As many former players cheer, Alan Eagleson goes to jail

JANE O’HARA January 19 1998


As many former players cheer, Alan Eagleson goes to jail

JANE O’HARA January 19 1998


As many former players cheer, Alan Eagleson goes to jail







"There’s the son of a bitch now.” The words leaked like sour milk from Bobby Orr’s mouth as he strained to watch Alan Eagleson, once his friend and agent, now his despised enemy, enter Courtroom 8 in Boston’s Federal Court on Jan. 6. Orr, the Boston Bruins legend, was one of about 20 former National Hockey League players who shined their shoes, put on their best suits and flew from all over North America to get a rinkside seat at the trial that would bring down the man they once considered a second father.

They sat shoulder-to-shoulder on the public benches, the greats and the grinders, a phalanx of still-powerful men facing the fact that they had been robbed by the man they had entrusted with their financial affairs when he headed the National Hockey League Players’ Association from 1967 to 1991. They all had their stories of betrayal, of how they had been abused and tricked by the Eagle, duped out of money and made to feel like idiots when they questioned his command.

They all smouldered inside when this still-smirking godfather of hockey hustled into the sedate Boston courtroom with his typical briskness, as though he was late for nothing more important than a tennis game. But no one hated him more than Orr, who feels personally responsible. For it was Orr, the gifted blond defenceman, who became the first NHL superstar ever to hire an agent when he enlisted Eagleson’s services to negotiate his contract with the Bruins in 1966.

That started the chain of events that would catapult R. Alan Eagleson from his status as an unknown Toronto lawyer to a position of power, wealth and fame; the friend of prime ministers and Supreme Court justices, whose reach into the top echelons of the Canadian Establishment never exceeded his grasp.

Many of the former players in Courtroom 8 never made big money. They now work in construction or sell sporting goods. But back then, when Eagleson helped organize the 1972 Canada-U.S.S.R. Summit series and the Canada Cup tournaments that followed, he assured the players that if they competed internationally, did their duty to their game and their country—even if that meant playing for free and playing hurt as many did—the money earned would build big, fat pensions that would take care of them for the rest of their lives.

Orr, who played with knees so damaged that they required 10 operations, watched intently as Judge Nathaniel Gorton looked down at Eagleson’s reddening face. He asked the Canadian how he pleaded to the first felony count involving stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from international hockey that was earmarked for the players’ pension fund.

“Guilty,” said Eagleson, almost too quickly and matter-of-factly, as though trying to beat the buzzer on Jeopardy.

To the second charge: “Guilty.”

To the third: “Guilty.”

At that, the square Irish face of former Bruins right-winger Terry O’Reilly circled into a big smile. And former Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Carl Brewer, who had spent the past 25 years trying to find the money Eagleson had stolen from the players over the years, started crying. But Orr remained impassive. And when court was adjourned, he hustled into the Boston rain, refusing to say a word. “Bobby feels so bad,” said his longtime friend, star defenceman Brad Park. “Cause he’s the guy who brought AÍ in. And he’s the guy who personally lost the most.”

The next day, the 64-year-old Eagleson pleaded guilty to another three charges of fraud in a Toronto courtroom. Again, the room was filled to capacity, not with irate hockey players, but with curiosity seekers who came to see the Canadian hockey icon brought down. Watching from the second row of the public gallery was Nancy, his wife of 37 years, wearing widow’s black, her white hair cut short, her face showing the strain of the nine-year investigation into her husband’s affairs. And there in spirit were many of the rich and politically powerful men that Eagleson had cultivated over the years, some with gifts, airline tickets and hockey junkets. Thirty prominent people—from hockey, politics, the media, even the church—most of whom did not know he was negotiating a plea bargain that would see him plead guilty, had sent glowing letters that were read into the public record, lauding him for being a good friend and a great family man of the highest integrity. ‘We have often talked about shared values,” wrote former Liberal prime minister John Turner. “For him those values are Faith, Family and Friends.” Added Bob Clarke, the president and general manager of the Philadelphia Flyers: “Alan is a very Good and Decent Man!”

When the two-hour proceeding had ended, this “good and decent man” had been found guilty of defrauding the players he represented by pocketing advertising revenues from the Canada Cups. Then, with his Order of Canada pin in his left lapel, he was taken away in a paddy wagon to begin serving an 18-month sentence in the Mimico Correctional Centre, a medium-security facility that houses white-collar and other nonviolent criminals. Thus ended a two-day drama that came about after a prearranged and highly unusual plea bargain that Eagleson’s legal team, captained by Toronto’s Brian Greenspan, had arranged with both American and Canadian prosecutors. “AÍ being AÍ,” said Brewer, “he managed to cut himself a good deal.”

