ASK ANY HOCKEY BOSS THIS GUY IS A TROUBLEMAKER

It figures. After all, lawyer Alan Eagleson organized a players’ union right under their noses—and they had to take it with a public smile

TRENT FRAYNE September 1 1967

ASK ANY HOCKEY BOSS THIS GUY IS A TROUBLEMAKER

It figures. After all, lawyer Alan Eagleson organized a players’ union right under their noses—and they had to take it with a public smile

TRENT FRAYNE September 1 1967

ASK ANY HOCKEY BOSS THIS GUY IS A TROUBLEMAKER

It figures. After all, lawyer Alan Eagleson organized a players’ union right under their noses—and they had to take it with a public smile

TRENT FRAYNE

IN 15 MINUTES it was all over. When peace broke out between the rich millionaires who run hockey and the rich serfs who play it. it was smooth as Bobby Hull on television. Everybody laughed a lot. “Just one more,” a cameraman said — eight times. Pierre Pilote smiled, startling his scars. TV guys soaked the place in light. The baize cover on the long conference table glowed green as a pool table and smoke hung frozen in the white light. J. C. Tremblay smiled, and Normie Ullman. The club owners laughed a lot. “We arc pleased to recognize the first formal players’ association,” said Boston vice-president Charles Mulcahy, smiling. Bob Pulford, who always looks solemn, smiled solemnly. The bankrolls behind three of the expansion teams, guys from San Francisco, Minneapolis and Pittsburgh, stood there smiling, all rich and anonymous. Blond David Molson, who owns the Canadiens, and blond Bruce Norris, who owms Detroit, smiled the assured, poised, reserved. accommodating smile that wealthy men can afford. Alan Eagleson practically laughed his head off. With decorum, of course. Who?

Alan Eagleson. R. Alan Eagleson, the 34year-old Toronto lawyer who, almost by accident. brought it all about. Robert Alan Eagleson never played a game of any sort worth mentioning except amateur lacrosse, but he has become, in the past six months, the most influential figure in Canadian sports since Conn Smythe paid off the mortgage on Maple Leaf Gardens. Eagleson undertook to organize the National Hockey League Players’ Association last winter and then shepherded it into acceptance by the board of governors of the National Hockey League in this glaring room in Montreal on June 7.

Eagleson is a guy with a pile of nicely brushed sandy hair, a big chin with a cleft in it, black horn-rims which he pops off and on when lie’s talking, a flat stomach, a big office, a bouncy stride, a ton of energy, a kind of conspiratorial grin when he tells you about some new strategem lie’s planning, and there’s no question lie’s having a picnic in this new limelight. In Montreal he left them helpless and speechless, all these millionaires.

He had the hockey players so thoroughly organized — 114 out of 120 on the established clubs had signed pledges to him and the other half-dozen were verbally committed — that within 15 minutes after the owners had been given the bad news they’d recognized the union, named a committee to deal with it, called in

the cameras, and started all that laughing into the lenses. As Confucius say, when rape is inevitable, relax and enjoy same.

The capitulation made hockey history. In common with management everywhere, NHL front oft ices tor years resisted occasional timid forays from the servants’ quarters. In 1957 a majority ol big-league players were brought into concord by a New York attorney, Milton N. Mound, but it was an uneasy alliance quickly dissipated by such kindly old reactionaries as Conn Smythe of Toronto and Jack Adams of Detroit. Adams table-thumped most ot his players into a public disavowal of association allegiance. Without Detroit, the union collapsed. I hree ringleaders. Ted Lindsay of Detroit and Jimmy Thomson and Tod Sloan of Toronto, found themselves traded to what passed for purgatory in that period — Chicago. This was a coincidence that discouraged serious union involvement for a decade — until Eagleson came along with his coup. Which wasn't all that difficult a coup, at that.

There were two major differences this time. Owners nowadays arc crisp young millionaire businessmen familiar with this civilization's involvement with unions, and they’re conditioned to talk softly to them. Secondly, the players are pitching for even bigger pots these days — a share of the anticipated network TV millions in the U.S., for instance — and they recognize the need for a united front to get it. Also, hockey players are fatter cats now: the average NHL income varies between $15,000 and $18.000 a year, depending upon whether you're listening to Eagleson or NHL President Clarence Campbell. In explaining his allegiance to the new order, the great Gordie Howe, who is paid $50,000 a year by Detroit and goes up from there via assorted moonlighting, observed, “I might not have signed up 10 years ago, but it's time for us who have it good in the big league to help the guys who arc 20 and struggling in the minors.”

