While the Canadian sports media was mute, a US journalist detailed the corrupt acts of Alan Eagleson, the head of the NHL players’ union – a former Tory Party president – laying the groundwork for successful prosecutions in the United States and Canada. One of the most important conclusions, although not dealt with in this article by RICHARD SANDOMIR of The New York Times, is how easily the media back then was fooled by so many spinmeisters like Eagleson. As today, there was no shortage of journalists reporting that everything was hunky-dory in the NHL.
Russ Conway, whose exposés in a Massachusetts newspaper uncovered corruption by the leader of the National Hockey League’s players’ union and led to his convictions for fraud, died on Tuesday August 20 at his home in Haverhill, Mass. He was 70.
His lawyer, Peter Caruso, confirmed the death. He said Mr. Conway received a diagnosis of heart disease a few years ago.
In 1991, after covering the Boston Bruins for The Eagle-Tribune, a daily newspaper in North Andover, Mass., for many years, Mr. Conway published a five-part series detailing financial malfeasance by Alan Eagleson, the longtime executive director of the National Hockey League Players’ Association.
Over nearly a quarter-century, Mr. Eagleson had amassed immense influence, not only as head of the union but also as an agent for N.H.L. stars like the Bruins’ Bobby Orr and as the organizer of international tournaments like the Canada Cup.
“He was the self-proclaimed hockey czar,” Mr. Conway told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1995. “He was, in my estimation and that of many others, the most powerful man in hockey for quite some time.”
In his series, in subsequent articles and in a book, “Game Misconduct: Alan Eagleson and the Corruption of Hockey” (1995), Mr. Conway described how Mr. Eagleson, a lawyer, had capitalized on his decades of clout in professional hockey.
He had, among other things, skimmed money from players’ disability payments, Mr. Conway wrote; lent union funds to friends and associates at favorable rates; and billed the union for personal expenses, including a London apartment and Wimbledon tickets.
He had also promised that the N.H.L. players’ pension fund would profit from the Canada Cup, which was held five times from 1976 to 1991 featuring teams from Europe, the United States and Canada. But Mr. Conway wrote that little was left for the fund after subtracting questionable expenses.
Mr. Conway’s work — a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for beat reporting in 1992 — led the F.B.I. and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to open investigations into Mr. Eagleson. He was indicted by a federal grand jury in Boston in 1994 on 32 counts of racketeering, fraud, obstruction of justice and embezzlement.
“No single person has done more for retired N.H.L. players than Russ Conway,” Paul V. Kelly, the lead federal prosecutor in the case, said in an email. Mr. Conway’s reporting, he added, “laid the foundation” for a new supplemental pension benefit for players and their widows.
On the day Mr. Eagleson pleaded guilty to three counts of mail fraud in 1998, Mr. Conway entered the courtroom to applause from former players, like Mr. Orr, who felt betrayed by Mr. Eagleson.
“It’s like being applauded in church,” Mr. Conway told the Canadian magazine Maclean’s soon after. “It was embarrassing.”
Mr. Eagleson’s plea deal let him avoid prison in the United States, but he was required to repay the union nearly $700,000 in stolen funds. He received an 18-month sentence in Canada, where he had faced fraud charges, and served six months in prison there.
He was also disbarred and resigned from the Hockey Hall of Fame — to which he had been elected in 1989 — when faced with a vote to expel him.
“The biggest reward wasn’t writing a book or seeing Eagleson go to jail,” Mr. Conway told The Columbus Dispatch in 1999. “It was all the people who decided to stand up and tell their story.”
He was born on March, 27, 1949, in Haverhill. His father, Paul Jr., was the deputy chief of the Haverhill Fire Department. His mother, Betty (Georges) Conway, was a teacher.
Mr. Conway started working for The Eagle-Tribune in the late 1960s, while he was attending Northeastern University in Boston. Soon he was covering the Bruins, and would continue to do so for about 30 years, a span that included their Stanley Cup championships in 1970 and 1972.
By the 1980s he was hearing rumblings about Mr. Eagleson. But it was not until a 20th-anniversary reunion of the Bruins’ 1970 Stanley Cup team that he heard players talk about how bad their pensions were. Their complaints prompted him to investigate.
“You couldn’t have replicated Russ’s work even if you turned a lot of people loose on the story,” Dan Warner, The Eagle-Tribune’s editor, told Sports Illustrated in 1996. “There are great ‘people’ reporters, and there are people who can follow a paper trail. Russ can do both.”
Mr. Conway received the Hockey Hall of Fame’s Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award in 1999 for his reporting. He became The Eagle-Tribune’s executive editor that year and retired in 2004.
He had a second career, promoting short-track car races on the East Coast from 1965 to 2013.
No immediate family members survive.
What Mr. Conway uncovered about Mr. Eagleson could disgust him. He recalled one instance in which a player, Ed Kea, suffered a brain injury when he was checked into the boards during a game in 1983 while he was with a minor league affiliate of the St. Louis Blues.
“Al Eagleson didn’t even have the common decency to go visit the family,” Mr. Conway told Maclean’s. “He wouldn’t aid them in the insurance process. He was gone. Crush up the cigarette pack, throw it out. Next!”
*Richard Sandomir is an obituaries writer with the New York Times, in which this article first appeared. He previously wrote about sports media and sports business. He is also the author of several books, including “The Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper and the Making of a Classic.” @RichSandomir
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