Hockey Central

The Rise and Fall of R. Alan Eagleson

The story of R. Alan Eagleson – lawyer, player agent, founder of the NHL Players' Association, father of international hockey, convicted felon – is laced with what are mostly sad ironies. He grew up in the west-end suburb of New Toronto, the son of a factory worker, determined to make something of his life. He did so, becoming, arguably, the most powerful man in hockey, but now, arguably, he is its most disgraced. Once billed as the great emancipator of National Hockey League players, in the end he was proven a traitor and a crook when, in January of 1998, he was sentenced to 18 months in the Mimico Correctional Institute, just a few miles from where he was raised. The reputation and influence he had worked so hard to foster now lay in tatters.

History undoubtebly will remember Eagleson for the last chapter in his hockey career, a plea bargain and the guilty pleas to three counts of mail fraud in a Boston courtroom, then a day later guilty pleas to three more counts of fraud in a Toronto courtroom. And if that is his legacy, then so be it. But history cannot overlook the profound influence Eagleson had on the business of hockey. Some of it was positive, some of it wasn't, but Eagleson was clearly a powerbroker in the sport and the business of hockey for a quarter of a century. Hindsight simply offers clarity to his workings.

It was in 1966 that a young Toronto lawyer named Alan Eagleson was hired by budding superstar Bobby Orr to represent him in contract negotiations with the Boston Bruins. It is another of the many ironies, of course, that severed relations with Orr many years later would ultimately lead to Eagleson's fall from grace.

It was through a friendship with then-Toronto Maple Leafs center Bob Pulford, a friendship cultivated through their mutual involvement in lacrosse, that Eagleson was first introduced to the NHL back in the early 1960s. Eagleson met many of the Leaf greats, including the likes of Bobby Baun, Terry Sawchuk, Carl Brewer and others, through his friendship with Pulford, and Eagleson helped them with their contract negotiations and investments.

But it was the involvement with Orr that got Eagleson started on his remarkable rise to fame and fortune. At the time, in the summer of 1966, the Bruins had offered Orr, an 18-year-old superstar defenseman in the making with the Oshawa Generals, a two-year contract worth about $20,000, including bonuses. When Eagleson was done, however, the two-year deal had swelled to roughly $70,000, a salary stratosphere few had ever visited and the biggest contract ever given a rookie. After that, as they say, the Eagle was in flight.

That same year Eagleson was asked by players of the Springfield Indians of the American Hockey League to act on their behalf with owner Eddie Shore, a hockey legend who had evolved into a hockey tyrant. The players had decided they could no longer work for Shore unless their working conditions were dramatically changed for the better. When they weren't, the players called in Eagleson, who threatened court action and proceeded to negotiate a settlement with management.

It was during Eagleson's visit to Springfield, though, that he met for lunch with Bobby Orr, who was joined by several of his Bruins teammates. They, in turn, invited Eagleson to meet with the rest of the players and to consider forming a players' union. Eagleson, who had a small stable of clients, gathered player opinion from around the league and within a few months had 110 players sign their support. The other 10 or so verbally gave their blessing. "Al's done more for hockey in two years than anybody else has done in 20," said Chicago Blackhawks superstar Bobby Hull at the time.

In late May 1967 the brash and energetic 34-year-old Eagleson informed the NHL president Clarence Campbell that he would be attending the league's annual meeting in Montreal and would be asking the NHL to recognize the Players' Association. Ten years earlier, of course, a New York lawyer named Milton N. Mound had tried to start a players union, but he was rebuked in his attempt. Many of the players who supported him, including former Detroit Red Wings star Ted Lindsay and Toronto players Jimmy Thomson and Tod Sloan, suffered the consequences by bring traded to the last-place Chicago Blackhawks.

But there was no stopping Eagleson, who had virtually all the players in the league onside, and two week's later, on June 7, 1967, he convinced the league's governors to accept the association within 15 minutes of presenting them with the idea. In an article of the day written by journalist Trent Frayne, Eagleson was described in 1967 as being "the most influential figure in Canadian sports since Conn Smythe paid off the mortgage on Maple Leaf Gardens." In subsequent months, Eagleson got the league to raise the minimum salary from $7,500 to $10,000. A more comprehensive medical plan was introduced and the players' pension plan was improved.

There was no question that for years the players had been underpaid and unappreciated by the owners and they had no retirement protection. To a large extent, Eagleson changed much of that. He vowed in the years ahead to change the standard player contract, to introduce the option clause, to get the players a share of television money, to allow them to pursue and retain endorsement deals, to change the waiver rules and gain greater freedom of movement.

The players finally had someone fighting for and protecting their rights and, at the time at least, they were grateful. No matter how the story evolved, Eagleson's early involvement in hockey, of acting on behalf of Orr and forming the union, changed the game forever. Much of the prosperity the players enjoy today would not have been possible if not for what transpired 34 years earlier.

