Because of the violent acts they have committed here on ice, on Judgment Day many professional hockey players may have trouble getting into heaven. If such comes to pass, it is inevitable that a Toronto lawyer named Robert Alan Eagleson will step forward out of the assembled multitudes and say a few hundred thousand words on the players' behalf. At the end of his harangue, if the Lord does not give all the hockey men no-cut contracts replete with fringe benefits, the chances are Eagleson and his clients will turn their backs on heaven and see what kind of deal they can make with the other league.
Both the Lord and the Devil are hereby warned. Beware of Eagleson when he comes bargaining. Superficially he looks like a pushover. Bespectacled and modishly dressed, Eagleson has the immaculate, almost antiseptic air of a bright, polite attorney who is adept at codiciling wills and managing family trusts. The illusion disappears whenever he opens his mouth, which is frequently. In the heat of a debate he spatters out hard facts like slugs from an old Colt .45, sometimes taking dead aim on the issue, sometimes blazing away from the hip at random targets and nicking himself in the process. During discussions in which legal gibberish abounds, he prevails with plain talk, punching home his strong points with the first cuss word that comes to mind.
For the past seven years Eagleson has been the executive director of the Players' Association of the National Hockey League. At present he also serves as legal and financial adviser—and when required, as father confessor, hand holder and foster parent—for about a third of the active players in the association. His involvement in the brawling business of hockey is a consequence of a lifelong zest for any competition in which brains count and alley scrapping is not totally prohibited. He has won and lost in politics and loved it all. When he got out of the University of Toronto law school 17 years ago he devoted himself largely to cases of common and indecent assault and at the same time played lacrosse, another tough Canadian game. In 1958 in the town of Oakville, Ontario, he took on an assault case while sporting a bulging black eye and two facial gashes from lacrosse. When he informed the court that he represented the accused, the judge opined, "You look more like the victim."
Such is the blind love of Canadians for the heroes of hockey that in any clash between players and club owners, the latter usually are the villains. That is how the people see it, so that is how it forever will be. And that is why, as the players' mouthpiece, Eagleson rides an endless wave of popularity. In the big cities and towns across the land he is known as the man who stormed hockey's feudal gates armed only with legal wit and a gift for repartee, and liberated the playing serfs from the greed and oppression of the sport's barons. In 1967, when the Players' Association was formed around Eagleson, the average NHL player's salary was $15,500. Today, thanks to the constant pressure of Eagleson and the competitive bidding of the 2-year-old World Hockey Association, the average is about $60,000. The best-paid clients now managed by Eagleson are virtually walking conglomerates, fiscally diverse and tax-sheltered, and so well propertied and funded in annuities that without a program it is hard to tell a playing serf from an owner baron. Last summer, with Eagleson drumming for him and the World Hockey Association also bidding, Wilf Paiement, a 50-goal amateur wingman of the St. Catharines (Ontario) Black Hawks, got a three-year contract for more than half a million dollars from the Kansas City Scouts, an NHL expansion team that had not yet put a blade on ice.
For all his days Eagleson, the liberator of the serfs, will be equally remembered as one of the heroes who in the blazing September of 1972 won back for Canada pre-eminence in the game it gave the world. That September, for the first time, a team of Canada's professional elite met a team of Russian nationals who for nearly a decade had dominated so-called amateur hockey in world competition. As almost any Canadian lad can relate, with one tie and three wins apiece the Canada- Russia series of 1972 went down to the last game, a raging squeaker won by Canada. The real victory was carved out on ice by two Espositos, two Mahovliches, a Park, a Clarke, a Cournoyer and a last-minute miracle maker named Henderson, but it was Eagleson who had first embraced the Russian bear three years earlier and mace all the sweet carnage possible.
