In hockey’s long history, there has seldom been a man more controversial than the Eagle—Alan Eagleson, the combustible lawyer who has shaped and led the National Hockey League Players Association (NHLPA) since its inception in 1967. So it comes as something of a surprise to find in his memoirs that he has never been wrong, that there is nothing he would do differently if given a second chance, that as far as the Eagle’s reflections go, the Eagle is perfect.
How can a guy who has been in so much hot water emerge bone dry? Did he never goof somewhere along the way? Did he always do what was best for the hockey players whose loyalty made him rich? Did the dissenters who twice tried to depose him as the NHLPA executive director not have any reason? Did he never slip up anywhere along the way in his business relationship with Bobby Orr, a relationship that Orr unceremoniously severed more than a decade ago? Apparently not, according to the Eagle anyway.
Eagleson, now 58, has been a mighty arresting figure in the hockey firmament for a very long time, a man who has intrigued a couple of million Canadians for nearly a quarter of a century. This is partly because he is so unlike most people’s notion of what a Canadian is. None of that stalwart, reserved, self-effacing stuff for the Eagle. This is a noisy, brash, flamboyant guy dressed in expensive suits, hair stylishly cut, flat-bellied, always rushing off somewhere, grinning and waving and exuding a ton of energy, a fitness nut, loud and profane and eager.
I have known the Eagle since 1967, after he was propelled into prominence taking on Bobby Orr as a wide-eyed client, an 18-year-old from Parry Sound, Ont., damp behind the ears. Orr’s father, Doug, contacted him and the Eagle parlayed that connection into what he has become, one of the power brokers of hockey, Canada’s chief negotiator on the international scene. What I had hoped, opening the book written in collaboration with the accomplished writer Scott Young, was that it would provide an understanding of what drives the Eagle,
POWER PLAY: THE MEMOIRS OF HOCKEY CZAR ALAN EAGLESON
`~`~ (McClelland & Stewart, 328 pages, $26.95)
what has made him run so fast for so long.
But it is an unanswered question that he says he often wonders about himself. Although he admits to an income of almost $750,000 a year, he claims that it is not the pursuit of money. “I don’t think, either, that I was on a power trip,” he writes. “I just felt that when something about the players came up that needed doing, and I could do it, I would do it.” And, looking back, he always finds justification for this move, vindication for that one: he was often pilloried, but never wrong.
With the Eagle there are no half-measures.
There is his way and there is the wrong way. At an NHLPA meeting in Florida in June of 1989, he and another Canadian player agent, Herb Pinder, had a disagreement. As a result, Eagleson told Pinder off: “From now on, I’m only talking to my friends and you aren’t one of them.”
People loyal to the Eagle are remembered warmly; those who are not are speared. Such as Darryl Sittler, the former Toronto Maple Leaf star, a loyalist, and Bill Watters, not a loyalist, a former Eagleson employee who became an agent and recently was named Leaf assistant general manager.
When Watters left Eagleson, they agreed that he would not work as an agent. But the Eagle writes that Watters and Orr tried to persuade Sittler to dump Eagleson and go with
Watters. “Darryl came out of that session very confused by the untruths that had been said about me,” writes the Eagle. “The next morning Darryl came to my house____We talked for
about an hour and at the end he shook my hand, put his arm around me and said, ‘AÍ, I’m with you and I’ll stay with you.’ ”
For Watters, he has a patronizing jab. Dining one night with him and Punch Imlach, the Eagle recounts that Watters asked if he could try a bite of his boss’s steak tartare. “Gee whiz, AÍ, this food is hardly even cooked,” Watters is said to have muttered.
Eagleson must have agonized in deciding to relate his version of the celebrated split with Orr. For 10 years, he never spoke publicly about their rift, but here he decides to chip relentlessly at the man who elevated him from anonymity. He labels Orr a spendthrift and a whiner and, in doing so, ignores an observation by his wife, Nancy, that it would be pointless to take on a legend. But take him on he does, plodding relentlessly through most of three chapters of Orr-bashing. And after all of that, he says that he wishes Bobby would just get on with his life and not continue to nurse a grudge
against the Eagle, winding up with: “Our divorce is final. I have no time or desire for recriminations.”
All in all, the Eagle paints himself a benevolent image, and some interpret this whitewash as being directed to the Eagle’s next goal: presidency of the International Ice Hockey Federation. He finishes his book with an encomium for the current president, Guenther Sabetzki, who is 76 and not likely to stand for future election. “If he decides to step down and open the door, and I think I can contribute, then I would consider running for the job he has done so well,” Eagleson writes.
Whereupon the question arises, Is the Eagle feathering his nest?
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