Time and place have been favorable to Eagleson but he hasn't been without his crosses, notably George (Punch) Imlach. 1 ran into Imlach at a dinner a while back and, after the usual desultory exchanges, I asked him if he’d be serious for a moment and give a frank appraisal of the man who had organized the players.

“Eagleson?” said Punch sourly. “I don’t waste my time talkin’ about him.”

“Oh, come on, Punch,” I wheedled. “Let’s hear your impressions of the guy.”

“No way," said the man who runs the Maple Leafs. “I won't waste my time savin’ one damned word about that . . .” Imlach’s voice trailed off as he strode away with his pal King Clancy.

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“There are two names Imlach can’t stand: mine and Brewer’s”

“There are two names Imlach can’t stand," Eagleson says. “Mine and Carl Brewer’s.”

Eagleson has stage-managed a bi-

zarre series of moves by Brewer in the last five or six years. Presently, he's charting Carl’s effort to return to the NHL with a club other than Toronto, which holds his professional rights. Eagleson was in there scheming a year ago when Brewer, who had quit the Leafs after seven combustible seasons, decided to join Canada’s na-

tional team, as an amateur, and help his country in the World Tournament in Vienna against Russia and the Czechs and all those other big monsters in our Centennial year. Violins should have been playing.

Eagleson shakes his head in recollection of Imlach’s efforts to prevent Brewer from carrying his country’s

shield (“Brewer will play in Toronto or he won’t play anywhere,” Punch used to roar). “If everybody in Canada didn’t know we were going to win that one, they had to be crazy,” says Eagleson. “Being against Brewer was like being against motherhood.”

Earlier, Eagleson had stage-whispered the lines when Brewer first took on Imlach. In 1963, after Carl made first-team all-star, he wanted more money in his new contract than Punch would pay. In the ensuing stalemate Eagleson suggested he enroll at McMaster University. Brewer left training camp and there was a lot of dialogue about the value of higher education in a modern society and what not. The next Imlach saw of Brewer was in the newspapers, wearing a McMaster football uniform.

“In no time at all,” Eagleson says, “Clancy was there with the money.”

Brewer broke his arm in the playoffs in the spring of 1964 and was unable to work that summer. Eagleson says it was Brewer’s understanding that he’d he compensated by the Leafs for this loss of income. But when Brewer mentioned the money at training camp that fall, Imlach said he couldn't find anything about offseason money in the contract. So this time Brewer chose St. Michael’s College in Toronto. Right away, there once more was Clancy.

The thing that’s going on now is that Brewer is ineligible to play for Canada in the 1968 Olympics, which are terribly pure, so he wants to return to the pros. But when he returned to the amateurs, the Leafs retained rights to his professional services, if and when. So by hockey law it’s conceivable he'll sit out forever if Toronto doesn’t want him back. Eagleson says this is wrong.

“San Francisco, Minnesota and the New York Rangers have all made firm offers to Toronto either to buy Brewer's professional rights or to deal for him,” says Eagleson. “Imlach won't budge. I hear he told Barry von Gerbig, the San Francisco owner, that Brewer will come back only when Imlach feels like letting him back, and on his terms. This is pure prejudice. If it can’t be settled I’ll advise Brewer to take a shot at testing the validity of the Toronto contract in court.”

There aren’t many left like Imlach. He’s a throwback, a Smythe or an Adams 30 years younger, extroverted, truculent, single - minded, hip to hockey but baffled by people who can’t hear his drum. Luckily for him, most of his hockey players either like the one-note tune he plays or will adapt to it. But there are a few like Brewer who won’t, and like Frank Mahovlich who can’t, and people with temperaments such as theirs bewilder and at times enrage Imlach. He's an honest, tough guy who does not compromise.

However, Eagleson has not buiKTns union empire off his decisions over Imlach, impressive as the Brew{k manipulations have been. His ¡handling of Bobby Orr in that youngster’s step into the NHL at age 18, and particularly his settlement of the crisis at Springfield of the American Hockey League when the players there could no longer brook owner Eddie Shore’s idiosyncracies last winter — these things sold Eagleson completely to hockey players everywhere.

