What makes Alan Eagleson calm?

An offer he can’t refuse

TRENT FRAYNE December 1 1973

What makes Alan Eagleson calm?

An offer he can’t refuse

TRENT FRAYNE December 1 1973

What makes Alan Eagleson calm?

An offer he can’t refuse

TRENT FRAYNE

The Eagle is on the phone.

He is talking about his client Paul Henderson whose twoyear contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs runs out next spring. He is talking to Jim Gregory, Leaf general manager.

“If you want Paul to play for you next year,” says the Eagle, “come up with a five-year package. We’re already holding an offer from the Toronto Toros for between $800,000 and a million. See you.”

The Eagle is dictating letters.

He is writing about his client Bobby Orr to the general managers of 12 teams in the World Hockey Association. He is advising them that Orr’s five-year million-dollar contract with the Boston Bruins expires in the spring of 1976. He is requesting that they forward to him their offers for Orr’s services. The Eagle looks up from his work.

“I would suspect Bobby Orr will sign for $2.5 million in the summer of 1976,” he says.

The most powerful man in professional hockey leans back in his chair and smiles a long slow smile. “The bidding should be interesting,” adds the Eagle.

Until a day in Moscow when I ran into him unexpectedly at an elevator bank during the Canada-Russia hockey series, I’d known Alan Eagleson as a guy of endless energy, always rushing off somewhere waving and grinning and ducking through traffic, one of those people not notably humorous who laughs a lot, a physical-fitness freak, flat bellied, expensively tailored, a nonstop talker delighting in his triumphs, a boy with a toy.

I’d known him since 1967, when he was propelled into prominence as Bobby Orr’s lawyer negotiating a landmark contract and then as the organizer of the NHL players’ association, another landmark. Not long after he’d become the boss of the hockey players’ trade union he also became president of the Progressive Conservative Association in Ontario, the antiestablishment establishment man, a Bay Street lawyer in a big firm assaulting the Savile Row suits into which the panjandrums of the NHL were stuffed. In those days he looked like Clark Kent, ol’ Super AÍ in his black horn-rims and groomed hair, all lean and athletic. In the last couple of years, like a lot of bushy tails, he’d moved into correctly mod suits, carefully lengthened his hair, switched to wire-rims, and he had become increasingly powerful in hockey’s structure, though by September of 1972, at 39, he still had all this bounce, this glee.

I remember meeting him by chance on a Sunday morning in the lobby of the Grand Hotel in Stockholm while Team Canada was there and he said c’mon, he’d show me some marvelous architecture in the courtyard of the Swedish parliament buildings. So we set off across one of the old city’s innumerable bridges, and I told him three separate times, for God’s sake, what’s the hurry, we’ve got all day, and he laughed and slowed his pace for a few moments but soon he was into his quick relentless gait again. Afterward, we climbed into a sightseeing launch and cruised the waters of the city with a couple of the players. Forced to sit, he chuckled softly, grinned reflexively, and said he had thought it would take him five years to make Bobby Orr a millionaire but the way things had turned out it had taken a little longer than that, five years and a few months, as I recall.

And so from these few hours on a tranquil Sunday in Stockholm I was entirely unprepared for what transpired some days later when I ran into him at the elevator bank and for the first time saw an Eagleson I’d never known before, the one everybody in Canada was to see on television from the Moscow Ice Palace a few days later. I was waiting to take the down elevator in the Intourist Hotel when the up elevator deposited Eagleson at the sixth floor. This was the day after Canada had blown a 4-1 lead in the third period of the opening game in Moscow to lose 5-4 and go two games down to the Soviets. The Russians had won twice in Canada, lost once and tied once, so now the series stood 3-1-1, and this was the first game I’d seen, because I’d been at the Olympic Games in Munich for the Toronto Star while the teams were playing in Canada. Eagleson wanted to know what I’d thought and I told him conversationally that I’d never seen a team pass the puck as impressively as the Russians.

“Jesus,” he said. “You must be a Communist.” He was very intense, his face was pale and drawn, and there was no question he was serious.