Outside the NHLPA, Eagleson was expanding the services he offered as a player agent, adding former Leaf trainer Bob Haggart to run promotions and an accountant named Marvin Goldblatt to handle investments. The first prominent agent in hockey, Eagleson's involvement soon led to every player having representation at contract time.

In just a few short years, Eagleson had become a force to be reckoned with in the hockey world. As a player agent and as the executive director of the NHLPA, the Eagleson empire continued to grow, too. Considered by many acquaintances to be a man driven to acquire power, Eagleson had found it and continued to look for more of it.

Outside the hockey world, Eagleson became a Progressive Conservative member of the Ontario legislature in 1963. Five years later, after he had lost his elected seat, he won the presidency of the Conservative party and held the post for eight years, until 1976. His foray into the world of politics didn't dilute Eagleson's involvement in hockey, however. He had proven from the beginning he was able to juggle many jobs and wear many different hats.

With the promise of enhancing their pensions, Eagleson took his players onto the international stage, beginning in 1972 when he had a hand in creating the first international summit between the powerful Soviet Union and a team of NHL players from Canada. Just how much credit Eagleson deserved for the series happening is a point of debate, but he certainly played a role and the end result was spectacular and far-reaching.

Indeed, it was a series that changed the face of hockey forever. It was eight games, winner take all. The first four games in September, 1972, were to be played in Canada, first in Montreal, then Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver. After a 10-day hiatus, the series would switch to four more games in Moscow. In the opinion of most North Americans, the series was going to prove the supremacy of Canadian hockey once and for all. For too many years Canada had sent teams of amateurs to the World Championships and the Olympics like so many sheep to slaughter. This time they would teach the Soviets a lesson.

When it was over, though, the Canadians and Soviets taught each other a lesson, that there was something to be learned from the way both countries prepared and played. And in the years to come, as the Iron Curtain peeled open and then ultimately ceased to be, the NHL would become the future home for players from all over Europe. And it was that 1972 series, won in the dying seconds of that eighth and final game from Canadian hero Paul Henderson, that changed the game forever. And it was Eagleson who was quick to take control and credit and then to build on this international success.

Two years after the historic summit, the renegade World Hockey Association assembled a team of its Canadian stars to play the Soviets in a similar eight-game series set up without the involvement from Eagleson. But while the WHA team was losing to the Soviets, Eagleson was working behind the scenes on a bigger and better tournament. It was to be called the Canada Cup, a miniature version of the World Cup of soccer, and would be run by Eagleson and the Players' Association, supposedly to benefit the players rather than NHL club owners. Eagleson by this time was the only man in hockey with the clout to make it work.

Through his various offices, he was able to get the NHL's okay for its players to participate in the Canada Cup. He could also deliver the top players to the tournament in his dual roles as super-agent and NHLPA executive director. His growing influence on hockey's international stage ensured the participation of the Soviets, Czechoslovakians, Swedes, Finns and Americans in what would prove to be the finest international tournament the game had seen.

The first Canada Cup was played in the fall of 1976. Subsequent tournaments would take place in 1981, 1984, 1987 and 1991. The host country won four out of five events, with Canada's overtime semifinal victory over the Soviet Union in 1984 and the three-game final in 1987 ranking as tournament highlights. (The format was revived and expanded in 1996 under a new name: The World Cup of Hockey. This time the tournament was a joint venture of the NHL, the NHLPA and the IIHF. Eagleson, no longer director of the NHLPA, was not involved).

While there is no denying that the international tournament had a positive and profound effect on hockey, Eagleson's detractors would say that the co-operation of the NHL required to stage them was obtained by softening the players' demands for free agency and reducing the owners' pension fund contribution. In 1976, for instance, the players agreed to a collective bargaining agreement that included compensation to be paid to teams losing players to free agency. This compensation was so onerous that it effectively curtailed free agent signings, but in return the players received improvements to their pensions and the owners' approval to participate in the Canada Cup. These pension improvements, however, were funded by proceeds from the Canada Cup. In essence, the Eagleson-led players' association agreed to play games in an Eagleson-run tournament to generate revenue that was used to reduce the pension fund contributions of the NHL's club owners.

There is no denying that Eagleson helped to change the game at many levels and often for the better. He continued to negotiate improvements in collective bargaining agreements with the NHL, but with the benefit of hindsight, appeared to do so at an apparent price to the players. Salaries inched up and pensions improved, though free agency was always an unattainable carrot, negotiated away to keep Eagleson's international hockey ventures alive. In pure on-ice hockey terms, however, these Eagleson-led initiatives in the international front were huge. The results are seen in the number of talented European players that are a part of every NHL roster today.

It was through his involvement in international hockey, of course, that Eagleson became a Canadian icon with the adjectival phrase 'hockey czar' permanently welded to his name. He was the guy the players had to rescue from the grip of Soviet policemen in the final game of the 1972 series, the guy who proceeded to give the Sovier political system a middle-finger as the players hustled him across the ice to the safety of their bench. He was Captain Canada.

