He came charging into hockey in 1966, riding along on the swift, powerful and lucrative skates of the 18-year-old Bobby Orr, and he hasn't left center ice since. Within a year he organized pro hockey's first union and thereafter won recognition as the great emancipator who elevated NHL players from indentured playthings of the rich to men of wealth themselves. In the years that followed he even helped preserve the NHL itself, largely by reshaping international hockey from an amateurs-only sport of narrow interest into a multimillion-dollar bonanza that has benefited not only the athletes, but also just about everyone else involved in hockey, from Montreal to Moscow.
Without argument, he has done wondrous things for the game, but hockey has paid a price. For while securing new freedoms for players and creating new windfalls for the sport, he has carefully seized, one after another, the various reins that control hockey. Today, the game—in Canada, the U.S., the world—is to a great extent controlled by a single man who is a union boss, a players' representative, a millionaire corporate attorney, a major Canadian political figure and an international power broker with many close friends and many bitter enemies—few of them declared—north and south of the U.S.-Canadian border and on both sides of the Iron Curtain. He is, by anyone's reckoning, the most powerful man in hockey. Indeed his power is so immense that it makes his position unique in all of sports.
His name is R. Alan Eagleson. Or, simply, Eagle.
From an unshakable power base rooted in 17 years of near-dictatorial rule as executive director of the NHL Players' Association, and fueled by what one associate calls "an ego the size of Guatemala," Eagleson, 51, has spread his personal and corporate influence from his Toronto offices into virtually every aspect of hockey in which there's a dollar to be made. Because he holds the ultimate bargaining chip—100% of the world's best professional hockey players—scarcely anything of import can happen in the sport without the approval, if not the direct participation, of Eagleson.
July 1, 1984
However, there's evidence that Eagleson has at times abused his multiple powers as head of the NHLPA, chief negotiator for Hockey Canada (the nonprofit corporation that administers Canada's participation in major international events) and personal representative of many of the NHL's stars specifically for his personal gain and the gain of his friends.
Eagleson, who was interviewed by SI in June 1983 but declined requests for subsequent interviews, insists that he has always acted properly in the performance of his duties.
Almost every deal and dollar transaction between any two or more of the many groups that make up hockey—individual players, the NHLPA, individual NHL clubs, the league as a whole, the bodies controlling the sport in the Soviet Union, Sweden and other countries, the sponsors and advertisers worldwide—must pass, one way or another, through Eagleson.
His shadow eclipses those of both John A. Ziegler Jr., 50, president of the NHL, and Dr. G√ºnther Sabetzki, 69, of West Germany, president of the International Ice Hockey Federation, not to mention the NHL's club owners. Eagleson rules hockey from atop a sort of international pyramid, because he's likely to be negotiating today against the side he'll be representing at a different bargaining table tomorrow. Ultimately, Eagleson's or his clients' interests are represented on virtually every side of every deal in hockey.
To wit: One of Eagleson's management companies, Sports Management Ltd. or Rae-Con Consultants Ltd., looks after the business interests of some 50 (down from a 1980 high of more than 150) of the NHL's highest-paid players, including Marcel Dionne, Darryl Sittler and Lanny McDonald, and negotiates their contracts with NHL clubs. As executive director of the NHLPA, Eagleson speaks for all 480 of the league's players on all manner of issues: their insurance coverage, pension plan, licensing contracts, individual grievances against clubs and, most important, collective bargaining agreement with the NHL. When a new NHLPA-NHL contract is worked out—with never more than a lovers' quarrel cropping up, quite unlike recent negotiations in pro football, baseball and basketball—Eagleson immediately becomes an agent for the partnership of players and owners in international hockey and joins forces with Hockey Canada to arrange such competitions as the six-nation Canada Cup tournament, which grossed $6 million in 1981 and will be staged again this September.
"I'd say that half the time Alan doesn't know how many deals he's got going or where the lines cross," says Lou Lefaive, a former Hockey Canada board member. "He calls people's bluff. He can throw five balls into the air and somehow manage to catch them all when they come down." Says Rick Curran, a former Eagleson employee, "Alan thinks God put him on earth to run hockey."
Certainly Eagleson has a unique style—a combination of supreme self-confidence and irresistible persuasiveness—that has enabled him to reach this position of extraordinary power. Born in 1933 in Saint Catharines, Ont. into the family of an immigrant millworker from Northern Ireland, Eagleson was known to his teachers and schoolmates as an overachiever and something of a schemer. He was the kind of hustling youth who would win a $50 prize for selling the most raffle tickets to raise money to build a local swimming pool—and another $50 for holding the winning ticket. One story has young Alan announcing to his parents one Sunday after returning from church, "When I grow up I'm going to be a minister. Only I won't make sermons. I'll just take the collection and leave." That tale aside, Eagleson's great ambition was to become a lawyer, and upon doing so he entered politics. He worked his way upward in Ontario's right-leaning Progressive Conservative Party and, at 30, was elected to the Ontario Provincial Parliament. With his charm, rugged good looks and self-confidence, he was considered a natural politician. Years later, after hockey had made his name a household word across Canada, Eagleson was mentioned as a possibility for prime minister, the conservatives' perfect answer to the liberal Pierre Elliott Trudeau.
