Canada SPECIAL REPORT

Chasing the Eagle

A small-town newspaperman wins the players' applause

JOHN NICOL January 19 1998
Canada SPECIAL REPORT

Chasing the Eagle

A small-town newspaperman wins the players' applause

JOHN NICOL January 19 1998

Chasing the Eagle

A small-town newspaperman wins the players' applause

JOHN NICOL

Russ Conway is a stocky, balding man with silver 1970s sideburns who writes sports for a small Massachusetts newspaper. He spent most of his adult life between stock-car races and ice rinks—at least until 1990, when he started to investigate the nasty rumors he had heard about hockey power broker Alan Eagleson. When he approached the man himself, the interview began: “Russ Conway, how the f— are you? Making lots of money, I hope.” Last week, more than seven years later, the 48-year-old Conway walked into a Boston courtroom to applause from a collection of former players who had come to see Eagleson plead guilty to bilking NHLers of hundreds of thousands of dollars—a plea that resulted directly from Conway’s work. “It’s like being applauded in church,” Conway said later. “It was embarrassing.”

It was also richly deserved. First, in a 1991 series for the Lawrence, Mass., Eagle-Tribune, and later in his book Game Misconduct: Alan Eagleson and the Corruption of Hockey, Conway sparked an FBI investigation and a federal grand jury that laid the Eagle low. His newspaper series was runner-up for a 1992 Pulitzer Prize, but he stresses he had a huge team behind him, including his publisher, hundreds of hockey players and a couple of Toronto women who never laced up skates for a game of shinny. He says he was simply heeding advice that his father once gave him. “My father, God bless him, was in public service all his life,” he said in a Boston accent that turned father into “fawther.” “He said, ‘If you ever get a chance to right a wrong in your lifetime, try to right it.’ I don’t think you can say it any better.”

Conway got his first newspaper job at 14, writing about auto racing in his home town of Haverhill, Mass. His career with The EagleTribune began in 1967, just before he attended Northeastern University in Boston. He started covering the Bruins of Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, Ken Hodge and Johnny Bucyk that became Stanley Cup champions in 1970. Now the paper’s sports editor, Conway says his attachment to those players influenced his seven-year, seven-month investigation into Eagleson’s affairs. “If your neighbor’s house is burning down,” says Conway, “you’re not going to walk away.”

He first met Eagleson in 1970, and the hockey guru fed him scoops as he did many writers. Conway also began hearing whispers from players who wondered what Eagleson was doing. Former Boston Bruin Dallas Smith pointed out in 1976 that Orr, an Eagleson client, could become a free agent while the rest of the players could not. Conway felt he was just as guilty as some other reporters for not pursuing the story about Eagleson’s conflicting roles as an agent, head of the NHL Players’ Association, and confidant of NHL owners. When Sports Illustrated explored those conflicts in 1981, Conway thought the Eagleson story had been written.

But over the years, he heard from players like Orr, Brad Park, Mike Milbury, Wayne Gretzky, Steve Kasper, Ray Bourque and Cam Neely, who raised concerns about everything from bad NHLPA contracts to paltry Canada Cup proceeds. In 1990, at a 20-year reunion of the Bruins’ Stanley Cup team, he was surprised at how little the players knew about their pensions. He started to dig. Conway was a regular on the hockey beat, working at a paper with a circulation of just 60,000 in a suburb far from Eagleson’s elevated stomping grounds. He was a twopack-a-day smoker who had once been engaged for 10 years but never got around to marrying. Instead, he devoted himself to chasing the mighty Eagle. The work at first was like racing on a muddy track—a plod through players’ financial records. Then, his sources broadened to include high-ranking RCMP members and someone close to Eagle son’s family. For periods of three and four months, he abandoned his newspaper duties to accumulate hundreds of audio tapes and nearly six filing cabinets of documents from Britain, Switzerland, Bermuda, the United States and Ontario. His favorite is Eagleson’s 1989 memo to players’ association members: “I, nor my family, nor any company of which I’m associated, has benefited directly or indirectly from any international hockey event.” Says Conway: “It’s the Canadian equivalent to, ‘I am not a crook,’ ” Richard Nixon’s infamous line.

Conway later began to collaborate with Toronto-based CBC reporter Bruce Dowbiggin, whom he admired for taking on Eagleson in his own backyard. Conway also had the help of Lorraine Mahoney, a Toronto pension specialist, ex-Toronto Maple Leaf Carl Brewer and Brewer’s partner Sue Foster. “Sue is a marvellous, intelligent lady who never ceases to amaze me,” he said of the 53year-old former teacher who, with Brewer, spearheaded the 1995 victory by retired players seeking pension money misallocated by NHL teams.

For Conway, what rankled most was Eagleson’s betrayal of trust and abandonment of those in need. He cites the 1983 injury to St. Louis Blues farmhand Eddie Kea: “Eddie is terribly checked into the boards, six hours of brain surgery, he’s not right, he’ll never work, forget playing hockey—he’s permanently disabled. He had a family, four kids. It’s not like hockey players have brain surgery every year. AÍ Eagleson didn’t even have the common decency to go visit the family. He wouldn’t aid them in the insurance process. He was gone. Crush up the cigarette pack, throw it out. Next!”

Conway vows not to abandon this story. It might take 10 years, he says, but he aims to chase down every cent Eagleson has to make sure players do not lose out in their compensation cases. He won’t quit until the game is over.