In some sports he was third-string, second-rate and never great. In a few, notably lacrosse, swimming and baseball, he exceeded mediocrity. Today Eagleson raucously claims he is rough on the NHL bosses because as a lad he was once cut from a third-class juvenile team. Actually, in a strange, storybook way, it was his competence in softball that drew him into big-time hockey, much as an open saloon door sucks in passing drunks.
While still a college undergraduate Eagleson worked two summers as recreation director in MacTier, a railroad town 140 miles north of Toronto. For diversion he played on MacTier's softball team. In 1964 when he returned to MacTier as a member of the provincial legislature to speak at a sports banquet, he was greeted by Douglas Orr, an explosives plant employee who had played softball against him a decade earlier. Douglas Orr told his old rival that his 16-year-old son Bobby was a red-hot hockey defenseman on the Oshawa junior team. Would Eagleson be willing to look after young Bobby's interests when the pros came bearing gifts? Without thinking too much about it, Eagleson agreed.
At the banquet Eagleson was accompanied by a real live sports hero, Carl Brewer, a defenseman for the Toronto Maple Leafs. After eight years, during which he helped Toronto into seven Stanley Cup playoffs, Brewer had become disenchanted with the poor pay. He passed up the 1965-66 season in favor of completing work toward his college degree. In the summer of 1966 he informed the Maple Leafs that he was retiring permanently and applied to the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association for reinstatement as an amateur so he could play for the Canadian National Team.
In so doing Brewer snagged himself on one of the most objectionable of the various strangling rules that were mutually enforced by the NHL and the CAHA at that time. Absurd though it seems, under its agreement with the NHL eight years ago the CAHA could not accept a player back into its own amateur ranks without the consent of the pro club that had rights to him, and then only if all the other NHL clubs and all the affiliated clubs in three minor leagues did not want him. The Leafs refused to let Brewer go, so he turned to Eagleson.
A Pandora's box had been opened. In no time at all Eagleson was in the middle of a fight that lasted three months. It is remarkable that the battle for Brewer went more than a week, considering how many people of importance and emotion were aligned against President Clarence Campbell and the NHL's board of governors. The National Team had been set up in the '60s in the hope that it would restore Canada to the top in its own game. The upcoming season, 1966-67, was the 50th for the NHL, but 1967 was also the 100th anniversary of Canadian federation, and the red maple-leaf flag was waving everywhere. Prime Minister Lester Pearson told his people, "It is deplorable when a Canadian who wants to play for Canada's national team has to get permission from professional clubs in the United States."
Today Eagleson says, "To be against Brewer with the 100th anniversary of Canada coming up was to be against hockey, motherhood, God, country and flag. Brewer was zinging the press, and the press was zinging the NHL. Needless to say, I was feeding all the fuel to the fire I could get." Eagleson took the regulations of the NHL to counselors more expert than he on U.S. and Canadian antitrust acts. In their opinion the NHL contract signed by Brewer was so restraining that if challenged in court, the whole NHL shebang might come down like a house of cards.
When it comes to throwing up smoke screens in a delaying action, the seers and overseers of the NHL are verbose masters. For more than two months after the sides were clearly drawn, the skirmishing dragged on, even deeper into wordiness. At one point Brewer's owners, the Maple Leafs, confessed they had lost his application for voluntary retirement. This prompted a cynical columnist to observe, "Eagleson and Brewer should have written the application on a $10 bill. The Maple Leafs have never lost one of them yet." In November 1966, having exhausted its verbiage, and rather than go to court, the NHL amended its by-laws in such a way as to make Brewer's reinstatement as an amateur possible.
The Players' Association has won so much more since then that it is hard to believe the NHL, as recently as 1966, would have attempted such a primordial stance in the Brewer affair. Indeed, to understand the NHL at all as it was constituted a mere eight years ago is like trying to explain a dinosaur that survives beyond its time. In 1966 the league was a prosperous association of six old clubs: Montreal, Toronto, New York, Boston, Detroit and Chicago. There was no rival WHA or, so far as the NHL owners could see, any other cloud on the horizon. Expansion was inevitable, but only under the terms of the six old clubs, most of whose proprietors were seemingly as forward looking as a cageful of well-fed ferrets. For 20 years there had been antitrust rumblings over the player-owner relationship in other sports, but hockey went its antiquarian way, seriously challenged only once, in 1957, by a hastily formed players' association that died almost aborning.
From 1957 until 1967 every NHL hockey season went about like this: the six teams played until New York and Boston were solidly mired in fifth and sixth place. The remaining four teams then played on until either Montreal or Toronto won the Stanley Cup. The routine was the same, but because the quality of play was excellent, the worst seats in the house were usually filled.
Although they drew better than pro basketballers, who used several of the same arenas, the hockey players were paid less and were bound by contracts as one-sided as a Salvation Army sermon. When he signed his first contract, a hockey man virtually wrapped himself in a legal web for life. At the end of contract he had to renegotiate with the same team, or not play at all. As if such terms were not perversion enough, the contract was usually two-way, sometimes three-way: it specified, say, $10,000 annually for service in the NHL and another salary, say, $4,500, for play with an affiliated minor team. Whenever he was sent down to the minors, even for a week, a player's pay dropped to the lower scale. There was no waiver provision such as baseball adopted to keep a club from repeatedly sending a man down and bringing him back up.