“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 all this ideological

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Alan Eagleson, super-agent, sees his job as "sweetening the pot" for his clients and for many of them that can be very sweet indeed. World figure skater Karen Magnussen, left, signed a three-year contract with the Ice Capades this summer for $500,000. Hockey player Paul Henderson, right, is getting $100,000 for the 1973-74 season with Toronto Maple Leafs and Eagleson has already told the Leafs they will have to come up with a five-year deal for about one million dollars if they want to keep him after that. Some of Eagleson’s other big-name clients: Bobby Orr, Boston Bruins, working on a

five-year, one-million-dollar contract, but Eagleson is already seeking $2.5 million for the five years after that; Darryl Sittler, Toronto Maple Leafs, $750,000 for five years; Syl Apps, Pittsburgh Penguins, $750,000 for five years; Mike Walton, Minnesota Fighting Saints, $440,000 for three years; Billy Harris, New York Islanders, $300,000 for three years; rookie Rick Middleton, New York Rangers, $250,000 for three years; fullback Jim Evenson, Ottawa Rough Riders, $140,000 for three years; Jim Young, BC Lions, $125,000 for three years; and pitcher Mike Torrez, Montreal Expos, $35,000 for one year.

EAGLESON from page 24

gobbledygook. What the hell has . . .”

He interrupted.

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

I was dumbfounded and he was seething and we stood glaring at one another.

“Friendship is worth more than that,”

I said. We were still glaring when the elevator came and I walked into it.

Six days later, in the frenzied emotion of the eighth game, the one that meant everything, practically every human in Canada saw this other Eagleson. Until this single moment, as I’ve indicated, he had been Ralph Nader in a jockstrap. Six years ago he had stood up to — hell, he’d trampled over — the remote millionaires who’d been manipulating hockey players for generations like cards in a gin game. Late in the summer of 1972 he’d untangled the labyrinths of red tape inherent in Canada vs. Russia, salving egos, puncturing balloons, threatening, cajoling, circumventing, solving, and finally bringing off, just this side of single-handedly, the impossible series — the capitalist pros and the Communist amateurs on the same ice floe.

And then in this stupefying moment his feet had turned to clay right there on the tiny screen in full view of 16 million Canadians (a mere 12 million had watched the first man walk on the moon). When Canada scored the tying goal at 5-5 the red light back of the Russian net did not go on. Eagleson leaped to his feet, screaming, and bounded down an aisle to ice level where he was strong-armed by Russian cops. The milling commotion brought Peter Mahovlich and a wild grim band_of stick-waving Canadian players to his rescue and he was escorted by them across the ice to the safety of their bench. Approaching it, face ashen, head bowed, he suddenly shook himself free and turned to the Russian fans across the rink. In a crude gesture, he jerked his arm aloft, once, twice, a digit on his right hand raised. Then he clenched his fist and shook it at the crowd, once, twice, four times, his eyes hot behind the steel-rims, hair tumbling across his forehead, jaw working, a man enraged.

This was surely the moment when he fitted a word the Russians supplied for him. The word was nekulturny and, translated loosely, nekulturny means yahoo or boor or simply a pain in the ass. John Robertson summed it up in the Montreal Star: “I saw us as a bunch of barbarians being led by a man who qualifies as a walking diplomatic disaster.” Letters to the editor in papers across the country echoed the sentiment.

But wait.

There is a benefit softball game on July 1, 1967, in the little Ontario town of MacTier up near Georgian Bay. Canada

is 100 years old this day and Eagleson, who had been the town’s recreation director one summer during his undergraduate days in the 1950s, has been invited back to play in this laugher of a softball game. Also invited are his 19year-old client, Bobby Orr of nearby Parry Sound, who has just completed his first NHL season, and Bobby’s dad Doug, against whom Eagleson had often played ball that summer when he’d been the recreational director. All right. Down 7-6 in the ninth, Bobby Orr is the tying run at third base. Eagleson is batting. As the catcher lazily returns the ball to the pitcher, Orr breaks for the plate. The pitcher whips the ball to the catcher and Orr is clearly dead. But he barrels into the catcher, who drops the ball, and the game is tied. The first baseman, infuriated, rushes Orr and punches him from behind. Outraged, Eagleson drops his bat, tears off his glasses and hammers the first baseman to the ground. Now half a dozen opposing players rush Orr and Eagleson who, standing back to back, flail away as though it’s Boston greeting the Rangers. Bobby’s sister Pat, a spectator, wants in too, but in her rush down a hill she falls and suffers a shoulder separation. That breaks up the fight, but Orr and Eagleson agree it’s been one hell of a fine Centennial Day celebration.