Eagleson, though, didn't opt for Ottawa, but instead cornered the whole world of hockey. In Canada, hockey may be the only issue that cuts across all political lines. If you aren't for Eagleson, you aren't for hockey, which means you certainly can't be for Canada.
So Eagleson directed his political wiles toward controlling the sport, first and always by making most NHL players believe that they couldn't get along without him, maybe even that they wouldn't have jobs without him. At NHLPA meetings he would intimidate players who asked questions into silence by snapping curt answers to their queries, embarrassing them in front of their fellows for their ignorance and undermining their dignity. Phil Esposito, a former NHLPA president, says, "He embarrassed me. If I asked a question he'd say, 'For Chrissakes, don't be so stupid!' in front of everybody. Al's smart. He knows if he does that to me or to a Bobby Clarke, the other guys are going to say, 'Holy s——! I'm not opening my mouth.' " "Alan's automatically the most dominating figure in any room," says Mike Milbury, a defenseman for Boston and one of Eagle-son's most persistent and vocal critics. "His best weapon is to talk right through you." If that's so, his second-best weapon would be the language he chooses: He can be charming or disarming, speak in incomprehensible legalese or the crudest gutter smut—in your choice, English or French.
"People don't want to get into a confrontation with Eagle," says Morley Kells, a member of the Ontario Provincial Parliament and a former Eagleson associate. "They don't want to roll around on the ground and get their clothes dirty." Says Derek Holmes, an erstwhile executive director of Hockey Canada, "Al is like someone who'll give you cyanide but coat it with peppermint. He can be charming and brilliant, yet he can be boorish, vulgar...stick on any adjective you can think of." Adds Lefaive: "Alan is free of the inhibitions that keep most of us from saying f——at a banquet. He could be dining with the Queen and he'd say f——.And he wouldn't think there'd be anything wrong with saying it."
Eagleson operates with the comfortable knowledge that most NHL players are blind to the ways of big business. "We're not dealing with a series of Einsteins," he has said. And not many players would disagree. "We play hockey, a kid's game," says Bob Dailey, a former defenseman for Vancouver and Philadelphia. "We drink beer and have a good time during the off-season, then start back up. We don't know about big business, or any kind of business." Says Milbury, who is Boston-born and a graduate of Colgate: "Hockey players tend to be Canadian, number one. Most come from very conservative, working-class homes, don't go to college and leave home to play hockey when they're 15 or 16. Most of them are very happy with what they make, and have neither the interest nor the intention of rocking the boat. And Al does all he can to keep it that way."
Indeed, unlike their football, baseball and basketball counterparts, hockey players have never seriously threatened to strike. They've never held out for full free agency. And though their average salary has risen from $60,000 to $130,000 in the last decade, the increase over that period is markedly less than those in baseball (up more than $250,000) and basketball (up $160,000). Even the NFL average has risen nearly $100,000.
A "joke" on the players is what Toronto Maple Leafs president and managing director Harold Ballard called the 1982 collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and the NHLPA. Gus Badali, a Toronto-based agent whose clients include Wayne Gretzky and some 30 other NHL players, says "a couple" of NHL general managers have told him point-blank that the current collective bargaining agreement is the best ever—for management. "They certainly don't hide their glee," says Badali. Certainly Ballard doesn't. "How do the owners feel about Eagleson?" he says. "We like him. Wouldn't you rather have him negotiating against you than [former Major League Baseball Players Association executive director] Marvin Miller? Sure, it's a great contract—for us." Yet Chicago Black Hawks president William Wirtz says he believes the contract was a good one for the players, as well as the owners. Wirtz adds, "I think Alan is a brilliant negotiator."
Eagleson is peevish when asked to explain why NHLPA contracts seem to fall short of those in other sports, particularly in the area of free agency, which, in hockey, essentially does not exist. He insists that hockey's collective bargaining agreements measure up. He also points to the precarious financial conditions of several NHL teams and the lack of a major U.S. television contract to justify what might appear as soft-pedaling at the bargaining table. "My job is to preserve jobs for as many players as I can at as high a level of salary as I can," says Eagleson.
But to one general manager, Eagleson's reluctance to play hardball is strictly a matter of quid pro quo. "Al delivers us the players," he says, "and we give him international hockey. It's that simple." And international hockey is the cash cow of the sport.
It's Eagleson, of course, who's responsible for that. In the early '70s he was determined to see a Canadian team beat the stuffing out of the Soviets, who had been audaciously proclaiming world superiority in Canada's own sport. The reason for the U.S.S.R.'s apparent edge, Eagleson knew, was that Canadian pros like Orr, Bobby Hull, Phil Esposito et al. were ineligible for supposedly amateur world championship and Olympic competition. Eagleson is a fiercely conservative Communist-hating Canadian nationalist, but his involvement in the first Canada-U.S.S.R. "Supersedes" in 1972 may not have been entirely based on national pride. "It was truly patriotism that got Eagleson in," says Doug Fisher, a Hockey Canada board member at the time. "That plus cupidity, position, influence. Alan wanted to run the show like a political machine. It was only when the numbers started coming in that he began to see the dollar signs."