Boston offered young Orr a $5,000 bonus to sign a two-year contract at $7,500 for his first season and $8.000 for his second. Orr’s father sought out Eagleson, who readily recognized that the management of recent dreadful Boston teams was in no position to haggle over the most sensational junior since Hull. He negotiated a more-than-$75,000, two-year contract for Orr.

“He was worth every dime,” Eagleson says. “Boston hockey writers told me that by Christmas the kid had increased Bruin attendance by $100,000.”

The Springfield situation has long been a very bad joke in hockey, largely unpublished out of deference, apparently, to Eddie Shore’s stature as an all-time great player. But he has run his hockey clubs with Captain Queeg overtones for years, and no one has raised a hand against him except the players whose faint cries have always gone unheeded by the governors.

Shore used to make goalkeepers practise six hours a day in an empty rink, diving around the net in full equipment, making imaginary saves from nonexistent attackers. He'd spy on them from the far reaches of the rink and if they stopped to rest he’d roar at them. They got a half-hour break at noon to clomp across the street to a lunch counter, in full gear.

“I blew my top”

Finally last winter the players told Shore they were through unless he gave them proper working conditions. When he refused they called Eagleson.

“How about the league president?” the lawyer asked the player calling him.

“He said if we aren’t on the ice tomorrow morning we’ll be blackballed and never play hockey again.”

“That’s when 1 blew my top,” Eagleson says now. “Then it turned out that the league president. Jack Butterfield, happened to be Shore’s nephew!”

So Eagleson flew to Springfield and met with the players in a hotel room where they listed their complaints.

“When you hear one Shore story you smile, as people seem to have been doing for years,” Eagleson grimly recounts. “When you hear 10 you might still grin weakly. When you hear 100 — and there are 100 — you want to throw up. If the players were dogs you’d pick up the phone and call the Humane Society.”

In lengthy negotiation fraught with critical moments, Eagleson was able to settle the Springfield situation by getting Shore to agree to stop interfering with his coach in the handling of players, and even to abandon his rokas medical diagnostician of his players’, various ills, which he adopted Tom time to time. Eagleson’s major weapon was the threat of challenging the players’ working conditions in a court of law.

The Springfield development actually triggered formation of the Players’ Association. Until then there was nothing organized about Eagleson's

negotiations with players. He had personal clients here and there in the National league who had retained him to handle legal work and act in an advisory capacity, but his own law firm in Toronto was flourishing, and there was nothing about his activity with hockey players to suggest ambulance-chasing.

However, during his Springfield period he had lunch one day in Montreal, in late December, with Bobby Orr, who was in town for a Boston-

Montreal game. Two Boston players came to the table and invited Eagleson up to Orr's hotel room. When he arrived he discovered that all of the Bruin players had assembled there. First they told him they were in complete sympathy with the work he was doing at Springfield and that they wanted to handle any portion of his fee that the minor - league players might be lacking. Then they asked him about the possibility of forming a players' association. When he said

he’d look into it he was retained by a group of the Boston players.

Eagleson had at least one client on each of the six NHL teams and through them he sounded out the rest of the players. He drew up a pledge, had it mimeographed and circulated it through his clients. It said: “I, the undersigned, hereby direct and authorize R. Alan Eagleson to act as my agent in pursuing the formation of a Players' Association for Professional Hockey. It is further understood and agreed that my name will not be used or released in any way without my written consent.”

ALAN EAGLESON continued

Within a few months he had MO NHL names. When he met with the Chicago players, Bobby Hull introduced him, according to a Chicago player, by saying, “This is Alan Eagleson. fellows. Al's done more for hockey in two years than anybody else has done in 20.” Hull, incidentally, was not one of Eagleson’s personal clients.

“By fall we’ll have 100% membership in the 12-team setup”

Eagleson says he advised NHL President Clarence Campbell two weeks before the June 7 meeting in Montreal that he had pledges from virtually all NHL players and that he'd seek recognition of the association.

“And yet, many owners hadn't an

inkling." Eagleson says now. “The night before the meeting Sam Pollock. the general manager at Montreal, was convinced that none of his players had signed with us. In point of fact, only four hadn't, but they had missed my meeting with Canadien players and they later indicated they'd sign. By fall we'll have 100 percent membership, I expect, from the 240 players in the new 12-tcam setup.”