The point of all this is that there is an aspect to Eagleson’s makeup that made the arena in massive Moscow no different than the ball park in tiny MacTier, a fact I began to appreciate only after we had stood eyeball to eyeball beside the elevators. Beneath that facade of geniality and garrulousness and energy he is fiercely, even blindly, partisan, and he is competitive to the point of indecency. His wife, Nancy, says that if he beats her five straight sets in tennis, he wants to make it six. He wants to beat every driver on the highway, every amber light on the street. One day last summer when a 16-year-old boy hit Eagleson’s eightyear-old daughter, Jill, at a tennis club he told the boy to get his father. The father arrived, angry words ensued and Eagleson knocked the man down. Eagleson was charged with common assault. Then he was advised the charge would be withdrawn if he were to apologize in open court. Long since cooled out, he apologized in open court.

So here we have a partisan, competitive man; anybody who attacks his friend on a ball field, who doesn’t turn on the red light when his team scores, who, indeed, admires the Russian passing plays when his team is trailing, has stripped through his facade and bared a nerve. Of course he’s a walking diplomatic disaster; whoever charged him with being a diplomat? Of course he was a nekulturny in Russia, he went there to win.

Russia is almost a year away by the summer of 1973 and there is a whole new development in professional hockey. Alan Eagleson occupies a cool pedestal where the pressures are negligible. Accordingly, he is the Mr. Smilesand-Chuckles we knew before CanadaRussia. He sits in the catbird’s seat where nobody can threaten him or his friends, the players he represents. The World Hockey Association has come on the scene, challenging the NHL’s dominance. A giant auction develops in which Eagleson and lawyers and agents like him deal the most skillful of their clients to the highest bidder. The owners are helpless. They are squeezed in a price war. If they don’t meet salary demands of a player whose contract has expired, the player jumps to the other league. When young players graduate from junior ranks their agents offer their services to both leagues. The highest bidder wins. Thus, Eagleson is able to

command $250,000 for junior graduate Rick Middleton of the Oshawa Generals on a three-year contract with the New York Rangers. Middleton, 20 years old on December 4, had never been to New York, and when he finally got there this fall he was earning $83,333.33 per year. If the Rangers hadn’t come up with the money, Eagleson would have got it, or very close to it, from the Minnesota Fighting Saints of the WHA. The Fighting Saints were very anxious to sign young Middleton.

Eagleson’s power is awesome. He and his friend and client Mike Walton decided that Walton had had enough of Boston. The Bruins changed coaches midway through last season. Walton liked the old coach, Tom Johnson. He didn’t like the new coach, Bep Guidolin. Mike is what Eagleson describes as “a certifiable psychiatric case.” He knows Mike will get understanding from an old friend, Bob Pulford, coach of the Los Angeles Kings of the NHL. He knows he’ll be understood by Harry Neale,

coach of the Minnesota Fighting Saints of the WHA. He gets on the phone to Boston where another old friend, Harry Sinden, coach of Team Canada and now a Bruin executive, is advised that Walton is through with Boston now that his two-year contract has expired.

“If you want to keep Mike in the NHL,” he says into the phone, “make a deal with Pully in LA. If you don’t, he’s gone to the Fighting Saints.”

Now he gets on the phone to Pulford in Los Angeles, tilting back in his chair, grinning into the mouthpiece.

“Pully, how are you? How’s the weather out there? It is? Hell, it’s wonderful here. Pully, listen: I’ve talked to Boston and I’ve told them Mike’s through there. He’ll either play for you or he’ll play for Minnesota. But you’ve got to come up with the money. Listen, if he can get 50 goals for Jack Kent Cooke, Jack Kent Cooke’s going to come up with a hundred and a half, right? Okay, you and Larry work it out and let me know.”

