Written by Russ Conway, reviewed by JIM SILVER
RUSS CONWAY is a practitioner of the art, too little seen in Canada and especially among sportswriters, of muck-raking investigative journalism. And there’s so much Eagleson muck to be raked. Eagleson wore at least four different hats while President of the National Hockey League Players Association [NHLPA]: union president, player agent, international hockey impresario, and close friend of NHL owners and management. As one former player said: “He wears so many hats I think even he gets screwed up sometimes.”
Players complained about him for years, but Eagleson bullied and embarrassed any player with the temerity to ask questions about his conduct of union affairs, and put his own hand-picked, non-elected, yes-men on the union executive.
When some players finally hired Ed Garvey, former head of the National Football League Players’ Association, to investigate Eagleson’s work as union head, Garvey produced a 1989 report which revealed that “The conflicts of interest are shocking, but even more shocking is a pattern of sweetheart agreements with the NHL over all these years….” Garvey was appalled by Eagleson’s close, personal ties to Bill Wirtz, owner of the Chicago Black Hawks and Chairman of the NHL Board of Governors, on whose Florida-based yacht Eagleson enjoyed cavorting, and John Zeigler, President of the NHL, and suggested that the Eagleson-Wirtz-Zeigler relationship made bargaining a “charade”.
But it was far worse than a charade. It was criminal. For example, Eagleson ripped off players who suffered career-ending injuries.
The Jim Harrison case is revealing. Harrison’s back was shot. He could scarcely walk, much less play. The Black Hawks jerked him around. He filed a grievance through Eagleson, head of the NHLPA and Harrison’s agent. But Eagleson was also the agent for Chicago coach and general manager and long-time pal Bob Pulford, and Pulford was employed by Eagleson’s yachting companion and Florida neighbour, Black Hawk owner Bill Wirtz. The grievance, as per the collective agreement negotiated by Eagleson, was heard by another pal, NHL President John Zeigler, “whose salary was paid by Wirtz and the other owners”. The deck was stacked. Eagleson “cut a private deal with Pulford to the benefit of the Blackhawks and the detriment of his client.” So much for Jim Harrison.
In another instance Eagleson convinced injured Boston Bruin player Mike Gillis to pay him, Eagleson, 15 per cent of whatever was received from Gillis’ disability insurance. Securing the claim, Eagleson intoned, would be tough. Yet Conway reveals that the meeting at which this deal was struck occurred after Eagleson had already been notified by the insurer that Gillis’ claim had been approved. Eagleson was paid $41,250 for that scam.
He apparently also collected from the insurance companies. The insurance agent who handled NHL disability insurance before 1981 told Conway that over the years from 1969-1981 Eagleson first asked, then demanded, to use the agent’s chauffeured limousine and New York apartment. Said the agent: “He used the car 15, 20 times a year”. Similarly the flat in London, England, which NHL players paid him to stay at, Eagleson owned jointly with the head of the firm “…to whom he had directed the disability insurance business.” This business was profitable, at least in part because Eagleson worked to reduce payouts. In return, he demanded kickbacks.
The Bobby Orr story is also revealing. It was as agent of the great Boston defenceman that Eagleson first came to prominence, and he used his relationship with Orr to build a huge stable of players for whom he acted as agent. In 1976 Eagleson negotiated Orr’s sale to Chicago, to Eagleson’s close pal Bill Wirtz, even though Orr did not want to leave the Boston Bruins and Boston tried desperately to hold him. Boston even offered Orr an 18.5 per cent ownership stake in the franchise – worth $ 16 million US by 1994. Eagleson never informed Orr of this offer, but instead lied to Orr that Boston did not want him. What kind of financial gain Eagleson made from this deal Conway does not know, though it likely was substantial. Orr clearly was the loser. When in 1980 he finally severed his ties with Eagleson, his agent and financial manager, Orr was effectively bankrupt – his taxes and legal and accounting bills exceeded his assets.
NHL veterans have been financially hurt by the pension scams, already well treated in Bruce Dowbiggin’s The Defense Never Rests, and Conway brings the story up to the present. NHL pensions have been the worst in major professional sport. For example, the widow of Hall of Fame linesman George Hayes, who officiated from 1946-65, was offered a lump sum payment of $1032 or $16.98 per month when Hayes died in 1987.
Eagleson touted himself as the savior of the players’ pension plan. Money earned from international hockey tournaments organized by Eagleson was, the players and the public were repeatedly told, to go to the NHL players’ pension fund, when in fact it appears those earnings were used merely to reduce the NHL’s contribution. The owners benefited, not the players. Similarly, surpluses in the fund were being used to reduce the owners’ contribution, with Eagleson’s approval.
Luckily Carl Brewer, former Maple Leaf great, led a tenacious campaign that resulted in some NHL veterans’ monthly pension cheques doubling. No thanks for this are due Eagleson, who insisted that the surplus earned on the veterans’ contributions belonged to the owners, and who led the current players to believe that it was their pension money that the veterans were after. In his 1992 ruling on the NHL veterans pension case Justice George Adams referred to Eagleson’s “apparent moral shortcoming” with respect to the disposition of the surplus.
LINING HIS POCKETS
As Conway reveals, this wasn’t the half of it. Not only were profits from international hockey benefiting owners, rather than players, but also Eagleson himself was lining his pockets. He and his family and his associates and his companies apparently made millions in contracts associated with the tournaments, while “the Eagle” ran a sophisticated scheme involving the sale of rink-board advertising, hundreds of thousands of dollars in proceeds from which he apparently salted away in Swiss bank accounts. All the while Eagleson was insisting to players and the public that he never earned a cent from international hockey.
Eagleson was indicted in 1992 by a US federal grand jury on 32 counts of racketeering, fraud and embezzlement while head of the NHLPA, and is now fighting extradition to the US Conway concludes this outstanding piece of investigative reporting by describing what were, for far too long, the lethargic efforts of the RCMP and other Canadian authorities to pursue the Eagleson case. In July, 1995 the RCMP finally raided Eagleson’s office, finding documentation relating to his international and other hockey scams, as well as evidence of contributions to Tory politicians.
FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES
Eagleson was a close buddy of Brian Mulroney and many others of the Canadian establishment, and one cannot help but compare Conway’s book with Stevie Cameron’s On The Take, the detailed study of the similar scams by many of Eagleson’s political pals.
Louis Robichaud, former Premier of New Brunswick and current Liberal Senator, said of Eagleson: “He’s one of the most powerful people in Canada. He’s close friends with the Prime Minister, cabinet ministers, judges, many people in Parliament. Alan gets anything he wants. And he takes pretty good care of them too.” And for this reason, Robichaud said, Eagleson would never be fully investigated: “He has too many connections in high places.”
Thanks to the tenacity of Russ Conway and others like him, Eagleson may finally be brought to trial. And if even half of what Conway has uncovered holds up in court, Eagleson will be spending a part of his future in jail. Who knows, with a little luck, he may see some of his buddies there.
Game Misconduct: Alan Eagleson and the Corruption of Hockey is published by Macfarlane Walter and Ross, Toronto, 1995.
Jim Silver is an activist, academic, and (against all odds) hockey fan, as well as a member of the CD collective.
Source: Canadian Dimension, Volume 30, No. 4, July/August 1996