Make that a very good deal. If Eagleson behaves himself in prison, he will likely serve only six months of his 18-month term—although he had been facing 42 charges after three-year investigations by the FBI and the RCMP If convicted on the U.S. charges alone, which included racketeering and embezzlement, he could have done 15 years of hard time. One senior Canadian jurist, outraged by the deal, told Maclean’s that a non-celebrity accused of Eagleson’s crimes in Canada could have expected 10 to 12 years. And Dave Forbes, a former NHLer who flew from Colorado Springs, Colo., to Boston to witness Eagleson’s conviction, said: “It’s really disappointing. It was such a slap on the wrist for such a huge betrayal.”

As a result of the plea bargain, Eagleson was convicted on six of the lesser charges. In Boston, he paid $1 million (Cdn) in restitution for the money he stole from the players, including a $15,000 disability claim that rightfully belonged to Glen Sharpley when the former Chicago Blackhawks centre was blinded by a high stick that ended his career. Eagleson sold properties he owned in Florida and New York City to raise part of the $1 million, and he has told friends that he has very little money left after paying legal bills. But many doubt that: estimates put Eagleson’s net worth at anywhere from $5 million to $50 million (page 28). How much of that came from robbing the players? “It’s an impossible calculation to make,” said Bob Goodenow,

Eagleson’s replacement as executive director of the NHLPA. “Boxes and boxes and boxes of documents have been destroyed.” Boston FBI agent Tom Daley, who amassed 250,000 documents and conducted more than 300 interviews in the seven years he spent investigating Eagleson, says: “If Eagleson’s poor,

I wish I was that poor.”

Despite the players’ disappointment at the insignificant sentence, Eagleson’s fall from grace has been cataclysmic. The Eagle had chutzpah and hubris and a Rolodex the size of a cement mixer. His dialling finger had callouses from keeping in touch with his vast empire of contacts—and his middle finger made him a hockey hero when he angrily saluted the Russians during the 1972 Summit Series. Although he could be oozing charm one minute, he could be screaming obscenities the next. There never seemed to be enough hours in the day for all the wheeling, dealing and, we now know, the stealing that Eagleson did.

Now, hockey fans denounce him bitterly on talk-radio shows and call for him to be ousted from the Hockey Hall of Fame and stripped of his Order of Canada.

Many in the moneyed classes have begun to shun him as well. On Nov. 18, Eagleson’s wife was desperate to rent a one-bedroom coach house for $1,450 a month in Cabbagetown, a Toronto neighborhood of stately Victorian homes. When she came to see the property, she told the owners, Martin McCuaig and Jane Martin, that she and her husband had sold their million-dollar house in Rosedale and were planning to move to London where they still own a flat near Buckingham Palace.

But they needed to keep a small place in Toronto for trips home to visit family, including Eagleson’s mother, who now lives in the Rekai Centre, a no-frills old folks’ home. “She kept telling me they really wouldn’t be spending much time in the coach house because they still had a farm in the country.” said Martin. But Martin did not want the Eaglesons as tenants. “I’d rather have it sit empty for six months,” she said, “than have that crook live in it.”

In retrospect, Eagleson’s descent from power to prison can be traced back to April 1, 1980. That day, Orr—the player who made Eagleson—severed relations with him. For years, Orr had known something was wrong with the way Eagleson was handling his money. But while the Eagle had once promised to make Orr a millionaire by the time he was 25, an independent accountant now revealed that by the time he retired in 1978, his assets totalled $456,000 (U.S.), while his taxes, legal and accounting bills were $459,000 (U.S.). In other words, Orr—the hockey great whose

12-year NHL career brought him two Stanley Cups and numerous records—was essentially broke.


Alan Eagleson pleaded guilty to six charges—bargaining his way out of another 36. But he still faces a series of civil suits and an investigation by the Law Society of Upper Canada.


• In the United States, Eagleson was indicted in 1994 on 32 counts of embezzlement, fraud, taking kickbacks and racketeering, plus two of obstructing justice.

• In Canada, he was charged in 1996 with eight counts of fraud and theft.


