CANADA Column

Unfortunately, he was a crook

‘Super Al’ made Canadians proud; he freed players from bondage, and produced the most thrilling hockey ever seen

TRENT FRAYNE January 19 1998
CANADA Column

Unfortunately, he was a crook

‘Super Al’ made Canadians proud; he freed players from bondage, and produced the most thrilling hockey ever seen

TRENT FRAYNE January 19 1998

Unfortunately, he was a crook

‘Super Al’ made Canadians proud; he freed players from bondage, and produced the most thrilling hockey ever seen

TRENT FRAYNE

CANADA Column

In the days before he began stealing their money, the hockey players sometimes called Alan Eagleson “Super Al.” He was Super Al because he took them out of bondage. He was the guy who organized the National Hockey League Players’ Association, and stopped the owners from treating the players like sides of beef.

You don’t remember that part, now that hockey players are paid beyond their wildest dreams, now that Super Al has been defrocked and denuded? You’ve forgotten how players used to be dumped at the whim of a boss? How Toronto’s irascible leader, Conn Smythe, shipped his tall, skinny centre Johnny (Goose) McCormack to the farm team because he’d gone and got married in mid-season?

Smythe said marriage would intrude upon McCormack’s dedication to hockey. So the wedding present was a one-way train ticket to the minors.

Or how about Jack Adams, who ran the mighty Detroit Red Wings for the Norris family? You’ve forgotten how Adams reacted following the 1957 season when two outstanding players stood up to him? He stopped speaking to left-winger Ted Lindsay and goaltender Glenn Hall, both first-team allstars, and traded both to the truly terrible Chicago Blackhawks, last in the standings for each of the four past seasons.

Vindictive men ran hockey back then.

It was a six-team league, there were no player agents and the players jumped when the bosses barked. Then along came Super AÍ.

Before the Eagle began cheating the players, lying to them and putting his hands in their pockets, he was the man who brought the great stars of Canada and Russia to the same ice floe to produce the most emotional, the most thrilling, the most throat-grabbing decade of hockey ever played.

Back then, the Soviet Union was the most feared country on earth. But Super AÍ never backed down to any of their stonefaced officials on anything, shouting and hollering and waving his arms and demanding a fair shake for his side. And getting it.

One thing you will remember if you owned a television set in 1972 was how the Eagle leaped from his seat the night in Moscow when the puck went into the Soviet net and the goal judge didn’t light the red light. In his box seat across the ice from the Team Canada bench, the Eagle lunged to his feet intent upon rushing the goal judge and probably strangling him. The boards at ice level were lined with armed Soviet militiamen, but the Eagle dashed among them to get at the goal judge.

That took guts. People were wary of the Russians a quarter of a century ago. We’d heard about Russian dungeons and we’d read John le Carré. Some people, me included, felt a chill just before the start of that eighth game when the soldiers marched into the rink, guns across their shoulders. But not Super AÍ. When the red light didn’t go on, he wrestled the soldiers clutching him. Then Pete Mahovlich led a flying wedge of Team Canada players across the ice to rescue the Eagle and, as they led him back across the ice, he jabbed his right arm into the air, two, three, four times and gave the whistling, hissing crowd the finger. What a boor, right?

I have another lasting and private memory of the Eagle that goes back to the Intourist hotel where the Canadian contingent stayed. It was the morning after the first game in Moscow. I was waiting for the elevator at the sixth floor to go down for breakfast and when the door opened Eagleson stepped out. He looked grey and glum. Canada had blown a 4-1 lead in the third period and lost the game by 5-4 and now trailed in the series with three losses, a win and a tie. I’d missed the four games in Canada because I’d been at the Olympic Games in Munich, and perhaps for that reason Eagleson asked me what I thought of last night’s game.

By then I’d known Eagleson for five years, since 1967 when he’d jumped into public awareness as the lawyer for Boston’s new star, Bobby Orr. He’d steered Orr into a lucrative (for the times) $15,500, two-year deal with the tight-fisted Bruins. And by 1972, the Eagle had arrived, a Bay Street lawyer in a big firm, a brash, confident man of endless energy, flat-bellied in expensive suits, black horn-rims and hair done by a stylist. He had a ready grin, he talked fast and he always seemed in a hurry. But this wasn’t the Super AÍ who stepped from the elevator and wanted to know what I thought.

I told him I’d never seen a team pass the puck as impressively as the Russians, wheeling and regrouping and driving in again. He stared at me.

“Jesus,” he said. “You must be a Communist.” His face was ashen. He was serious, all right.

“All I said was that the passing knocked me out,” I said.

“We lost, you know,” he said.

‘Yeah. I know we lost.”

‘We lost, and you’re telling me you like their passing?”

“That’s right.”

“Anybody who thinks like you do has to be a bloody Communist.”

“What is this?” I said. “I tell you I like their passing and you give me this ideological gobbledegook. What the hell has—”

He interrupted.

“Are you calling what I have to say gobbledegook?” he demanded. “If that’s what you’re saying, our friendship ends right here.”

As we stood there glaring at one another, the elevator door opened and I jumped in and went down to breakfast.

With Super AÍ, you were either for him or against him and disagreeing with him put me in the latter camp. He hated to lose—at anything—and the work he did back then made a great many Canadians proud. Too bad he was a crook.