Membership in the association is voluntary at a fee of $150 a year. Eagleson toured minor-league centres last winter, signing players across the U. S. Of this, Dick Beddoes wrote in the Toronto Globe and Mai!: “Emancipation of the working staff is manifestly late in the American Hockey

League where the owners resolutely ignore the 20th century. There is no pension plan, for example, in this so-called second professional echelon where some salaries are reported as low as $4,000 a year. Response to the union idea has heen enthusiastic — 100 percent among 180 players in the AHL, and 85 percent in the Western Hockey League.” Eagleson says the association will pay him “like any other client — my time and expenses.” Eagleson, the great emancipator, got interested in player problems through the freak coincidence of sharing an interest in lacrosse with Toronto’s Bob Pulford. Eagleson, born in St. Catharines, Ont., grew up in Port Dalhousie, Guelph and New Toronto as his father’s vocation took

him from town to town — he was a loom-fixer in the textile business who wound up as a maintenance engineer for the Goodyear company in New Toronto, a westend Toronto suburb where lacrosse is a big thing. He met Pulford. two years his junior, when they were both playing lacrosse, and their friendship blossomed to include Eagleson's parents and three sisters, and Pulford’s parents and two brothers. Ten years later when Eagleson had graduated in law and Pulford had become a star with the Leafs, their conversations inevitably involved hockey and often included hockey players. So, a guy would say. “Look, AI, you're a lawyer— 1 got this problem . . .” Eagleson soon had half a dozen hockey players as clients.

In a similar uncharted way he fell into politics (he’s PC member of the Ontario Legislature for Lakeshore) and football (he's president of Toronto's professional Rifles of the Continental League). He knew and liked lawyer John Hamilton, a federal PC candidate in Eagleson’s riding. In 1962 he worked for Hamilton, knocking on doors in his own neighborhood. Red Kelly won the riding for the Liberals but Hamilton had a majority in the four polls worked by Eagleson. So the party asked him to stand against Kelly in April 1963. Although he got 25.000 votes, he was swamped by Red. In September that year, though. Eagleson won a provincial seat.

He got involved in football through his law' firm, w'hich. incidentally, rejoices in the name Blaney, Pasternak, Smela, Eagleson and Watson, and includes four additional partners whose names presumably can’t fit the door. Anyway, Pasternak is a friend of one Herb Solway, who is the lawyer for

one Henry Sussman, who is trustee for half the stock in the Rifles, a team which began life in Montreal in 1964. lost a couple of hundred thousand dollars and moved to Toronto for the

1965 season. One day at lunch Solway told Eagleson he was meeting with Rifles directors and invited him along, Eagleson got interested and attended subsequent meetings. Prior to the

1966 season, Sussman said to Eagleson. "Look, we want to phase out the w'hole Montreal image. Do you want to be president?”

So he became president of an operation that has been an artistic success and a financial disaster. In spite of an excellent record, the Rifles have dropped $389,000 in their two years in Toronto. (Perhaps wisely. The Great Emancipator left salary negotiations to the club's general manager.) Eagleson scored a coup over the rival Argonauts last summer

by signing one of the Canadian Football League's greatest performers, Jackie Parker, as Rifles coach for 1967. It w'as a clever public-relations move: the Argos, whose public image is often a disaster, gave Parker, a legendary figure, the back of their hands when seeking a coach of their own. and instead signed the Rifles’ top man. Leo Cahill, after trying just about everybody else they could think of.

But now' that the Players’ Association. of which he is officially called executive counsel, has become a reality. Eagleson has decided to drop football. His home life with his wife Nancy and their children Allen, six and Jill, two and a half, is already limited, and he has extensive plans for the players’ union. Television money, a rewritten player contract with a more realistic option clause, permitting a player to w'ork out the

option on his services and then deal with other teams, and a waiver system whereby players of major-league calibre cannot be sent to minorleague farm teams — these are three projects he believes vital. He has already negotiated a rise in expense allowance on road trips from $10 to $ 15 a day per player, and payment of $100 a game per player for preseason exhibition games in NHL rinks. Until now' the benign owners have paid the players nothing for these games in big-league rinks w'hile charging regular-season prices for tickets.

When you talk with Eagleson you don't get the notion that he's a man mad with new-found power.

"Hell,” he says, “the players don't want a nickel more from the owners than they're fairly entitled to.

"But I'll tell you this." he adds, “they don’t want a nickel less, either." ★