It was Alan Eagleson, hockey's Monty Hall, at his best—or worst. For three days last week Eagleson, playing Let's Make a Deal for Bobby Orr, dragged the name and reputation of his star client through the hotel corridors, podiums, dinner tables and phone booths of Montreal, threatened to "tweak" the nose of a prying reporter and spouted hourly retractions or modifications of the generally crass statements he had issued during the previous hour. The reason for Eagleson's actions was simple: Orr, once. hockey's most spectacular player, was a free agent, having played out his contract after 10 seasons with the Boston Bruins, and Eagleson was trying to peddle Orr's future services to the highest bidder. Watching Eagleson operate, NHL President Clarence Campbell said, "It has been like a dog's breakfast from the beginning."
Predictably, Eagleson opened the Orr sweepstakes by leveling another verbal blast at Jeremy Jacobs, the Buffalo-based concessionaire whose family owns the Bruins. Boston's final contract offer to Orr—a five-year deal for more than $1.75 million—contained certain safeguards for the club in the event that Orr's rickety left knee, which has undergone five operations and is of such questionable reliability that even Lloyd's of London refuses to insure it, forced him to terminate his career before the expiration of the agreement. Still, Boston guaranteed Orr a minimum of $600,000 regardless of future disabilities.
"They insulted Bobby with the type of contract they offered him," Eagleson snapped. "I think the Bruins have indicated their conviction that Bobby is very badly damaged goods and not worth an unconditional contract." Eagleson's tember, shortly after the concessionaires had purchased the club. Anxious to sign Orr, Boston promptly offered him a five-year contract for a reported $2.5 million. "Bobby would be signed to a new Boston contract now if the owners hadn't changed the offer they made last September," Eagleson said repeatedly during the winter.
So why hadn't Eagleson accepted that offer? When that question was raised last week, Eagleson threatened to step down from his podium and "tweak" a Boston sportscaster in the nose, adding that "You give me a sweet pain in the——-." In fact, at the time of that Boston offer, Eagleson also was deeply involved in Orr negotiations with the now defunct Minnesota Fighting Saints of the WHA, who publicly were offering Orr $6.5 million for 10 years but privately were practically penniless. Then, while Eagleson was playing Boston against Minnesota in the media, Orr's left knee came undone again and he had Operation No. 4. Boston withdrew its offer and suspended negotiations until Orr joined the Bruins lineup for the first time early in November.
June 20, 1976
Orr played only 10 games before the knee locked again and sent him back to the hospital for Operation No. 5. That, as it turned out, ended his season. Obviously wary about Orr's physical condition, Boston reduced its offer to the $1.75 million for five years. Eagleson called Boston's final offer a "joke," among other things, but Managing Director Harry Sinden of the Bruins said, by Orr could do. They just followed sound business practices."
And so it was that on June 1, the day when Orr's five-year contract with the Bruins officially expired and he became a free agent, Eagleson sent the following cable to 30 NHL and WHA teams, excluding only the Bruins: "As of today Bobby Orr is a free agent. If you are interested in acquiring his services for the future, please contact me at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, Montreal, on June 7th. We are setting a July 1 deadline. Yours, Alan Eagleson."
The line formed inside Suite 1200 of the Queen E. The Detroit Red Wings were in one room, the Kansas City Scouts in another. Los Angeles Kings Owner Jack Kent Cooke was talking to Eagleson on one telephone, and St. Louis Blues General Manager-Coach Emile Francis was on hold. Chicago Black Hawks General Manager Tommy Ivan was everywhere. Siden stood alongside the bar in the suite and cracked, "Hey, Al, you get me up here to talk, a deal, and you've only got half a beer in the whole place."
Orr, who remained in his usual seclusion at his hockey camp in Orillia, Ontario, called Eagleson and advised him to warn all potential buyers that he considered himself to be "damaged goods." Later, after talking with Orr again, Eagleson announced that Orr would sign with St. Louis or Chicago or possibly retire for a year of therapy. Both St. Louis and Chicago offered Orr the unconditional, caveat emptor type of contract that Eagleson had demanded. Eagleson also said that Orr would soon check into Toronto General Hospital for a thorough examination of his left knee. "Bobby Orr will not be available for any comment," he said. Was Eagleson open to questions? "Go ahead, ask your——-questions," he said with a snarl.
Eagleson met again with the St. Louis management, but it was obvious that his selling efforts were being directed at the Black Hawks. Chicago President William Wirtz went on record June 1 as saying that the Black Hawks wanted to sign Orr and would pay him Eagleson's requested $3 million for five years. A few days later, Eagleson, Orr and Wirtz had dinner together during the annual meetings of the NHL's Players' Association at the Castle Harbour Hotel in Bermuda, and it was there that Wirtz repeated his willingness to meet Eagleson's financial conditions.
So the deal was set in motion. Orr left Orillia and flew into Montreal late last Tuesday night to sit in on the final negotiations. The Black Hawks agreed to sign Orr to an unconditional five-year contract for a reported $3 million. "By unconditional," said Chicago's Ivan, "it means that we have gambled on Orr playing hockey, and if he doesn't play because of his knee, we pay—and we lose." "We have gambled," said Wirtz. "We have placed our bet down, but at least we have gambled on a thoroughbred." The next morning Orr checked into Toronto General. Doctors made a small incision in his knee, removed pieces of loose cartilage, decided Orr did not need major surgery now, and closed it up.
What prompted Chicago to pay $3 million for a hobbling hockey player? The Black Hawks have been a dull, defense-minded team ever since they refused to re-sign Bobby Hull in the face of his $3 million offer from the WHA's Winnipeg Jets in 1972. Last season the most popular Black Hawk home attendance figure was "12,000 estimated," some 8,000 short of the crowds that jammed Chicago Stadium in Hull's days Ironically, the poor attendance has hurt the Jacobs family as well as the Wirtzes: the Jacobses have the concessions in Chicago Stadium.
To earn his annual salary of $600,000, Orr will have to attract only 1,500 extra paying spectators at $10 for each of Chicago's 40 home games. "Is there a No. 4 uniform available in Chicago?" Orr asked. There is. However, as Bruins President Paul Mooney said, "I just wonder whether Bobby can play anymore. I doubt it."