Robert Alan Eagleson (born April 24, 1933) is a disbarred Canadian lawyer, convicted felon in two countries, former politician, hockey agent and promoter. Clients that he represented included superstars Bobby Orr and Darryl Sittler, and he was the first executive director of the NHL Players Association (NHLPA), which was initially lauded for improving the bargaining power of NHL players. He is also well known for giving the opportunity for professional players to compete in international hockey, by promoting the 1972 Summit Series between Canada and the Soviet Union, and the Canada Cup (now the World Cup of Hockey). However, Eagleson was convicted of fraud and embezzlement and briefly imprisoned, after it was revealed that he had abused his position for many years by defrauding his clients and skimming money from tournaments.
The Blue and White Group[edit | edit source]
Eagleson graduated in law from the University of Toronto and soon became a prominent lawyer in Toronto. He first became involved with hockey as an advisor to Bob Pulford, a player with the Toronto Maple Leafs. It was quickly realized that any attempt to create a union would be easier to achieve with Leafs' players as his base of power.  That led to other members of the Leafs becoming clients, most notably defenceman Carl Brewer, who hired Eagleson as his agent.
Eagleson would form the Blue and White Group, a group of friends he had known from the Maple Leafs, including Brewer, Pulford, Bobby Baun and Billy Harris, along with a car dealer, a jeweller, and three other lawyers.  Eagleson's motive was to educate these players about investments, and use their funds more intelligently. Pulford, Brewer and Harris would earn university degrees after their playing careers. Two members of the Blue and White Group, Pulford and Baun, would be the first two presidents of the NHLPA.
The Leafs' acquisition of Andy Bathgate would prove advantageous to Eagleson. A friendship was forged in Toronto which would follow Bathgate to Detroit, where Eagleson would start to talk to Red Wings players about the concept of a union.
A hockey power[edit | edit source]
Three events would occur that would help Eagleson form the NHLPA. The first event would be the insistence that Eagleson would negotiate Bobby Orr's first pro contract with the Boston Bruins. This would lead to the beginnings of "agents" in hockey. Secondly, Carl Brewer fought to have his amateur status reinstated. Lastly, Eagleson would be involved in representing the Springfield Indians during their negotiations with owner Eddie Shore over players rights.  These events would solidify Eagleson's reputation, and he would become the catalyst for the NHLPA.
When the NHLPA was formed in 1967, Eagleson was appointed its first executive director, a position he held for 25 years.
By 1979, Eagleson represented more than a dozen players of the Toronto Maple Leafs, including Darryl Sittler and his best friend and linemate, Lanny McDonald. Eagleson had a strained relationship with Leafs owner Harold Ballard and general manager Punch Imlach. Imlach believed Sittler had too much influence on the team and tried to undermine his authority with the players. When Sittler and goaltender Mike Palmateer agreed to appear on the TV show Showdown, as negotiated by the NHLPA, Imlach went to court to try to get injunction to stop them. When Imlach said that he was open to offers for Sittler from other teams, Eagleson said it would cost $500,000 to get Sittler to waive the no-trade clause in his contract. So, instead of trading Sittler, Imlach sent McDonald to the woeful Colorado Rockies on December 29, 1979. In response, Sittler ripped the captain's C off his sweater, later commenting that a captain had to be the go-between with players and management, and he no longer had any communication with management. Ballard would liken Sittler's actions to burning the Canadian flag.
Within a decade, Eagleson was one of the most powerful men in hockey, and by some accounts, the most powerful man in the sport. He was even elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1989 as a builder--the only known instance where a union official has been elected to the hall of fame in a major team sport. That same year, he was named an Officer of the Order of Canada for his work in promoting the sport.
Over the years, Eagleson developed a very close relationship with league president John Ziegler. For all intents and purposes, the NHL of the 1980s was ruled by a triumvirate of Ziegler, Eagleson and Chicago Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz.
International Hockey[edit | edit source]
Eagleson was also active in promoting the sport, helping to organize the historic 1972 Summit Series—the first time Canadian and Soviet pros had ever competed against each other on the ice. Notably, Eagleson was responsible for the decision to exclude many WHA stars from the Summit Series, including Bobby Hull, Gerry Cheevers and Derek Sanderson, as they had defected from NHL teams.
Four years later, Eagleson organized the first Canada Cup, which included WHA players.
During one of the Summit Series games in Moscow, Eagleson garnered international attention by attempting to confront off-ice officials after the goal judge had failed to light the goal lamp when a Canadian player scored, at which point he was seized by soldiers of the Red Army. The Canadian players and the few Canadian fans rallied to his defence to prevent him from being arrested, providing one of the most memorable off-ice moments of the series. As they walked back across the ice Eagleson allegedly extended his middle finger to the Russian crowd.
Political career[edit | edit source]
Eagleson was also active in politics for many years. In the 1963 federal election, he ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the Canadian House of Commons for the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada in the Toronto riding of York West. He was defeated by hockey player Red Kelly who ran for the Liberal Party of Canada. Later that year, he was elected to the Ontario Legislative Assembly as the Progressive Conservative Member of Provincial Parliament for the Toronto riding of Lakeshore, serving there until 1967. He was a major PC fundraiser and, in the late 1960s, president of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario. He was a member of the Big Blue Machine that dominated Ontario politics for much of the 1970s and 1980s. At one point, his name was considered as a potential candidate for prime minister of Canada.