Eagleson's prominence and power continued to grow through that decade and the next with the start of the Canada Cup tournaments. His stable of clients also grew into the hundreds. He was named a director of Hockey Canada and, despite the apparent conflict of interest, he represented the NHL in all international hockey negotiations. Eagleson was decorated with the prestigious Order of Canada and was inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame and, later, the Hockey Hall of Fame. He was the friend of all variety of powerbrokers, from prime ministers, to premiers, to Supreme Court justices, to the wealthiest owners in hockey. A man of vision, Eagleson was often regarded as being equal parts bully and genius, driven by power, ambition and, ultimately, greed. But there was always the underlying belief that, character flaws and rough edges aside, Eagleson was helping to grow the name of hockey and make its players richer.

An autocratic ruler, Eagleson usually surrounded himself with this premier clients, negotiated them good contracts and put them in key positions in the NHLPA. When other players would question his power or his conflicts of interest, Eagleson would either beat them down verbally, or would have those players who were well looked-after convince them that all was well. He realized having the superstars onside gave him strength in his dealings with NHLPA members and with NHL team owners.

Critics of Eagleson would suggest he was far too cozy with the owners and league president John Ziegler and that he pushed for the NHL's 1979 expansion to include four former World Hockey Association franchises, effectively killing the rival league. This deprived the players of considerable leverage, as the loss of the WHA combined with no effective free agency eliminated any pressure for salaries to keep going up. Salary growth was stopped.

Indeed, throughout the 1970s, Eagleson always maintained stability and peace between the players and the owners, supposedly for the over-all betterment of the game, but some say there was too much tranquility, that the labor peace came at a cost for the players and that the lines between labor and management often blurred. Many years later a class-action lawsuit was filed by some former players in Philadelphia charging that Eagleson colluded with former NHL president John Ziegler, chairman of the NHL's board of governors Bill Wirtz and the NHL's member clubs of that era to keep salaries down.

It cannot be denied, however, that the business of hockey grew during the Eagleson years and that when the NHL seemed on uncertain footing, its players didn't topple the league with a strike or labor stoppage. In many ways, it seems, they worked together to keep the game growing. Years later, many wondered whether they worked together more for the benefit of Eagleson and the owners, than for Eagleson and the players.

The first real crack in the Eagleson empire, though, came in April of 1980, when Orr – his first and most important superstar client – parted company with him after Eagleson had steered Orr away from the Bruins to the Blackhawks. Orr, whose career ended prematurely because of a series of severe knee injuries, would later claim he left the game flat broke and Eagleson had neglected to inform him of an extremely lucrative final offer from the Bruins.

It was later in the decade, though, that others outside the game started to take notice of Eagleson's running of the Players' Association and the many hats he wore. Philadelphia-based lawyer Ed Garvey, a former director of the National Football League union, was hired by some NHL players to look into the affairs of Eagleson and the association. He was joined by two player agents, Rich Winter and Ron Salcer.

They argued that while Eagleson had promised the players much, the NHLPA hadn't gained any significant benefits for the players when compared to other professional sports. They charged in a private 55-page report written by Garvey, that Eagleson had too many conflicts of interest, that while he represented the players on one hand, he acted for the owners on the other, and all the while was entrusted with negotiating the collective bargaining agreement between the two.

Eagleson withstood that tempest and others, but two years later in December of 1991, just one month after the FBI had launched an investigation into his dealings, Eagleson stepped down as the head of the NHLPA. He finally left the association he had founded a month after that, replaced during the All-Star weekend in Pittsburgh by Bob Goodenow, a labor lawyer and player agent who was based in Detroit.

Eagleson detractors maintained he had far too friendly a relationship with the NHL and Zieglar and that the union had fallen behind other sports in terms of gains won for its membership. Eagleson was portrayed in some circles as an salty-tongued individual who was out to gain more for himself than his constituents.

Make no mistake, though, the Players' Association and the business of hockey were in for more and rapid change. The NHLPA grew into a huge business, expanding its marketing activities, and under Goodenow it was involved in two labor stoppages – a strike and a lockout. But under Goodenow, the average player's salary rose to roughly $1.2 million in 1998. Ten years earlier it was $150,000.

In March of 1994 a Boston grand jury indicted Eagleson and arrest warrants were issued. In November of 1995 the class-action suit in Philadelphia was launched by several former NHL players, many of whom were the same players who once asked Eagleson to start their association.

Finally, in January of 1998 criminal investigations on both sides of the border ended with a negotiated settlement: guilty pleas in two courts, in two countries, a $1 million fine and an 18-month jail sentence. He served five months before entering a work-release program in May 1998, but by that time he had been expelled from the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame and, faced with mounting public pressure, had resigned from the Hockey Hall of Fame. Once the most influential man in hockey, the founder of an association to protect NHL players has ultimately stolen from them. From powerbroker to prisoner.