BIG, FASTS & DUMB

That’s the way the NHL likes to find and keep hockey players, says the man who organized their Players Association and tries to protect their chances of a good education

R. ALAN EAGLESON,told to JACK BATTEN December 1 1968

BIG, FASTS & DUMB

That’s the way the NHL likes to find and keep hockey players, says the man who organized their Players Association and tries to protect their chances of a good education

R. ALAN EAGLESON,told to JACK BATTEN December 1 1968

BIG, FASTS & DUMB

That’s the way the NHL likes to find and keep hockey players, says the man who organized their Players Association and tries to protect their chances of a good education

R. ALAN EAGLESON as told to JACK BATTEN

I’VE BEEN DEALING with National Hockey League team owners and general managers for more than six years, and I've arrived at the conclusion that the way they like their players is big, fast — and uneducated. I don't mean “uneducated” in the sports sense — any NHL player needs plenty of hockey savvy to survive in the pros — but in the academic sense, in the schooling sense. NHL clubs, I've decided, have an absolute minimum of interest in encouraging their players to educate themselves and prepare for the long years of work in the conventional world after their hockey days have finished. In fact, most teams are downright impatient to whisk their boys out of the classroom and onto the rinks. To them, a university education is excess baggage, even high school can be a kind of problem, and a BA is just something that keeps a player from devoting all of his thinking time to the next game on his team's schedule.

I first found myself deeply involved with this narrow NHL mentality in the summer of 1966 when Bobby Orr’s father asked me to negotiate Bobby’s first contract with the Boston Bruins.

I worked out a two-year agreement at more than $50,000, a figure that was an unheard-of extravagance at normal NHL rates, and since that deal I've acted for hundreds of players, both individually and collectively, in my position as executive director and legal counsel to the new Players Association. And in all my negotiations, judged against the accepted standards of enlightened 20th-century business, many NHL owners and governors have taken an outmoded, medieval, master-and-serf attitude toward their players. It wasn't until mid-1967 that

the association finally persuaded the league to raise the minimum salary from $7.500 to $10.000. and even later, mid-1968. to accept a major medical plan and to agree to reassess its antiquated pension plan. Until, we started to apply a little muscle in our bargaining, the NHL had followed its tradition of refusing to accept any responsibility for the players’ welfare once they’d exhausted their usefulness on the ice.

But in many ways the hockey owners’ most appalling failure centres around their attitude to education. The plain fact is that many actively resist the players' efforts to finish their schooling. Let me quote some statistics: in American pro football, 75 percent of the players are university graduates: in pro basketball, 60 percent hold university degrees; but in the NHL, the number of players who have university educations amounts to a sad, miniscule, shameful 10 percent. What is even worse, only 17 percent of all the young men now performing in the NHL, the most prestigious hockey league in the world, have even graduated from high school.

Now. the only logical conclusion 1 can draw from these sad and alarming figures is that there is something in hockey that discourages education. I know what it is. Hockey, for one thing, is the only major sport on the continent that still permits pro teams to draft players at the tender age of 20, when, presumably, a bright young man is just getting under way at university. Once drafted, a player becomes the exclusive property of the drafting team and he plays where and when the team specifies, or he doesn’t play. Period. By contrast. American football and basketball teams are strictly forbidden

to do so much as talk to a university player until his school class has graduated. and baseball is adopting a similar hands-off rule.

But hockey takes its anti-education attitude a disgusting step further by raiding young Canadian boys in the middle of their high-school years. Pro teams are constantly persuading promising teenaged prospects to move from their home towns to cities where the teams maintain Junior A farm clubs. And in the new environment, surrounded by strangers and a foreign atmosphere, the boys can hardly be expected to shine at school work. Bobby Orr moved from his native Parry Sound, Ont., to play for the Bruins farm team in Oshawa. Ont., when he was only 14, and Bobby Hull was the same age when the Chicago Black Hawks lured him 170 miles from his home at Point Anne, Ont., to St. Catharines, Ont. Neither one of the Bobbies has yet finished grade 12, and Hull has told me that missing out on a high-school diploma is the greatest single regret and worry of his life.

Over the years, the players have paid through the nose for their lack of schooling — and the owners, of course, have prospered. Henri Richard put his finger on the predicament just the other day. “Most of us players don’t have too much education because we had to quit school to play hockey,” he said. “When we went into the office to sign our contracts, the club had lawyers and accountants everywhere — and we had only ourselves. We were never prepared for any of these business deals.”

Well, the reaction to hockey’s narrow, shortsighted old ways is just beginning to set in. Through the Players Association / continued on pape 43

continued from page 41

Education first: it’s going to turn pro hockey on its ear

and through individual bargaining, the players are at last beginning to receive a fairer share of the NHL’s profits. ( 1 recall a remark Gordie Howe made last summer. Bobby Orr had just signed a new three - year contract worth several hundred thousand dollars: “A lot of guys will have clippings of Orr’s new contract when they talk to the boss this year. I’m going to mention it.”) But more important to me is the growing realization among the players that they must not let their teams push them around in the matter of education. The signs of the new times range all the way from Orr’s determination to finish his last year of high school in Boston during the 1968-69 season to Brian Conacher’s decision in September, to quit hockey altogether. At 27, in the prime of his career, Brian finally completed his course at the University of Western Ontario last summer, over the constant needling objections of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and he simply announced that he’d had his fill of the NHL and intended “to make a living with brain instead of brawn.”