Controversy[edit | edit source]
As Eagleson's power grew, concern was raised about his multiple roles as union chief, player agent and hockey promoter. Suspicions also rose that he was reaping a substantial windfall from the Canada Cup and other arrangements unknown to the players. However, until 1989 he was considered a national hero in Canada and an icon in the NHL. In addition, many local Canadian journalists owed favours or access to Eagleson.
In 1989, however, player agents Ritch Winter and Ron Salcer teamed up with former National Football League union official Ed Garvey to author a devastating review of the NHLPA's operations. Winter and Salcer had been critical of Eagleson's stewardship for many years, and felt he wasn't giving them the support they needed to adequately represent their clients. The report, presented at a union meeting in West Palm Beach, revealed that Eagleson's travel expenses were not subject to any form of review by the union. Winter and Salcer also charged that Eagleson was skimming off money from advertising on the dasher boards, and had lent pension money to friends. Eagleson was able to weather this storm because the union's executive committee was stacked with longtime cronies. However, he was forced to announce that he would be stepping down as executive director in 1992.
Conway investigates[edit | edit source]
In 1990, Russ Conway, sports editor of The Eagle-Tribune, began an investigation of Eagleson's performance in office. Conway had heard rumours for some time that something was seriously amiss about the inner workings of the NHL—specifically serious discrepancies in pension payments. Despite the devastating 1989 report by Winter and Salcer, most Canadian journalists refused to look into the rumours. Over the course of a year, Conway interviewed more than 200 NHL personalities, including former and active players and NHL officials.
In September 1991, he published the first of many installments in a series called Cracking the Ice: Intrigue and Conflict in the World of Big-Time Hockey. The series revealed evidence that Eagleson had engaged in a staggering litany of unethical and criminal conduct over many years.
Conway's writings alleged that Eagleson had embezzled player pension funds for many years, principally from the 1972 Summit Series. He was also accused of colluding with teams whose management he favoured, such as the Chicago Blackhawks, to hold down salaries, even if it meant working contrary to the interests of his clients. For example, after Orr's contract with Boston ran out, Eagleson told Bobby Orr that the Blackhawks had a deal on the table that Orr couldn't refuse. It later emerged that the Bruins offered Orr one of the most lucrative contracts in sports history, including an 18 percent stake in the team; however, Eagleson falsely claimed the Blackhawks had a better offer. Wirtz was never charged with wrongdoing, largely because the Bruins' offer was widely known in league circles, and even reported in the Toronto Star. No other NHL owner was ever charged in the affair. Orr was once one of Eagleson's strongest supporters, but later denounced him after suspecting that he was being cheated. Orr, whose career ended in 1978 because of serious knee injuries, learned from an independent accountant that he was almost bankrupt, despite having supposedly earned high salaries while being represented by Eagleson.
However, the series' most shocking revelation concerned Eagleson's actions regarding disability claims by former players. Eagleson was accused of taking large payments from insurance claims before the players filing them received their share, telling the players that he earned the "fee" while fighting against the insurance companies to get the claims paid. In fact, many players later learned that the insurance companies had already agreed to pay the claims and there was no "fight". In other cases where a "fight" with the insurance companies was required, several players ran into bureaucratic dead ends and no support from Eagleson while they tried to move forward on insurance and pension claims to support their families. One of these cases that moved Conway particularly was that of second-line defenceman Ed Kea, who suffered a devastating head injury that required major brain surgery. This not only ended Kea's playing days but also jeopardized his post-hockey career and finances, yet Eagleson had "thrown the case out" saying that Kea was no longer worth representing, not even having the "decency" to visit Kea's family. Conway later turned his series into the basis of a book, Game Misconduct: Alan Eagleson and the Corruption of Hockey.
Conway published several other stories over the next nine years about Eagleson's crimes. For instance, he'd been reimbursed more than $62,000 for personal expenses from 1987 to 1989. He also revealed that the NHLPA had unknowingly footed the bill for expensive clothing, theater tickets and a luxury apartment in London. Many players had been led to believe that they were playing in the Canada Cup for free because all the money was going to their pensions.
Conway worked very closely with Carl Brewer, one of Eagleson's early clients. Brewer had by this time become the leader of a group of former players who felt Eagleson had lied to them. Brewer's longtime companion, Susan Foster, provided a large amount of material to Conway.
Although Eagleson had been based in Toronto, most Canadian media organizations had avoided detailed investigation of his dealings until Conway's material was published. That changed when The Globe and Mail began its own examination of Eagleson's career in early 1993, and published a series of stories with further revelations. Two Globe sports writers, William Houston and David Shoalts, expanded that material, Conway's work, and the latest developments into their own book, entitled Eagleson: The Fall of a Hockey Czar, which was published later in 1993.