And he saw them everywhere. Much of the profit from international hockey, Eagleson proudly reminds the athletes, goes directly into the players' pension fund. Eagleson has considered the establishment and continuation of these contributions to be fundamental to the last several NHL-NHLPA collective-bargaining agreements. As for how much profit there is, or, for that matter, exactly how the pension plan works...well, as Wayne Gretzky says, "A lot of players don't have a clue as to what's going on."
On the question of conflict of interest, Eagleson says, "Of course," his square jaw jutted. Far from cowering before such charges, he is well practiced in taking them on, grappling with them face to face. Every opportunity to do so is an invitation for Eagleson to exercise his famous bravado and slice his accuser to ribbons. "I make no secret of the fact that I wear several different hats," he has said. "And when I put a new one on, the old one goes back in the closet."
But it can't be quite as simple as that. If Eagleson wears only one hat at a time, surely some of them have many crowns. In addition to the several top players he represents (five of whom are currently on the NHLPA Executive Board, which has 26 members), Eagleson has represented a number of NHL coaches and general managers, and counts several NHL owners, notably Wirtz, as well as Ziegler, among his friends.
Ziegler, himself a lawyer, doesn't believe it's a conflict of interest for Eagleson to represent management, "as long as it's disclosed." Says Milbury: "I don't know how a guy who's close friends with the negotiators on the other side of the table can be as fair, as honest, as cruel or ruthless as you have to be in bargaining."
Says Eagleson: "I consider Bill Wirtz a friend except at the negotiating table, when I consider him the enemy.... Everything I do is out front. If the players don't like it, all they have to do is fire me. I'm the only person who can do the job. I'm the only person that I know who can stand up to these conflict-of-interest charges and survive them."
Beyond the many conflicts of interest that Eagleson makes no attempt to apologize for, there are a number of instances in which Eagleson appears to have used his position for his own or his friends' personal gain. Interviews with former Eagleson clients and associates provide a glimpse into how he operates.
For more than a decade, Robert H. Bradshaw & Associates Ltd. of Toronto handled the NHLPA's substantial medical, disability and life insurance policies. Bradshaw was a relatively inexperienced insurance agent when he met Eagleson in the early '60s. A few years later, Bradshaw arranged an insurance policy for Eagleson's prized client and partner, Orr, and soon afterward Bradshaw's firm began handling the insurance contract for the NHLPA. "Alan and I became friends. I liked the guy very much," says Bradshaw, who now works for Reed Stenhouse, a Toronto-based insurance company. "I was swept up by his charm and his enthusiasm and his excited approach to life and his bright ideas."
Bradshaw, who would go on to become the preeminent sports insurance broker in all of North America, says that at first his business with the NHLPA was "very small." By the early '70s, however, the account had become more lucrative, and at that time, Bradshaw says, Eagleson's "ego and greed" came into play. "As time went on," Bradshaw says, "his demands on us became unbusinesslike."
"It started when we would be told right out of the blue what our company's contribution to Toronto Big Brothers [of which Eagleson was a director] was going to be," Bradshaw says. "That went on for a couple of years. Then he started to use our assets. We kept a car and driver in Toronto. He'd phone up and tell us when he was using them. Then he would advise me when he was staying in my flat in New York and when his wife was.... We sort of put up with that stuff [because that's how business works]. Over the years, if you get hit on the head enough, you learn to live with the headache."
By the mid-'70s, Bradshaw says, Eagleson made it known that he would be available to perform legal services for Bradshaw's companies. Bradshaw says that for several years he reluctantly engaged Eagleson to perform legal services, for which Bradshaw paid a considerable amount. But the only services Eagleson's firm ever rendered, says Bradshaw, were little things "such as arranging the licensing of my snowmobile trailer.... It was like buying a Volkswagen and paying Rolls-Royce prices."
Bradshaw says he retained Eagleson to maintain both his goodwill and the NHLPA account. "[Eagleson's] feeling was, and there has got be some truth to it, that because of him our company wrote certain insurances that we probably wouldn't have otherwise had a chance to write, and in return for that he would be happy to render certain legal services to us, and we would be billed.... It is part of doing business...[but] I don't think anyone ever feels totally happy when they are told to use a certain lawyer."
Bradshaw also says that his companies arranged free insurance policies for Eagleson's benefit. Bradshaw describes the free policies as "part of the package...Nickel and dime stuff. But this is a reflection on his [Eagleson's] character. He's got to beat everybody every time."
Asked if he had ever received any money or gifts or anything else from Bradshaw, Eagleson said, "There was a suggestion at one stage that he had given me an insurance policy or something and I said, 'If you did, it was news to me.' And I sent a letter out saying...if I owe somebody any money, then let me know. That's the only instance."
