson had never refereed anything except box lacrosse, it was a rubbery bit of truth, but sufficient. While the anthem was being sung, he stood right out there on the field with the game officials. Referee Ogden then introduced him to Coach Ben Schwartzwalder, who welcomed him onto the Syracuse bench for the game. By the time Prentice Gautt and the other Oklahomans started taking Syracuse apart, Eagleson and Schwartzwalder were on a first-name basis.
At the age of five, before most tots are into primers, Eagleson was precociously reading newspapers. A lurid account of the trial of a woman charged with dismembering her own child attracted him to law before he was out of first grade. He started school a year early and covered two years in one, so that he graduated from high school two years ahead of the pace. Largely because he was a sucker for whatever sports were in season, he let his academics slide as an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, usually pulling a B grade or better without effort. In law school, where it is best to curtail the jock side of life and steep oneself in torts, he kept on frittering away hours at basketball, track, swimming, cross-country, hockey, volleyball, lacrosse and water polo, and still managed to finish 18th out of 280 applicants for admission to the bar.
In some sports he was third-string, second-rate and never great. In a few, notably lacrosse, swimming and baseball, he exceeded mediocrity. Today Eagleson raucously claims he is rough on the NHL bosses because as a lad he was once cut from a third-class juvenile team. Actually, in a strange, storybook way, it was his competence in softball that drew him into big-time hockey, much as an open saloon door sucks in passing drunks.
While still a college undergraduate Eagleson worked two summers as recreation director in MacTier, a railroad town 140 miles north of Toronto. For diversion he played on MacTier's softball team. In 1964 when he returned to MacTier as a member of the provincial legislature to speak at a sports banquet, he was greeted by Douglas Orr, an explosives plant employee who had played softball against him a decade earlier. Douglas Orr told his old rival that his 16-year-old son Bobby was a red-hot hockey defenseman on the Oshawa junior team. Would Eagleson be willing to look after young Bobby's interests when the pros came bearing gifts? Without thinking too much about it, Eagleson agreed.
At the banquet Eagleson was accompanied by a real live sports hero, Carl Brewer, a defenseman for the Toronto Maple Leafs. After eight years, during which he helped Toronto into seven Stanley Cup playoffs, Brewer had become disenchanted with the poor pay. He passed up the 1965-66 season in favor of completing work toward his college degree. In the summer of 1966 he informed the Maple Leafs that he was retiring permanently and applied to the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association for reinstatement as an amateur so he could play for the Canadian National Team.
In so doing Brewer snagged himself on one of the most objectionable of the various strangling rules that were mutually enforced by the NHL and the CAHA at that time. Absurd though it seems, under its agreement with the NHL eight years ago the CAHA could not accept a player back into its own amateur ranks without the consent of the pro club that had rights to him, and then only if all the other NHL clubs and all the affiliated clubs in three minor leagues did not want him. The Leafs refused to let Brewer go, so he turned to Eagleson.
A Pandora's box had been opened. In no time at all Eagleson was in the middle of a fight that lasted three months. It is remarkable that the battle for Brewer went more than a week, considering how many people of importance and emotion were aligned against President Clarence Campbell and the NHL's board of governors. The National Team had been set up in the '60s in the hope that it would restore Canada to the top in its own game. The upcoming season, 1966-67, was the 50th for the NHL, but 1967 was also the 100th anniversary of Canadian federation, and the red maple-leaf flag was waving everywhere. Prime Minister Lester Pearson told his people, "It is deplorable when a Canadian who wants to play for Canada's national team has to get permission from professional clubs in the United States."
Today Eagleson says, "To be against Brewer with the 100th anniversary of Canada coming up was to be against hockey, motherhood, God, country and flag. Brewer was zinging the press, and the press was zinging the NHL. Needless to say, I was feeding all the fuel to the fire I could get." Eagleson took the regulations of the NHL to counselors more expert than he on U.S. and Canadian antitrust acts. In their opinion the NHL contract signed by Brewer was so restraining that if challenged in court, the whole NHL shebang might come down like a house of cards.