Criminal charges and extradition[edit | edit source]
In 1996, after a politically delayed three-year investigation, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police finally was forced, by Conway's publications, to charge Eagleson with eight counts of fraud and theft. He'd already been charged by the FBI with 34 counts of racketeering, obstruction of justice, embezzlement and fraud in the United States in 1994. However, he still had enough political clout from his days as an MPP and a power broker with the Tories that he was able to fight off extradition to the United States until 1997. Some of Eagleson's former clients remarked that had it not been for the US justice system, Eagleson would have never been charged. After being arrested, one FBI agent said that Eagleson "just didn't get it" that he was guilty, as the former sports agent was tinkering with police equipment while being booked.
On January 6 1998, Eagleson pleaded guilty to three counts of mail fraud in Boston, and was fined $700,000. Later that year, he pleaded guilty in Toronto to three more counts of fraud and embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars of Canada Cup proceeds in 1984, 1987 and 1991. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison, of which he served six months at the Mimico Correctional Centre in Toronto. The conviction resulted in his automatic disbarment from the practice of law by the Law Society of Upper Canada, which regulates the profession in Ontario.
Removal of honours[edit | edit source]
Soon after his guilty plea, Eagleson was removed from the Order of Canada, though he continued to wear his lapel pin during the court proceedings prior to his sentence.
Eagleson also resigned from the Hockey Hall of Fame after the Hall's board informally voted to expel him (a formal vote, which was almost certain to pass, was due within a few weeks). The Hall had tried to stay out of the controversy, but was forced to act after 19 Hall of Fame players—including Orr, Bathgate, Hull, Gordie Howe, Jean Beliveau, Mike Bossy, Johnny Bucyk, Ted Lindsay, Henri Richard, Brad Park, Johnny Bower and Dickie Moore -- threatened to resign from the Hall if Eagleson was allowed to remain. He became the first member of a sports hall of fame in North America to resign.
Legacy[edit | edit source]
Defenders of Eagleson pointed out that during his tenure as executive director of the NHLPA, both salaries and pension benefits increased exponentially, offering real security to players that had not existed prior to that time. The earlier NHLPA only lasted a year, as owners broke the union in 1957 by trading players involved with the organization or sending them to the minor leagues, which led out-of-court settlement over several players' issues in return for the disbanding of the union. There was some controversy that Eagleson's directives (aside from instances where he colluded with favored owners to hold down wages) contributed, as well as the formation of the rival WHA, to rapidly increasing player salaries, something especially advocated by his successor Bob Goodenow.
During the criminal proceedings against him, several players whom he had defrauded were amongst his biggest supporters. Many of his most ardent supporters during and after his trial were famous and prominent clients who had benefited from his activities, including high profile hockey personalities such as Bobby Clarke, Bob Gainey, and Marcel Dionne, and former Prime Minister John Turner.
Moreover, prior to Eagleson's involvement, North American professional players had never participated in international hockey, an involvement that later grew into involvement in the World Hockey Championship, the World Cup of Hockey, and the Winter Olympic Games.
Eagleson's maximum official salary as executive director of NHLPA was one-tenth of that of his successor, Bob Goodenow. While Eagleson's close relationship with Ziegler and Chicago Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz led to them forming a cooperative triumvirate, this ended immediately with Goodenow's accession to the NHLPA. Just two months after being appointed head of the union, Goodenow led the players out on a 10-day strike on the eve of the Stanley Cup playoffs, which fundamentally altered the relationship between the league and its players.  Goodenow called the strike a "major moment", stating "I don't think the owners took the players seriously and it wasn't until the stike that they understood the players were serious." Ziegler was ousted as NHL president following the season, and Gil Stein was named to succeed him on an interim basis until Gary Bettman was chosen. There were further work stoppages in 1994-95 and 2004-05.
Notes[edit | edit source]
- 67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire, p. 143, Damien Cox and Gord Stellick, ISBN number: 0-470-83400-5, Publisher: John Wiley and Sons
- 67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire, p. 148, Damien Cox and Gord Stellick, ISBN number: 0-470-83400-5, Publisher: John Wiley and Sons
- 67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire, p. 151, Damien Cox and Gord Stellick, ISBN number: 0-470-83400-5, Publisher: John Wiley and Sons
- "Daryl Sittler's longest year," Frank Orr, Toronto Star, March 16, 1980, p. C3.
- "Maple Leaf forever? Sittler will stay put at least this season," Ken McKee, Toronto Star, March 8, 1980, p. C3.
References[edit | edit source]
- The New York Times N.H.L.; Eagleson Pleads Guilty January 7, 1998
- The New York Times PLUS: SPORTS BUSINESS; Eagleson Is Out Of Canadian Hall February 18, 1998
- Lawrence Eagle-Tribune Embattled hockey czar quits Hall of Fame March 26, 1998
Further reading[edit | edit source]
- Net Worth, by David Cruise and Alison Griffiths.
- Game Misconduct: Alan Eagleson and the Corruption of Hockey, by Russ Conway.
- Eagleson: The Fall of a Hockey Czar, by William Houston and David Shoalts.
- 67: The Maple Leafs, their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire, by Damien Cox and Gord Stellick, John Wiley and Sons publishers.
[edit | edit source]
|NHLPA Executive Director
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