In a letter dated Dec. 3,1979, Eagleson notified Bradshaw & Associates that he was placing the NHLPA disability insurance with the Toronto firm of William J. Sutton and Co. Ltd., which was associated with Crawley Warren and Co. Ltd., a Lloyd's of London broker. Sutton, a former employee of Bradshaw, was awarded the business because his terms of payment on the premiums were better than Bradshaw's, Eagleson wrote at the time.
Bradshaw retained the other NHLPA accounts. But in 1981, Bradshaw says, he told Eagleson that he no longer liked the manner in which their business was being conducted. Five months later, Bradshaw lost his remaining NHLPA accounts. Milbury, a member of the NHLPA's insurance committee at the time, says that Bradshaw lost the insurance because he "wasn't transferring the payments made by the NHLPA and the NHL offices to the re-insurers within a reasonable length of time." Bradshaw admits there were "late payments." But he adds, without elaboration, "We had to suffer the blame for a lot of others."
In the fall of 1982, a rival insurance company, American Sports Underwriters of Woburn, Mass., submitted a bid on the NHLPA disability account. Eagleson encouraged the bid, but in a letter to Ted Dipple, chairman of American Sports Underwriters, he hinted that Dipple's company might have a better chance of winning the account if it bought rink board advertising for an upcoming NHL-U.S.S.R. series. Eagleson informed Dipple that the rink board revenue benefited the NHLPA's pension plan and that the present insurer, Crawley Warren, had purchased $100,000 worth of advertising during the 1981 Canada Cup.
In a letter to Milbury, Eagleson wrote: "...I think we can use [Dipple's] involvement either as an inducement to keep Crawley Warren premiums competitive, or as an inducement to have Crawley Warren participate again in the rink board advertising scheme related to international hockey.... I have advised Crawley Warren of the upcoming series and will be twisting their arm to participate in the rink board or television advertising programme."
Crawley Warren retained the disability policy; Dipple admits his proposal offered less favorable terms. "Maybe it's just as well we didn't get the business and maybe it's just as well that we're not involved with [Eagleson]," Dipple says, "because if he wants to attach strings to our straightforward business dealings that's not the way we operate." Of Eagleson's suggestion that Dipple purchase rink board advertising, Dipple says, "I'd never heard anything similar suggested before, and I've not heard anything like that since."
It is worth noting that advertising for the '82 NHL-U.S.S.R. series was sold by Harcom Consultants, Ltd., whose president, Arthur Harnett, has long been one of Eagleson's closest associates.
Murray Wilson, a 32-year-old former Montreal Canadien and Los Angeles King, says that in 1979 Eagleson refused his request to assist him in settling a $210,000 injury grievance with the Kings and in collecting $83,500 on his NHL and NHLPA disability insurance policies. Wilson, now a leasing consultant for an automobile dealership in Ottawa, says he had to spend more than $70,000 of his own money to settle the grievance and insurance claims. "In his team meetings with players Eagleson would always say, 'Don't ever worry about anything. The Players' Association can take care of it,' " says Wilson. "But Alan didn't help me out one bit. He never gave me a reason other than that I was a client of [New York City agent] Art Kaminsky. He said, 'Let Kaminsky handle it.... I've got no goddam use for that Art Kaminsky.' "
Wilson's lawyer, Howard Schwartz, says, "Eagleson should have volunteered to collect Murray's union and NHL insurance. If the union isn't going to stick up for you, what good is the union?"
The current NHLPA president, Tony Esposito of the Chicago Black Hawks, feels that it's the union's responsibility to assist players seeking help in grievance and insurance matters. "If a player has a problem, he comes to us. We'll fight it for him," says Esposito. "That's our job—to protect the players."
Although Eagleson acknowledged having a phone conversation with Wilson about the problems, he says, "I have checked my files on Murray Wilson and at no time did he or his lawyer ask us to intercede.... I can't do things or guess what Wilson is doing. There are 500 members in the Players' Association."
Glen Sharpley, a 27-year-old former Minnesota North Star and Chicago Black Hawk, says that in 1982 he agreed to pay Eagleson, then his agent, $14,250 for collecting $325,000 worth of NHL, NHLPA and optional disability insurance after an eye injury ended his career. "Mr. Eagleson told me that he would not handle this if I did not sign [a contract guaranteeing Eagleson a percentage of the claim]," says Sharpley, now working as an equipment service employee for Northwest Orient Airlines at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Sharpley says he'd already paid about $60,000 in contract negotiation and management fees to Eagleson during the seven years that he'd been an Eagleson client. Says Sharpley, "[Eagleson] said, 'Because of my super high cost in handling this [insurance matter], I've got to charge you.' " Sharpley says he agreed to Eagle-son's terms because "my back was to the wall. I needed the money."
Eagleson also charged Dailey, another former client, for collecting a disability claim. Dailey says he didn't object to paying Eagleson, but he now believes he may have been misled by Eagleson. Both Sharpley and Dailey say that Eagleson told them his fees would include the cost of flying Bernard J. Warren, chairman of Crawley Warren, and his wife from London to Minneapolis and Philadelphia in January 1983 to meet with Sharpley and Dailey. According to Dailey, Eagleson said the Warrens' trip would cost the players about $5,000 and would "speed up getting our money."