Later, Pulford is back. He and Larry Regan, the general manager, have worked out an offer, a three-year package for Mike Walton — $100,000 for the first year, $115,000 for the second year, and $125,000 for the third year. Also, there are incentive bonuses (incentive, yet) starting at 20 goals. For every five goals Walton scores above 20 each season, he receives another $5,000.

Eagleson hangs up and stares into space. “Well, now that I’ve got him signed at LA,” he muses, “all I’ve got to do is get him to LA.”

But he doesn’t get him to LA. Regan and Sinden are unable to work out a deal. Five days later Eagleson and Walton fly to St. Paul for a press conference at which the Minnesota Fighting Saints announce they’ve signed Mike Walton to a three-year contract for $440,000.

“It’s around $440,000,” Eagleson says on his return to Toronto. “Actually, it’s a basic $405,000 but there are incentives that could bring it to, let’s see . . .” He breaks into smiles . . . “about half a million dollars.”

I ask him how he managed to bump a $340,000 base offer from Los Angeles to $405,000 at Minnesota.

“Ah, hell,” he grins conspiratorially, “when it became apparent that Boston and LA weren’t getting together I just sweetened the pot a little at Minnesota. They were glad to get Mike.”

Everybody laughed when the Toronto Maple Leafs played hockey last winter. To be charitable, they were lousy. But one of their rare assets was a blond, earnest, solemn young man of 22 named Darryl Glen Sittler out of Kitchener, Ontario, six feet, 190 pounds who, after two undistinguished seasons with the Leafs, scored 29 goals last year. Some people these days score that many by

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EAGLESON continued

Christmas, but don’t forget this was Toronto last year.

Just about the time that Sittler’s contract was coming up for renewal last spring, Johnny Bassett, tall, slim, moustached, 34, sat in his office at Toronto television station CFTO, where he is a vice-president, and came up with this idea to buy the Ottawa Nationals of the WHA. Using a telephone, he rounded up a dozen friends who, like Bassett, have legal access to money, and, sure enough, in due course they acquired the Nationals, changed the name to the Toronto Toros, and set about the business of tearing people away from the ticket wickets at Maple Leaf Gardens. The way to do it, Bassett and friends concluded, was to hit the Maple Leafs where it hurt most: sign Sittler. To salvage at least face out of last year’s farce, the Maple Leafs recognized they must go to the moon, if need be, to retain him.

And so the bargaining begins. Well along in it, Eagleson and his wife, Nancy, and Sittler and his wife, Wendy, are dinner guests of Johnny and Sue Bassett in the Bassetts’ big and expensive home in a big and expensive neighborhood in the northern reaches of Toronto where three of Bassett’s partners and their wives are assembled, too. It is very congenial. Everybody laughs a lot.

“Well,” beams Johnny Bassett, at length, “let’s get down to the nitty-gritty, Darryl. What will it take to sign you?”

“Ask the boss,” says the shy young Sittler, indicating Eagleson, who has not had to rehearse his speech.

“Five years,” he says. “A million dollars.”

Nobody drops a drink.

“Okay,” says Bassett.

Levity breaks out. People clink glasses, grin.

“There are a few other things,” Eagleson beams.

“Like what?” chuckles Bassett.

“Like legal fees,” says Eagleson.

“Yeah,” says Bassett. “Legal fees.”

“Plus a shopping credit at Eaton’s for Darryl and Wendy at a maximum of, oh, let’s say $2,000.” John C. Eaton, one of the Eatons, is a Bassett partner.

“And a shopping credit for Darryl and Wendy at McDonald’s hamburgers.” George Cohon, president of McDonald’s Restaurants of Canada, is a Bassett partner.

“AÍ,” Bassett chortles, “I’d love to read that in the contract just to see the look on George Cohon’s face.”

“And a couple of watches for Darryl and Wendy at People’s.” Irving Gerstein, president of Peoples Credit Jewelers, is a Bassett partner.