I’m convinced that this new awareness that education comes first is eventually going to turn the entire structure of professional hockey on its ear. The good pro players in future years aren’t going to serve their apprenticeship in the Junior A leagues and in the minor pro leagues — they are, like football and basketball players, going to come out of the college leagues. And they’re going to come out of them with solid hockey training and an education. Most of the NHL teams are still putting out the old argument that young players stagnate in college hockey, that the only way they can properly prepare for the major leagues is to follow the Junior A route and then turn pro at 19 or 20. Baloney! I can name three young players—Danny O'Shea, Gary Dineen and Barry MacKenzie — who resisted the NHL’s efforts to turn them pro a few years ago, and instead joined Canada’s National Team in Winnipeg, enrolled at the University of Manitoba, then last summer, with university degrees in' hand, finally signed up with the pros (with, 1 might add, healthy bonuses). Apparently the NHL clubs decided that these players’ college and international experience hadn’t “stagnated” their talents after all.

The rush to college hockey is accelerating. 1 know this just from conversations I've had in my own office. One day this summer, by way of example, a fine young man named Ab DeMarco, Jr., came in to see me. He’s the son of the fine old New York Rangers centre of the postwar years, and he is himself one of the most promising defensemen in the Rangers organization, an all-star in the 196768 season with the Kitchener Junior A team. Ab said he was worried. He was 19 and the Rangers were anxious to sign him to a professional contract, but the year before, what with playing 80 or more hockey games, traveling all over the country, running short of studying time, he’d failed three sub-

jects in grade 12. What should he do about his future? I suggested several alternatives Ab might follow, and I think he chose the right one. That’s why this winter you will not see young Ab DeMarco on the ice at Madison Square Garden or in the minor pros or back in Kitchener. Instead, you'll see him playing for the National Team

at its new home base in Ottawa, where he'll finish up his high school in a congenial. non-pressure atmosphere, proceed to university and equip himself not just for a future NHL career but for a lifetime as an educated citizen.

Dozens of other Canadian teenagers are arriving at similar decisions. The National Team alone has claimed not

just Ab, but Richie Bayes as well, the spectacular forward from the Toronto Marlboros Juniors. You can imagine that the Maple Leafs are pretty sore about that one. And growing numbers of Canadian boys are enrolling at such American schools as the Universitv of Michigan. Denver University and Lawrence College, schools that are leading the way in furnishing deserving boys with hockey scholarships and first-class hockey coaching. Why, you’ll even find the hockey-playing sons of some NHL

general managers attending universities these days. Toronto’s Punch Imlach, Boston’s Milt Schmidt and St. Louis’s Lynn Patrick have all sent their sons, each one a promising pro prospect, into college hockey rather than junior hockey — Brent Imlach to the University of Western Ontario, Milt Schmidt. Jr., to Brown and Craig Patrick to Denver.

All of these examples indicate a growing and welcome, if overdue, trend: the National Hockey League in particular and hockey in general is at last moving out of the Stone Age. But for many Canadians the revolution has come too slowly and too late. The fact is that in every town in the country there arc young men and notso-young men whose lives have been, perhaps not ruined, but at least diminished by professional hockey. I’m thinking of the fellows that a highschool teacher from Orillia, Ont., named Alex Hutchings was telling me about this past summer. He said it broke his heart every year to see young lads in grade nine or 10 leave Orillia, which doesn’t have a Junior A team, to play hockey in another city where there is Junior hockey, only to return home four or five years later, unable to progress any further in hockey and still with only a gradenine or -10 education. A Bobby Orr can make it in hockey and in the world without finishing high school — Bobby will probably be a millionaire by the time he’s 30 — but for every Orr there are 100 boys who don’t make it, the kind Alex Hutchings was talking about, who are forced to grind out the rest of their lives working in a mill or clerking in a store or drinking their days away.

The minor professional leagues are filled with dropouts who have nothing but rough times to look forward to after their hockey careers. Consider a man like Bill Sweeney. Years ago he left high school and created a sensation as a Junior A star in Guelph,

showing all kinds of promise, according to NHL scouts, of a long and starry major-league career. Well, Bill Sweeney didn't quite make it, and now, in his 30s, after 10 years in the minor pros, he’s playing out his string, nervous of the day when a young kid will beat him out of his job. Sure, he’s making pretty fair money right now. for a man who lacks a high-school diploma, but what'll he do when that young kid finally arrives on the scene? His income will drop by at least $10,000 and he'll be out hustling for a steady job.

How much better to be a Red Berenson or a Billy Hay and any one of the other 10 percent of NHL players who did take time to finish high school and university before they signed onto pro teams. Billy Hay held off the Chicago Black Hawks and all their fancy offers until he’d put in four years of engineering at the University of Denver. That was seven years ago, and now, after a successful and lucrative NHL career, he has retired for good. Retired? Right — but not to a job in a mill or a grocery store. Not Billy Hay. He has an excellent position with an oil - drilling company in Calgary, and while he may have taken a cut in salary from his good days with the Black Hawks, it's a s m a 1 I reduction from the approximately $30,000 Chicago paid him, with every immediate prospect of boosting himself to something more than $40,000.

That’s the kind of success story that hockey likes to boast about. But the point is that professional hockey contributed nothing to Billy Hay’s success. Billy accomplished it all himself, over the obstacles that hockey put in his way. There are going to be more happy endings like Billy Hay’s — the players’ new awareness will see to that — but they’d come thicker and faster if only the NHL owners nnd managers would wake up and LWUIC into the 20th century. ★