The Warrens' visit happened to coincide with the Soviet national hockey team's trip to Minnesota and Philadelphia. "I had breakfast with Warren and Eagleson the morning after the game [in Minnesota]," says Sharpley, "but we hardly discussed the claim. I think Bernie and his wife had a nice vacation."
Warren says that he and his wife had been invited to Minnesota and Philadelphia not by Eagleson but by an unspecified "team manager." Furthermore, Warren said the trip was paid for by his own company. Warren said he did discuss insurance matters with clients during the trip but not in any "significant detail."
Eagleson has also used his multiple roles in hockey to bestow favors on friends who bestow favors on him in return. In 1980, for example, Eagleson was retained by American Airlines to arrange the participation of NHLPA members in an airline golf tournament in Toronto. Eagleson's payment included a number of travel passes on American, according to Henry Kelly, American's manager of passenger services at Toronto International Airport at the time. According to Kelly, Eagleson also received American passes unrelated to the golf tournament for, says Eagleson, "personal business...promotional contact between my clients and American." Eagleson also says he receives "an unlimited" number of passes from Air Canada for the business he does with them. Once again, where Eagleson's personal business ends and his representation of hockey players begins is blurred. The only things that are clear are that Eagleson receives many free passes, and he decides who gets to use them.
The unusually large number of free passes issued in Toronto to Eagleson and others prompted American Airlines in 1980 to launch an investigation of Kelly and Gregory Britz, then the airline's general manager for Canada. Kelly was fired in July, 1980, and Britz resigned five months later. In 1981 Britz, whom Eagleson describes as a "good friend" of 10 years' standing, was hired by Eagleson as a $100-an-hour lawyer to represent the NHLPA in arbitration cases against the NHL. Kelly is suing American for "wrongful dismissal and intimidation" and is now manager of a Toronto travel agency which, according to Kelly, "handles travel arrangements for Alan, his companies and the NHL Players' Association." Adds Kelly, "It's a damn good account."
Two of Eagleson's most prominent clients—Bobby Orr and Vaclav Nedomansky, a former captain of the Czech national team who played nine years in the WHA and NHL after defecting to Canada in 1974—have left his stable with more than a hint that Eagleson mishandled their affairs.
For more than a decade Orr and Eagleson were practically inseparable—financially and socially. Eagleson was a 30-year-old lawyer and legislator when Doug Orr approached him about representing Orr's 15-year-old son, Bobby. Eagleson had never met Bobby, and he had only dabbled in hockey, but by the time Orr was old enough to play in the NHL, Eagleson had realized what a valuable ticket Orr would be and became his representative. Introducing the art of belligerent negotiating to the NHL, Eagleson won Orr an unprecedented two-year $75,000 contract from the Bruins. When news of Orr's salary got around the league, other players came flocking to Eagleson for counsel. Orr became the Eagleson empire's prime asset. Later, Eagleson would boast that tour-bus guides referred to his large house in the old-rich Toronto district of Rosedale as "the house that Bobby Orr built."
Eagleson incorporated Bobby Orr Enterprises Ltd. and acted as a director of the company. As Orr's salary with the Bruins rose and his endorsement value in the U.S. and Canada grew at an even greater rate, the Eagleson-Orr partnership reaped huge profits and paved the way for the establishment of more Eagleson companies, as Orr allowed Eagleson to use his name and money almost any way Eagleson saw fit. Orr became a prime spokesman for Standard Brands, the international food concern that merged with Nabisco and is run by Eagleson's friend F. Ross Johnson. The Orr-Walton Sports Camp was another lucrative enterprise, and it provided the bonus of introducing prominent junior hockey players to the Eagleson fold. When Eagleson was organizing the first U.S.S.R.-Canada series in 1972 and couldn't get the price he wanted for the television rights, he created an instant company called Ballard-Orr enterprises and sold it the TV rights for $750,000. Only some time later did Eagleson get around to informing Orr that he and Ballard were TV executives. (But not for long. Eagleson arranged for Ballard-Orr to transfer those rights to Harnett, who generated almost $2.2 million in advertising revenue.)
In 1976, Orr became a free agent and Eagleson got him a five-year, $3 million deal with Wirtz' team, the Black Hawks. In November 1978, unable to play any longer because of his crippled knees, Orr retired. Although his Black Hawk deal "guaranteed" him $1.5 million, Orr ended up collecting less than $1 million from the Chicago club—and that after protracted litigation.
Today, while Eagleson is a millionaire many times over, Orr does promotional work for Standard Brands, works for a Boston printing house and owns a small travel agency. Hit with a bill for back Canadian taxes in 1980, he spent more than $500,000 to settle the matter. Orr admits that he was totally naive to the ways of business during his career and placed all his faith in Eagleson. After a-bitter separation proceeding in 1980, Orr signed away his share of the Eagleson-Orr assets for a reported $2.4 million, and after paying the tax man, legal fees and settling debts—including a $100,000 promissory note to Harnett he claims he never knew about—he came away with virtually nothing. Also, at Eagle-son's insistence, Orr signed an agreement saying Eagleson had handled his affairs properly and pledging not to publicly discuss their past relationship.