When it comes to throwing up smoke screens in a delaying action, the seers and overseers of the NHL are verbose masters. For more than two months after the sides were clearly drawn, the skirmishing dragged on, even deeper into wordiness. At one point Brewer's owners, the Maple Leafs, confessed they had lost his application for voluntary retirement. This prompted a cynical columnist to observe, "Eagleson and Brewer should have written the application on a $10 bill. The Maple Leafs have never lost one of them yet." In November 1966, having exhausted its verbiage, and rather than go to court, the NHL amended its by-laws in such a way as to make Brewer's reinstatement as an amateur possible.
The Players' Association has won so much more since then that it is hard to believe the NHL, as recently as 1966, would have attempted such a primordial stance in the Brewer affair. Indeed, to understand the NHL at all as it was constituted a mere eight years ago is like trying to explain a dinosaur that survives beyond its time. In 1966 the league was a prosperous association of six old clubs: Montreal, Toronto, New York, Boston, Detroit and Chicago. There was no rival WHA or, so far as the NHL owners could see, any other cloud on the horizon. Expansion was inevitable, but only under the terms of the six old clubs, most of whose proprietors were seemingly as forward looking as a cageful of well-fed ferrets. For 20 years there had been antitrust rumblings over the player-owner relationship in other sports, but hockey went its antiquarian way, seriously challenged only once, in 1957, by a hastily formed players' association that died almost aborning.
From 1957 until 1967 every NHL hockey season went about like this: the six teams played until New York and Boston were solidly mired in fifth and sixth place. The remaining four teams then played on until either Montreal or Toronto won the Stanley Cup. The routine was the same, but because the quality of play was excellent, the worst seats in the house were usually filled.
Although they drew better than pro basketballers, who used several of the same arenas, the hockey players were paid less and were bound by contracts as one-sided as a Salvation Army sermon. When he signed his first contract, a hockey man virtually wrapped himself in a legal web for life. At the end of contract he had to renegotiate with the same team, or not play at all. As if such terms were not perversion enough, the contract was usually two-way, sometimes three-way: it specified, say, $10,000 annually for service in the NHL and another salary, say, $4,500, for play with an affiliated minor team. Whenever he was sent down to the minors, even for a week, a player's pay dropped to the lower scale. There was no waiver provision such as baseball adopted to keep a club from repeatedly sending a man down and bringing him back up.
In football and basketball the pro teams annually harvest the college crop. Baseball used to raid the high schools, but having been rapped on the knuckles a few times, now customarily waits until graduation. In the imperious heyday of hockey, there was no sensible restriction on recruiting.
No Canadian baby was ever snatched from a cradle, but NHL scouts literally competed with the Boy Scouts for able 12-year-olds. Under the NHL agreement in effect in 1966 each major and minor pro hockey club could finance two amateur junior clubs and their affiliated lesser teams. The players for such amateur clubs became the property of the sponsoring pros. Bobby Orr is a case in point. He first impressed NHL scouts as a 12-year-old in 1960 and two years later signed a card to play on a Junior A team sponsored by the Bruins.
In the same year that Brewer tried to get out of the pros, Orr, just turned 18, finished his fourth season of first-class amateur competition, having broken the Junior A scoring record for defensemen three years in a row. While Orr was cutting a swath through amateur hockey, his owners, the Boston Bruins, had been setting a couple of NHL records: eight straight years without making the playoffs and five straight in last place. Although Orr had two more years of Junior eligibility left, Boston wanted him, so desperately that it offered him almost one-sixth the pay highly touted rookies were getting in other sports. To put the matter in perspective: a year earlier Joe Namath of Alabama had signed a four-season contract with the Jets at $100,000 a year. That September, Cazzie Russell of Michigan got three years at about $65,000 each from the New York Knickerbockers. The Bruins, who outdrew the champion Celtics in the Boston Garden, offered Orr, the hottest thing since Hull, a two-year contract that averaged $10,250 a year including bonus.
When Eagleson, the novice bargainer, made a counterproposal that Orr get around $50,000 a year almost twice what any Bruin was paid—there was laughter. Dick Beddoes, a Toronto columnist with a dash of acid in his ink, observed, "If Alan Eagleson gets Bobby Orr a long-term contract at more than $30,000 per, he will live in history along with Luther, Voltaire and Pandora."
