In football and basketball the pro teams annually harvest the college crop. Baseball used to raid the high schools, but having been rapped on the knuckles a few times, now customarily waits until graduation. In the imperious heyday of hockey, there was no sensible restriction on recruiting.
No Canadian baby was ever snatched from a cradle, but NHL scouts literally competed with the Boy Scouts for able 12-year-olds. Under the NHL agreement in effect in 1966 each major and minor pro hockey club could finance two amateur junior clubs and their affiliated lesser teams. The players for such amateur clubs became the property of the sponsoring pros. Bobby Orr is a case in point. He first impressed NHL scouts as a 12-year-old in 1960 and two years later signed a card to play on a Junior A team sponsored by the Bruins.
In the same year that Brewer tried to get out of the pros, Orr, just turned 18, finished his fourth season of first-class amateur competition, having broken the Junior A scoring record for defensemen three years in a row. While Orr was cutting a swath through amateur hockey, his owners, the Boston Bruins, had been setting a couple of NHL records: eight straight years without making the playoffs and five straight in last place. Although Orr had two more years of Junior eligibility left, Boston wanted him, so desperately that it offered him almost one-sixth the pay highly touted rookies were getting in other sports. To put the matter in perspective: a year earlier Joe Namath of Alabama had signed a four-season contract with the Jets at $100,000 a year. That September, Cazzie Russell of Michigan got three years at about $65,000 each from the New York Knickerbockers. The Bruins, who outdrew the champion Celtics in the Boston Garden, offered Orr, the hottest thing since Hull, a two-year contract that averaged $10,250 a year including bonus.
When Eagleson, the novice bargainer, made a counterproposal that Orr get around $50,000 a year almost twice what any Bruin was paid—there was laughter. Dick Beddoes, a Toronto columnist with a dash of acid in his ink, observed, "If Alan Eagleson gets Bobby Orr a long-term contract at more than $30,000 per, he will live in history along with Luther, Voltaire and Pandora."
At the outset Leighton (Hap) Emms, the Bruins general manager, refused to negotiate with Eagleson. In the NHL it was customary to deal with the peons direct. The idea of an 18-year-old boy being represented by a lawyer in his negotiations with a multimillion-dollar business was unthinkable.
By midsummer it became clear that the way to Orr was through Eagleson. Otherwise Orr would stay amateur, joining the Canadian National Team in Winnipeg, where he could concurrently attend the University of Manitoba. After more than a month of avoiding Eagleson and several weeks of dickering, Emms finally offered Orr a two-year contract that amounted to about $40,000 annually. Eagleson remembers the signing: "I said, 'Well, we've settled the damn thing. Let's shake hands, take pictures and open the champagne,' and Hap Emms says, 'Champagne?' There was no champagne, no press conference, nothing. Hap opened a can of soda pop and poured some into five glasses so we could each have a drink. Here was Bobby Orr, a little Moses coming to lead the Bruins to the promised land, and they were too tight to spend 50� on him."
After helping Brewer get out of the pros and helping Orr get in at a record price, Eagleson's involvement in the game might have ended, except that such battles do make headlines. Shortly after Brewer regained his amateur standing in December 1966, Eagleson got a call from one of Brewer's former amateur teammates, Defenseman Bill White, then of the Springfield (Mass.) Indians of the American Hockey League. The Indians were having a lot of very strange problems with their owner, Eddie Shore, the once great Bruin defenseman, and they needed a lawyer like Eagleson who had proved willing to storm the gates.
What the Indians had been taking from Shore exceeded the parameters of ordinary injustice. As a taskmaster Shore was way out in left field. He not only served as de facto coach of the Indians (for which he was qualified), but as self-styled physician, dancing master, chiropractor and X-ray technician. Although he had no credentials in such specialties, he practiced them all on his players. He had his men drink water with a jot of iodine in it to kill germs. He allegedly disliked crew cuts because short hair exposed the brain cells to too much air. He maintained he could diagnose the players' ills by staring inside them.
In an affidavit written out at Eagleson's request, Goalie Jacques Caron reported: "Cracking your back is standard procedure for Mr. Shore whether you are suffering from mononucleosis or a cold. If you do not agree to having him crack your back, you are subject to either sitting on the bench or being fined. When I first arrived in Springfield, I took a size 13 skate. This was interfering with my leg exercises and tap dancing according to Mr. Shore because they were too large. I was given a pair of skates size 11, and thus lost all my toenails when stopping a shot with my skates. After four years he has relented, and I am now wearing a size 11�, which is still one size too small." In his affidavit another goalie, George Wood, maintained, "Had knees tied together with laces. Have had to practice with a bar around the net. This bar forces me to stay outside of the crease." Obviously, the whole affair was too extreme to go on long. Within six weeks Shore had resigned from any active part in the operation "for reasons of health."
The Shore ruckus naturally made news. In late December, before it was fully settled, Eagleson was invited to a meeting of the Bruins, who wanted him to organize a players' association. He has been in the middle of hockey ever since, taking bows and an occasional hard right to the head, and loving it all.