Eagleson says of his relationship with Orr, "Orr co-signed every check. He-alone signed the promissory note [to Harnett] and it was explained to him.... I have no bitterness toward Bobby Orr."
Nedomansky first became associated with Eagleson shortly after he decided to defect from Czechoslovakia. In 1976 Eagleson, who was authorized to manage Nedomansky's affairs, invested some of Nedomansky's money in a mortgage held partly by Nanjill Investments Ltd. Nedomansky says he didn't learn until later that Eagleson and his wife, Nancy, were directors of Nanjill ("Nan" is for Nancy; "jill" is for the Eaglesons' daughter). After Nedomansky spent three years with the Toronto Toros and Birmingham Bulls of the WHA, Eagleson in 1977 negotiated a two-year, $154,500 contract for him with the Detroit Red Wings. What happened after that is currently being argued in a million-dollar-plus negligence and breach of contract trial. Evidence has been presented that in 1979 Eagleson's then assistant, Bill Watters, reached an agreement with the Red Wings on a contract that would have assured Nedomansky "long-term security," paying him a guaranteed $1.25 million over five years (plus an option year) and an additional $750,000 for front-office duties over the next 10 years. Nedomansky and others testified that on the eve of the formal signing, Eagleson flew to Detroit and announced the agreement at a press conference, but the deal was never completed. Consequently Nedomansky played the entire 1979-80 season without a contract—on Eagleson's advice, he claims.
Nedomansky further charges that in 1980 Eagleson negotiated a new contract with Detroit that was to pay him $1.4 million over four years (plus an option year), but that this contract contained a "buy-out" clause which would allow the Red Wings to end their obligation at any time by paying Nedomansky 60% of the total money owed. Nedomansky claims he suffered "mental anguish" over the ordeal. He also believes that Eagleson should have taken special care, in light of Nedomansky's unfamiliarity with the English language and with the ways of Canadian and American business, and says that the shorter-term contract allowed Eagleson to take a higher and more immediate commission. In 1982, the Red Wings exercised their buy-out option on Nedomansky's final two years, paying him $345,000. Nedomansky is now unemployed.
Eagleson has filed a countersuit against Nedomansky for fees allegedly owed him by his former client.
Eagleson's relationships with friends such as Bradshaw, Harnett and others have raised continuing questions about the propriety of Eagleson's dealings while he deftly changes his many hats. Harnett, for instance, a onetime radio station news director in Toronto, is known to be one of Eagleson's closest allies, dating from Eagleson's earliest political days. People who have worked for and with Eagleson for years have formed the impression that Eagleson controls Harnett's business. Eagleson insists that his relationship with Harnett is limited to that of "solicitor [lawyer] and adviser and friend."
Harnett was certainly in the right place to cash in when the Eagleson-engineered international hockey bonanza began in 1972. Eagleson, through his law firm, set up Team Canada Productions Ltd., with Harnett as its president, and a week later established Arthur Harnett Enterprises Ltd. Team Canada Productions handled the advertising and broadcast rights for the '72 U.S.S.R.-Canada series; Arthur Harnett Enterprises acted as agent for T.C. Productions. Later, Arthur Harnett Enterprises became Harcom Consultants Ltd. Then another company, Harcom Stadium Advertising, was incorporated by Alan Eagleson, Q.C. (Queen's Counsel). One or another of those companies either bought or brokered the television and advertising rights to subsequent Canada Cups and other important international hockey events, as well as the billboard advertising sales rights at Exhibition Stadium, home of the baseball Blue Jays and CFL Argonauts.
Even though Eagleson insists that his and Harnett's financial interests have never been commingled, many people who have done business with Harnett simply assume him to be another Eagleson employee. Carling O'Keefe, the Canadian brewery, purchased 110 minutes of commercial time during the 1976 Canada Cup telecasts for a total of $2.53 million. Evan Hayter, Carling O'Keefe's marketing director, speaking in general of the brewery's business with Harnett, said that the deals were made "directly with Eagleson." Asked whether Carling O'Keefe's payments actually went to Eagleson, Hayter said, "Well, no, not to Eagleson. He has a guy named Arthur Harnett. Harcom. He more or less does all the sales negotiations for [Eagleson]."
In fact, in 1976 Harcom acted as Hockey Canada's agent in selling TV advertising rights to Carling O'Keefe and then acted as Carling O'Keefe's agent in reselling some of that time to other advertisers, earning, according to Hockey Canada's public records, more than $1 million in commissions. For the '81 Canada Cup series, Harcom bought the advertising rights from Hockey Canada outright, for $1.9 million. As a private company Harcom is not obligated to disclose its profits from the resale of those rights.
Bradshaw says that he dealt directly with Eagleson whenever he sold insurance to Harnett's companies. "Then," says Bradshaw, "at the end of the day, Harnett and I would go out and have a drink, and I'd say, 'Art, this is what we [Eagleson and I] agreed to. This is the deal.... I'm totally convinced that Eagleson controls Arthur Harnett and Arthur Harnett's business."