At the outset Leighton (Hap) Emms, the Bruins general manager, refused to negotiate with Eagleson. In the NHL it was customary to deal with the peons direct. The idea of an 18-year-old boy being represented by a lawyer in his negotiations with a multimillion-dollar business was unthinkable.
By midsummer it became clear that the way to Orr was through Eagleson. Otherwise Orr would stay amateur, joining the Canadian National Team in Winnipeg, where he could concurrently attend the University of Manitoba. After more than a month of avoiding Eagleson and several weeks of dickering, Emms finally offered Orr a two-year contract that amounted to about $40,000 annually. Eagleson remembers the signing: "I said, 'Well, we've settled the damn thing. Let's shake hands, take pictures and open the champagne,' and Hap Emms says, 'Champagne?' There was no champagne, no press conference, nothing. Hap opened a can of soda pop and poured some into five glasses so we could each have a drink. Here was Bobby Orr, a little Moses coming to lead the Bruins to the promised land, and they were too tight to spend 50¢ on him."
After helping Brewer get out of the pros and helping Orr get in at a record price, Eagleson's involvement in the game might have ended, except that such battles do make headlines. Shortly after Brewer regained his amateur standing in December 1966, Eagleson got a call from one of Brewer's former amateur teammates, Defenseman Bill White, then of the Springfield (Mass.) Indians of the American Hockey League. The Indians were having a lot of very strange problems with their owner, Eddie Shore, the once great Bruin defenseman, and they needed a lawyer like Eagleson who had proved willing to storm the gates.
What the Indians had been taking from Shore exceeded the parameters of ordinary injustice. As a taskmaster Shore was way out in left field. He not only served as de facto coach of the Indians (for which he was qualified), but as self-styled physician, dancing master, chiropractor and X-ray technician. Although he had no credentials in such specialties, he practiced them all on his players. He had his men drink water with a jot of iodine in it to kill germs. He allegedly disliked crew cuts because short hair exposed the brain cells to too much air. He maintained he could diagnose the players' ills by staring inside them.
In an affidavit written out at Eagleson's request, Goalie Jacques Caron reported: "Cracking your back is standard procedure for Mr. Shore whether you are suffering from mononucleosis or a cold. If you do not agree to having him crack your back, you are subject to either sitting on the bench or being fined. When I first arrived in Springfield, I took a size 13 skate. This was interfering with my leg exercises and tap dancing according to Mr. Shore because they were too large. I was given a pair of skates size 11, and thus lost all my toenails when stopping a shot with my skates. After four years he has relented, and I am now wearing a size 11½, which is still one size too small." In his affidavit another goalie, George Wood, maintained, "Had knees tied together with laces. Have had to practice with a bar around the net. This bar forces me to stay outside of the crease." Obviously, the whole affair was too extreme to go on long. Within six weeks Shore had resigned from any active part in the operation "for reasons of health."
The Shore ruckus naturally made news. In late December, before it was fully settled, Eagleson was invited to a meeting of the Bruins, who wanted him to organize a players' association. He has been in the middle of hockey ever since, taking bows and an occasional hard right to the head, and loving it all.
Way back in 1949, when Danny Gardella, the defector to the Mexican League, shook up baseball with an antitrust suit, Columnist Ralph Allen of the Toronto Telegram wrote prophetically, "Unless the professional bosses clean house themselves, it is a mortal cinch that somebody, sometime, somewhere will step in and clean house for them." All that Eagleson did in 1966 was stumble into a dirty old house and start giving it a dusting long overdue. As Syl Apps, an old Maple Leaf of the low-pay days, puts it, "The only trouble with Eagleson is he came along 20 years too late." Bobby Hull, who pioneered for hockey in a court case two years ago and won the right to work for the rival WHA, confirms, "Al has done more for hockey in two years than anybody else has in 20."
Recently, when Eagleson was under attack on a television talk show, a student suggested that he should be embarrassed for glorifying a sport to the point where players like Hull and Orr make more than Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau. The smarty-pants student made the common mistake of forgetting that Eagleson is not a hockey monomaniac, but a multi-maniac—always the players' man, but also a Tory boss who loves to shaft the Liberal prime minister. "In my opinion," Eagleson shot back, "Bobby Hull and Bobby Orr are still underpaid, and Mr. Trudeau is overpaid."