During two years of negotiation and through the eight-game series itself, in the face of the vagaries and intransigence of Russian officials, Eagleson's role deteriorated from matchmaker to peacemaker to troubleshooter to troublemaker. When Wingman Jean-Paul Paris� raised a stick at an official and was thumbed out of the final game in Moscow, it was Eagleson who leaped over two rows of spectators and scurried to the far side of the rink to cool off Canadian coaches who were throwing furniture onto the ice. With seven minutes to go in the last period, when Wingman Yvan Cournoyer punched in the tying score and the goal light did not flash, it was Eagleson who again jumped over the spectators trying to get to the scorer's table. In his haste he collided with Russian police. They shoved him. He shoved them. They started hauling him toward an exit, and that brought all the Canadian players across the ice to the rescue. A few hardy stickmen went over the boards, wrested Eagleson from the Commie cops and escorted him back across the ice to the Canadian bench. As the Russian fans whistled contempt Eagleson raised a clenched fist. That epic brawl and retreat across the ice in Moscow was seen via satellite by 16 million Canadians, breaking the record TV rating set by Astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon. Today from Halifax to Vancouver, in Yellowknife and in Flin Flon, Canadian viewers vividly remember Eagleson's defiance.
Eagleson has spent so much time of late under the bright lights of hockey that most Canadians do not realize that he has always been a multipurpose man. Many who approach him in lobbies and air terminals to shake the famous hand that defied the Russians do not know that Eagleson is provincial boss of the Tories, the controlling political party in his native Ontario. In the past decade, as an unsuccessful federal candidate, as a backbench member of the Ontario legislature and as party leader, he has spoken out unmincingly on a variety of national problems ranging from nuclear fission to irresponsible ice cream vending, but voters outside his home riding would be hard put to recall how he ever stood on what.
Before becoming director of the NHL Players' Association, Eagleson served as president of the Toronto Rifles, a football team that played U.S. rules in the old Continental League. The Rifles won back-to-back division titles but were such a box-office flop that they folded in their third season. In the mid-'50s when blonde Greta Patterson, a shapely water ballerina, was making news by finishing high up with the best males in swimming marathons, she frequently appeared in press photos with her coach. The shots of Greta in a taut swimsuit are unforgettable, but only the most trivia-minded buff could now recall the name of her coach, Robert Alan Eagleson.
Although millions of U.S. and Canadian TV viewers saw the 1959 Orange Bowl game between Oklahoma and Syracuse, probably fewer than a hundred were aware that during the playing of The Star-Spangled Banner before the kickoff, the man in street clothes standing a few feet from the vocalist was Alan Eagleson, acting manager of the University of Toronto basketball team. At a major bowl game that attracted dignitaries galore, how did the acting manager of a college basketball team rate such a place of honor? It happened this way. The basketballers were on an eight-game tour of the U.S. Southland and laying over New Year's Day in Miami. Because he has a constant itch to be present at large sporting affairs, Eagleson went to the Orange Bowl hoping to scrounge a ticket. That proved impossible. Realizing that the gates must open at some time to admit the marching bands, he infiltrated one and began chatting with the trumpet players. As they marched through the gates, he stepped along also, still talking. When he was just inside, a voice cried out, "Hey, who in hell is that guy?" After a short chase through the stands, Eagleson lost his pursuers long enough to slip onto the field, where he introduced himself to Cliff Ogden, referee of the game, as a Canadian football colleague who wanted a close look at top-notch U.S. officiating. Considering that Eagleson had never refereed anything except box lacrosse, it was a rubbery bit of truth, but sufficient. While the anthem was being sung, he stood right out there on the field with the game officials. Referee Ogden then introduced him to Coach Ben Schwartzwalder, who welcomed him onto the Syracuse bench for the game. By the time Prentice Gautt and the other Oklahomans started taking Syracuse apart, Eagleson and Schwartzwalder were on a first-name basis.
At the age of five, before most tots are into primers, Eagleson was precociously reading newspapers. A lurid account of the trial of a woman charged with dismembering her own child attracted him to law before he was out of first grade. He started school a year early and covered two years in one, so that he graduated from high school two years ahead of the pace. Largely because he was a sucker for whatever sports were in season, he let his academics slide as an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, usually pulling a B grade or better without effort. In law school, where it is best to curtail the jock side of life and steep oneself in torts, he kept on frittering away hours at basketball, track, swimming, cross-country, hockey, volleyball, lacrosse and water polo, and still managed to finish 18th out of 280 applicants for admission to the bar.