Curt Berglund, the IIHF treasurer, based in Stockholm, who has conducted much business with both Eagleson and Harnett in Europe, says, "They say that before Harnett coughs in the morning, he must first call Eagle."
Eagleson says he frequently uses Harcom's telex facilities for transacting business for his own companies, and that he arranged the $100,000 loan from Harnett to Orr, when Orr was Eagleson's client-partner. It's public record that two associates in Eagleson companies—Marvin Goldblatt, Eagleson's accountant and an officer of Rae-Con Consultants Ltd., the sports management company that's registered in the name of Nancy Eagleson; and Howard D. Ungerman, a lawyer in Eagleson's office—have served as directors of Harcom Stadium Advertising Ltd.
Harnett has refused to discuss with SI his relationship with Eagleson.
Eagleson defends his dealings with friends like Harnett, saying he works "with my friends if possible, and if my friends can't come up with the right amount of dough, then the next guy with the most dough." Chances are the "next guy" will soon become Eagleson's friend as well.
"In selling, Eagleson usually has something somebody wants," says Lefaive. "People are willing, even anxious, to do business with him because nobody knows where he might surface next."
Even though hockey has been a financial feast for Eagleson, he insists that his substantial efforts on behalf of international competition have been strictly a labor of love for sport and country. Eagleson does receive expenses from Hockey Canada for the substantial amount of work and travel he puts in on its behalf, but he gets no fee or salary. "Not five cents," he says proudly.
But his employees do. For example, until the time he left Eagleson in 1980 to form a competing management company, Watters was doing, by his own estimate, 85% of all contract negotiations for Eagleson's hockey clients. For that, Eagleson paid Watters an annual salary of around $45,000. In '77 and '78, Watters was also paid a total of $107,500 by Hockey Canada for additional duties such as coordinating the '77 World Junior Tournament and acting as general manager for Team Canada in the '77 and '78 world championships. As far as Eagleson was concerned, the money Watters got from Hockey Canada meant that he "was paid for two years." Therefore, Watters received no salary directly from Eagleson for '77 and '78, but he did get the $107,500 from Hockey Canada.
Eagleson had similar arrangements with other employees he lent to Hockey Canada, including Goldblatt and Curran, collecting on their services much the same way he collected for telephones, office machines and secretarial services he lent Hockey Canada. In 1976, for instance, he submitted to Hockey Canada an expense statement for $83,281 labeled "office and general" expenses.
Eagleson sees nothing improper in such practices. "The guy works for me, and if I can put him to work and make a million dollars, it's my million dollars, not his," he says. "If I pay my guy 30 [thousand] and rent him out for 50 [thousand], that makes me smart."
But does he employ the same logic when renting himself out? Because his position as NHLPA executive director is a part-time job, he bills the association on an hourly basis, so his fees vary from season to season. The NHLPA paid him $151,900 in 1981-82 and $153,800 in 1982-83. (By comparison, Larry Fleisher, general counsel of the NBA Players Association, the only other sports union leader who works on a part-time basis, submitted bills for about $50,000 for 1982-83.) Eagleson says that he spends 50% of his time working for the NHLPA. He estimates that his work for Hockey Canada takes up anywhere from 10% to 75% of his time, although he insists that some of the international work is inseparable from the NHLPA time. The rest of his time is spent attending to his personal and corporate clients and his business and real estate interests.
Still, if Eagleson spends 40% of his time negotiating for Hockey Canada, should not Hockey Canada be paying him for that time rather than the NHLPA and his other clients? "Although on the surface that might seem to make sense," Eagleson says, "the net advantages to the Players' Association have been substantial. And there's no question in my mind that if I don't do what I do the way I do it, then the Players' Association is going to be in considerable difficulty because of the lack of revenue that international hockey provides.... Never once has any player said to me, 'Al, you're f——ing around too much on international hockey and you're ignoring your duties.' "
Eagleson's influence over the players was plainly evident at a very crucial league meeting in Nassau in 1979. At that time, the NHL owners had indicated that they had finally had enough of the draining bidding war that had been going on for seven years with the WHA, and they gave every sign that they would accept a merger with the rival league, whether the NHL players agreed to it or not. The players, whose salaries had grown dramatically as a result of the bidding war, weren't at all inclined to agree. In Nassau they considered demanding open free agency as their price for a merger; otherwise they would take the NHL to court, just as the NBA Players Association had successfully done to ensure that the 1976 NBA-ABA merger would be consummated on terms agreeable to the players. Eagleson, concerned about the perilous financial state of several teams, cautioned the players that the NHL might not be able to withstand such a lawsuit and that jobs could be lost. Still, Eagleson says he went to those meetings with an open mind. "I wanted to find out what the players thought," he says. "I studiously sat back and avoided [taking part in] any discussion."
Phil Esposito, then the union president, remembers Eagleson taking him aside and making an "impassioned plea" to "search your soul" and "do the right thing for all the players." Esposito took a long solitary stroll on the beach. Later that day, Eagleson reported to Esposito that the owners had agreed to increase benefits, sweeten the pension fund and let the players continue to profit from international hockey. No NHLPA member's job would be lost. Esposito's decision was made. He recommended that the NHLPA accept the deal, and the merger was done.