• Eagleson pleaded guilty to three counts of mail fraud in the United States and three counts of fraud in Canada. He paid a $1million fine and was sentenced to 18 months in jail.


• Eagleson voluntarily agreed to stop practising law following a 1995 investigation by the Law Society of Upper Canada, which found 44 counts of professional

misconduct. He still faces possible disbarment.

He is also the target of a number of civil lawsuits, including:

• A Philadelphia collusion and racketeering class-action suit by five former NHL players on behalf of 1,200 more who say Eagleson and former NHL president John Ziegler conspired to suppress their salaries and profited from them; the players hope to win $500 million to $800 million.

• A Boston $100,000 racketeering lawsuit by player Andre Savard over disability payments.

• An appeal of a civil agreement awarded to player Mike Gillis, who sued Eagleson in 1994 for insurance-related fees plus punitive damages; after a two-year court battle in Toronto, Gillis was awarded $570,000 but is still waiting to collect it pending Eagleson’s appeal.

Orr did not go public with the details of his personal penury. He was too embarrassed. But his divorce from Eagleson rumbled through the players’ association with the force of an oncoming avalanche. Increasingly, the players were starting to ask questions of Eagleson, whose many guises of player agent, head of the NHLPA, organizer of international hockey and buddy of NHL president John Ziegler, put him in a huge conflict-of-interest.

But every time the players rose up to ask questions, Eagleson beat them down, made them feel they were too stupid to understand the fine points of high finance. “He treated us like children,” said Brewer, the former Leaf. Brad Park, whose career with the New York Rangers and Bruins lasted 15 years, was a vice-president of the NHLPA in 1981. He remembers all too clearly how Eagleson would use his cunning combination of street-thuggery and glib legalese to demean players who challenged his authority. “In those days, most of the guys had a huge passion to play, but they hadn’t finished high school,” said Park. “When they’d get up to ask him a question he didn’t like, he’d tear them a new rear end. That shut a lot of people up.”

Two years ago, Park and four other retired players filed a class-action lawsuit against Eagleson, John Ziegler—NHL president from 1977 to 1992—and Bill Wirtz, Chicago Blackhawks owner and longtime NHL chairman. In it they allege collusion between Eagleson and the NHL management that some estimate cost the players between $500 and $800 million in salaries and lost benefits.

Park, who now works for a manufacturing company that designs graphite shafts for hockey sticks, was content with the money made over the course of his career—his salary was $275,000 (U.S.) when he retired in 1983. He well knows, even accounting for inflation, that it is small change compared with the $1 million that even an average NHL player makes today. But he is not complaining. What angered him was finding out, upon retirement, that his pension would be $13,000 (Cdn), compared with Eagleson’s pension, which was set at $50,000 (U.S.). In the 1972 CanadaRussia series, Park was one of the players who escorted Eagleson safely across the ice of the Luzhniki z Palace rink after he had been I apprehended by Russian guards § while charging an offending goal | judge. “It sickens my stomach to think of it now,” said Park. “Year after year, we played all those Canada Cup games for nothing because AÍ told us the money was all going to our pensions. It was a lie.” It was only one of a tangled web of lies Eagleson told when he was head of the NHLPA. But that finally began to unravel in 1989, when a group of players hired Philadelphia lawyer Ed Garvey to investigate irregularities in the NHLPA. When Eagleson heard that Garvey was working on the report, he phoned him at home. As Garvey tells it, Eagleson barked: “Back off, I’ve got you in my sights.” Garvey, the former executive director of the National Football League Players’ Association, laughed at Eagleson’s bully tactics, replying: “Well, I hope you shoot straight.”

Eagle apologizes for defrauding players who trusted him

Garvey’s confidential report was a damning 55-page indictment of Eagleson’s NHLPA stewardship. Among Garvey’s findings: during the 1980s, the NHLPA had gained “no benefits of any significance” for the players, who lagged badly behind those of other sports. He said that Eagleson’s conflicts of interest negatively affected every aspect of the players’ finances. Of the Eagle’s own financial situation, he wrote: “Eagleson may be the most overpaid executive in the labor movement in North America. Not even the president of the two-million member Teamsters union comes close to Alan in wages, benefits, pension and expense accounts.” Garvey’s conclusion: ‘What we found can only be described as a scandal.” Garvey’s report, which was put together with the help of Canadian player agents Rich Winter and Ron Salcer, was the document that helped topple Eagleson. Two years after it was written, Eagleson was deposed as union leader and replaced by Goodenow, a Detroit lawyer. And Garvey’s report was taken up by Russ Conway, the rumpled sports editor of the Lawrence, Mass., Eagle-Tribune, who launched a seven-year investigation into Eagleson that culminated in his book. Game Misconduct (page 27). The book, in turn, was used by the FBI in its three-year investigation, which resulted in 34 felony counts against Eagleson.