“So we’ve got a deal,” says Bassett.

Now the next step seems somewhat vague. Eagleson recalls that he told Bassett he’d have to get in touch with Jim Gregory, Leafs general manager. Bas-

sett recalls that Eagleson picked up the telephone right then and canceled an appointment with Gregory.

“As far as I’m concerned,” Bassett declared several days later when the papers suddenly announced that Darryl Sittler had signed a five-year contract with the Maple Leafs for $750,000, “we had a deal. All that talk about hamburgers and watches and credit at Eaton’s wras a bunch of nonsense, a lot of hilarity after we’d made a deal. It’s my conviction that either Eagleson euchered us or Sittler changed his mind.”

Eagleson reconstructs it differently. He says he was entirely in earnest in discussing the fringe benefits. And he says he did call Gregory the next day and told him to get his people together and figure out the best possible deal the Leafs could offer. That deal, he says, was the one for $750,000 for five years.

“I told Darryl to go home and think about the two offers, to talk them over

with his wife, and then to let me know,” Eagleson recalls. “He told me, finally, that he and Wendy had decided the extra money from the Toros wouldn’t mean that much happiness to them, that it’d be cut by taxes anyhow, and that he’d had three happy years with the Leafs and wanted to stay with them. What he told me was this: ‘Last year I made $30,000 and I was happy. If I was happy at $30,000 I’ve got to be happier at five times that.’ So what the hell, it was up to him.”

Alan Eagleson thinks he will die young. It’s not a thought that preys morbidly, only a notion that comes into his mind unexpectedly once or twice a year. “I’ll be sitting in a hotel room or maybe setting off on a threeor four-hour plane trip,” he says, “and suddenly there it is.”

At such times, he writes long and affectionate letters to his parents, his wife, and his friend Bobby Orr. A man who has great difficulty expressing affection verbally, he labors to set sentiment to paper. He carries a ton of insurance,

keeps his involved financial affairs scrupulously in order. His income reaches $100,000 or more a year, he lives well, though not high, and, through various investments, can see himself reaching millionaire status — if he lives. He is always the loudest man at a party, cocky, animated, childlike in his vanity, often sophomoric though he is not a drinker. Old-line Conservatives deplore these antics, regard him as a clown.

He can’t, or won’t, discuss the source of his apprehension but apparently because of it he lives day to day, reaching for no rainbow, having no specific goal. He wears many hats and all of them fit; he won’t look ahead to choose one of them.

For instance, several NHL governors have told him privately they’d like to see him succeed Clarence Campbell one day as NHL president but he finds the idea too remote from his present position to consider.

Also, one of his law partners, Irwin Pasternak, says he has a brilliant legal mind, that he could become an outstanding criminal lawyer, but Eagleson doesn’t think about that anymore.

Also, as executive director of the NHL players’ association he wields a very big stick, but although he’s talked for two years of resigning he doesn’t know when, or if, that day will come.

Also, one of his close friends, Arthur Harnett, former executive director of the Ontario PCs, says that as PC association president Eagleson is the second most powerful man in the party (second to Premier Bill Davis) and that he could easily become party leader if Davis were to move into the federal field (there’s party dissent on this; a man high in the Davis office, requesting what he calls “no attribution,” says the association has no real power, that Eagleson likes people to think he has Davis’s ear but that he hasn’t, and that “he couldn’t get six votes if he ran for leader”). Eagleson was elected to the provincial legislature 10 years ago at age 30, lost the seat in 1967, and didn’t run in 1971. He has been the association’s president since 1968 but, again declining to look ahead, he says he rarely thinks in terms of a political future.

One afternoon in his softly lit Toronto office 11 floors above the blaring Bay Street traffic he expands on the subject of his many hats. “I like the variety,” he says. “I could give up everything and make $50,000 a year just looking after Bobby’s business. But I like what I’m doing now. I take one day at a time, and turn off on weekends with my family — playing tennis or boating, skiing in the winter.”

The phone rings — it always rings — and he’s off again, grinning and manoeuvring, a man moving up, God knows where. ■