COVER

FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE

ALAN EAGLESON IS WEDDED TO HOCKEY

JAMES DEACON September 9 1991
COVER

FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE

ALAN EAGLESON IS WEDDED TO HOCKEY

JAMES DEACON September 9 1991

FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE

ALAN EAGLESON IS WEDDED TO HOCKEY

COVER

It was five days before the opening faceoff in the Canada Cup series and Alan Eagleson, who runs the event, was on two telephones at once in his downtown To-

ronto office. Eagleson, 58, is Canada’s most powerful figure in international hockey, a stature enhanced by his successful staging of the fifth Canada Cup tournament, which began on Aug. 31. He has maintained his grip on the Canada Cup and the National Hockey League Players Association (NHLPA) with a persuasive combination of backslapping conviviality and tough negotiating style. And on that day, he exhibited both, cajoling one caller with claims that the current series will be the best ever, while on the other line he was berating a hockey official in Saskatoon who gave out erroneous information about Wayne Gretzky’s injured thumb. After slamming down the phone, Eagleson calmly returned to the first caller as if nothing had happened. “Now, where were we?” he asked.

Eagleson’s rapid shifts in style may help to explain why those who know him are often divided into two camps: those who love him and those who emphatically do not. The man is well aware of the effect that his bad temper has on

people. He told Maclean’s that one of the reasons he hired his son, Allen, a 30-year-old lawyer, to assist him with this year’s Cup is that he can deal effectively with his father’s outbursts. Said Eagleson: “I needed someone who could take a lot of abuse.” But his critics take a less charitable view of his business practices, and accuse him of nepotism.

Hints: So far, Eagleson has stickhandled his way around detractors skilfully enough to make himself a millionaire, and to maintain his control over the NHLPA and Hockey Canada, the country’s governing body for the international game. And although he plans to step down as executive director of the players association on Dec. 31 and hints that this might be his last Canada Cup, Eagleson does not plan to disappear. He says that he may consider a job with the Vienna-based International Ice Hockey Federation. Said Eagleson: “If they want to give me a job that pays one hell of a salary, then fine.”

Hockey historians trace Eagleson’s success in hockey to a summer day in 1965 when he was asked by Douglas Orr of Parry Sound, Ont., to represent his son, a teenage hockey star named Bobby. Eagleson, then a Conserva-

tive member of the Ontario legislature, had little experience in professional sports. Despite that, he negotiated a then-record rookie contract for Orr—worth a reported $80,000 for two years—with the Boston Bruins. In 1966-1967, he helped the players create the NHLPA and negotiated its first collective agreement with NHL owners. Also during that period, Eagleson says, his player agency grew to represent about 150 NHL and junior players through his company, Sports Management Ltd.

When Ottawa set up Hockey Canada in 1969 to support Canadian teams ^ international competitions, Eagle-

son saw another opportunity. His position with the players association gave him a seat on the original Hockey Canada board and, in 1972, Eagleson took charge of a plan to stage a hockey series between the Soviets and Canadian professionals. He says that the

success of the resulting eight-game series, which Canada won in the last minute of the last game, led him to organize the first Canada Cup in 1976.

Resign: As Eagleson increasingly became involved in international hockey, he also became a frequent target of criticism. In 1980, he lost Bobby Orr as a client, partly as the result of a dispute over Orr’s contract with his new team, the Chicago Blackhawks, whose general manager, Bob Pulford, was also an Eagleson client. Disgruntled factions within the players association accused Eagleson of conflict of interest and mounted campaigns to oust him as executive director. In 1990, a league-wide vote on his leadership was under way when he announced plans to resign. Said Rich Winter, an Edmonton lawyer and player agent: “By the time that he decided to step down, three teams had already voted to have him removed as executive director.”

If this is Eagleson’s last Canada Cup, Hockey Canada board members say that he will be missed. Hockey Canada chairman Ian Macdonald, a former president of Toronto’s York University, said that Eagleson’s connections in the NHL and international hockey are essential to the success of the event. “It would be difficult to find someone who could do what Alan does,” Macdonald said.

Eagleson’s tendency to shoot from the hip has sometimes tested the loyalty of his supporters. And during the short-lived coup in the Soviet Union last month, Eagleson declared that if the Soviet team could not take part in the Canada Cup, Canada would field two teams to fill out the playing schedule. As it turned out, the Soviet team arrived for the tournament. But at the time, Gretzky, for one, was scornful of Eagleson’s plan. “I don’t see any sense in having two Canadian teams running the crap out of each other in August,” Gretzky said. “That wouldn’t be fun for me.” Clearly, Eagleson sometimes succeeds in spite of himself.

JAMES DEACON