Two years later, Esposito was recounting that difficult day to Glen Sather, president, general manager and coach of the Edmonton Oilers, one of the four WHA clubs absorbed by the NHL. According to Esposito, the conversation went as follows:
Sather: "Did you guys [the players] think you had anything to do with that merger?"
Esposito: "Yeah. Without the players, you guys wouldn't have had a merger."
Sather: "Jesus Christ, Phil! Don't be so naive. It was already done [before the '79 meeting]. It was already done."
Esposito: "Are you kidding me? Can I say this to anyone?"
Sather: "I'll deny every word of it."
Sather now says, "Phil's reading too much into [that conversation]. I was saying that in principle the deal was set; it was going to be made either way. Essentially, I was saying that whatever the players wanted, they could have gotten. They would have gotten some concessions [if they had held out for them]."
Eagleson, who presumably would have known about any secret merger deal, flatly denies that any such arrangement was made. So does Ziegler. Still, Esposito, who now runs a counseling service for present and former NHL players and broadcasts New York Ranger games, regrets not having stood up to Eagleson. "I was like his puppet," Esposito says. "I admit that."
Eagleson's authoritarian control over the NHLPA is what has prompted Milbury to lead a long crusade to replace Eagleson with a full-time executive director. When Eagleson was asked recently to cite one occasion on which the Players' Association acted against his advice, he drew a blank. But he insisted that the NHLPA is run as a proper democracy, adding, "I negotiate the best deal I can [for the players] within the restrictions of whatever restrictions there are. And I don't think there are any."
Each time Milbury has pressed the need for a full-time director, Eagleson has threatened to quit (once he actually did, for a few days), implying that the NHLPA could not function without him, a position a vast majority of the players buy. In 1979, Milbury commissioned Price Waterhouse to survey 460 NHL players on whether or not they wanted a full-time executive director and whether a selection committee was necessary to choose one. He and his Bruin teammates bore the $700 expense of conducting the poll. At the February 1980 NHLPA meeting, Milbury distributed the survey results: Of the 154 players who responded, 101 preferred a full-time director.
Even before the results were announced, Eagleson launched an attack on Milbury, of whom he has said, "There's a guy I could have scuppered on a few occasions." Later he declared that if it was the players' wish, he would step down in September 1982. A selection committee was formed, composed of four players, a Toronto judge, a Harvard Law School professor and Eagleson, to choose Eagle-son's successor. The committee met once in 1980 and never again. In February 1983, the player reps agreed to vote annually on whether or not to retain Eagleson, and that June they voted 25-4 to keep him.
On May 30, 1984, in a show of hands, the player reps extended Eagleson's contract by a vote of 20-1. "I'd like to see a secret-ballot vote taken of all the players in the league on whether Eagleson should be retained," Milbury said recently. "I feel it would be a very close vote." Says Curran, "Those of us who have worked for Al always said that the only way to ever get him out would be if you could get every person in hockey—minus Al—into the same room at the same time."
How is Eagleson able to maintain the support he needs to represent so many different interests simultaneously? Two of his three great advantages are that his sport is ice hockey and that his domain is Canada. The Canadian hockey establishment remains relatively well-protected from the aggressive press and meddling courts that have eroded the once-authoritarian powers of American baseball, pro football and basketball czars. And though the makeup of the NHL is slowly changing with the influx of more Americans and Canadian players developed at U.S. colleges rather than in the Canadian junior leagues, the typical hockey player is still a relatively unsophisticated rustic who has been a semi-professional since the age of 16.
Furthermore, hockey isn't just the only major sport that Canada can call its own; it's one of the two or three most important components of the country's national identity. The ice rink is the battlefield on which Canada can wage war with the Russians, hand-to-hand rather than missile-to-missile. "Hockey isn't our national sport, it's our national religion," says John Hudson, director of media properties for the Labatt Brewing Company, which will sponsor Team Canada in all international competition through the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. "If we don't believe that then we're heathens—or at least agnostics."
To a lot of Canadians, Eagleson personifies the fighting spirit and work-ethic ideal that they want their hockey heroes and national leaders to exhibit. Even those who would like to see Eagleson deposed are in awe of his ability to get what he wants, to finish what he starts, his methods be damned. "I don't admire him," says Lefaive, "but he has exceptional energy. Alan is out doing things while most people are sitting around thinking about them. He works under very few principles, and the rest is pragmatism."
Most of the people in and around hockey agree that until proven otherwise, Eagleson, skilled politician that he is, is all but invulnerable. Says Lefaive: "As long as the players keep hiring Eagleson, they hardly have cause to complain about him, have they? They ought to know this about him, though: Alan has no allies. He only has allies for the moment."
NHL BOARD OF GOVERNORS
INTERNATIONAL ICE HOCKEY FEDERATION
At various times Eagleson either represents or influences each of the elements shown at the top of this diagram through one or more of his multiple roles, shown at the bottom. Says Eagleson, "I'm the only person that I know who can stand up to these conflict-of-interest charges and survive them."