With so much evidence against the former hockey czar, why did he get off so lightly? Paul Kelly, the former U.S. prosecutor who built the American case against Eagleson, fumed last week when he considered the plea bargain. Kelly was hoping to try Eagleson in the United States. In December, 1995, the Boston district attorney filed a three-volume, 800page extradition request to the justice department in Ottawa. According to Kelly,

Canada and the United States routinely extradite criminals back and forth across the border every year: close to 70 alone last year. But the Canadian government never acted on the Eagleson extradition request. Canadian officials explain that cases involving fraud are far more complex and difficult to extradite than drug or even murder charges. But critics speculate that Eagleson’s deep political connections may have helped as well. “For two years, the extradition request remained in limbo,” said Kelly. “It never left the minister of justice to be publicly filed. We urged the Canadian side to act on it, but we heard nothing from them. Nothing. There was no more the United States could do in terms of getting Mr. Eagleson back to the U.S. short of coming into Canada and kidnapping him. Was it frustrating? Yes.”

In many ways, it seemed that right up until he was taken to jail, Eagleson was still acting as though he was above the law. In a move that astonished veteran courtroom observers, he was not handcuffed as he was led away from his Toronto court appearance. In Boston, when the FBI booked, fingerprinted and took his mug shot, one agent reported that he was tinkering with the fingerprinting equipment. “He just didn’t get it,” said the agent. “He doesn’t realize he’s a criminal.” In the Boston courtroom, when Carl Brewer got up and said: “Thank God for America, be cause this never would have happened in Canada,” Eagleson started laughing.

Eagleson ushered in Canada-Soviet hockey


“I am very proud to be a friend of Alan Eagleson. This man has been the best leader hockey ever had. He has done more for hockey players and their families than anyone else has ever done.”

Bob Clarke, general manager, Philadelphia Flyers and Canadian Olympic Hockey Team

“For many years, I have considered Alan Eagleson my friend. I know him to be a loyal, trustworthy person with strong family values.” Bob Gainey, general manager, Dallas Stars, and assistant general manager, Canadian Olympic Hockey Team

“I have not always endorsed his style (or my own) on occasion, but I have never doubted his sincerity. I am thankful for the many things he has done for me over the years.”

Paul Henderson, who scored the winninggoal in the 1972 Canada-U.S.S.R. Summit Series

“I trusted Al’s leadership and advice and continue to have confidence in him. My family and I have been friends of AI and his family for years, and I’ve known AI to be very loyal to his friends and supporters.” Darryl Sittler, former Toronto Maple Leafs star

“I have found a treasure in Alan Eagleson.

I will finish by saying what Pontius Pilate said about Christ: ‘I find no fault with this man.’ ”

Don Johnson, former president of the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association

“I have known Alan Eagleson for 20 years personally and professionally and I hold him in high regard. All my experience with him attests to his good character."

John Turner, former prime minister of Canada

“Alan is, as I recognized when I first encountered him a few years ago, a colorful figure; but beneath all that I have also come to realize that he is a generous, decent and honorable man.”

The Very Rev. Douglas Stoute, dean of Toronto’s St. James Anglican Cathedral

“I have known Alan Eagleson for 30 years and consider him a friend, adviser and confidant. His friends are a mile wide and a mile deep throughout Canada. Alan is a good friend, a good citizen and, most of all, a great individual.”

Paul Godfrey, president and CEO, Sun Media Corp.

At the Mimico Correctional Centre, Eagleson now lives in a single-storey dormitory, where he sleeps in a room that smells like stale cigarette smoke mixed with sweet institutional cleanser. In a chilling comedown for a man about to become a senior citizen in three months,

he now finds himself bunking with 27 other convicts—break-and-enter artists and petty drug dealers for the most part. He works cleaning offices. There is one telephone available to inmates, usually with a long lineup, and prisoners are entitled to only two visits a week. When he gets out later this year, Eagleson will face a series of civil lawsuits brought by former players. They may take enormous satisfaction from seeing the Eagle finally land in jail, but what they want most of all—and will have to fight mightily to get—is their money back.