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Certainly Eagleson has a unique style—a combination of supreme self-confidence and irresistible persuasiveness—that has enabled him to reach this position of extraordinary power. Born in 1933 in Saint Catharines, Ont. into the family of an immigrant millworker from Northern Ireland, Eagleson was known to his teachers and schoolmates as an overachiever and something of a schemer. He was the kind of hustling youth who would win a $50 prize for selling the most raffle tickets to raise money to build a local swimming pool—and another $50 for holding the winning ticket. One story has young Alan announcing to his parents one Sunday after returning from church, "When I grow up I'm going to be a minister. Only I won't make sermons. I'll just take the collection and leave." That tale aside, Eagleson's great ambition was to become a lawyer, and upon doing so he entered politics. He worked his way upward in Ontario's right-leaning Progressive Conservative Party and, at 30, was elected to the Ontario Provincial Parliament. With his charm, rugged good looks and self-confidence, he was considered a natural politician. Years later, after hockey had made his name a household word across Canada, Eagleson was mentioned as a possibility for prime minister, the conservatives' perfect answer to the liberal Pierre Elliott Trudeau.
Eagleson, though, didn't opt for Ottawa, but instead cornered the whole world of hockey. In Canada, hockey may be the only issue that cuts across all political lines. If you aren't for Eagleson, you aren't for hockey, which means you certainly can't be for Canada.
So Eagleson directed his political wiles toward controlling the sport, first and always by making most NHL players believe that they couldn't get along without him, maybe even that they wouldn't have jobs without him. At NHLPA meetings he would intimidate players who asked questions into silence by snapping curt answers to their queries, embarrassing them in front of their fellows for their ignorance and undermining their dignity. Phil Esposito, a former NHLPA president, says, "He embarrassed me. If I asked a question he'd say, 'For Chrissakes, don't be so stupid!' in front of everybody. Al's smart. He knows if he does that to me or to a Bobby Clarke, the other guys are going to say, 'Holy s——! I'm not opening my mouth.' " "Alan's automatically the most dominating figure in any room," says Mike Milbury, a defenseman for Boston and one of Eagle-son's most persistent and vocal critics. "His best weapon is to talk right through you." If that's so, his second-best weapon would be the language he chooses: He can be charming or disarming, speak in incomprehensible legalese or the crudest gutter smut—in your choice, English or French.
"People don't want to get into a confrontation with Eagle," says Morley Kells, a member of the Ontario Provincial Parliament and a former Eagleson associate. "They don't want to roll around on the ground and get their clothes dirty." Says Derek Holmes, an erstwhile executive director of Hockey Canada, "Al is like someone who'll give you cyanide but coat it with peppermint. He can be charming and brilliant, yet he can be boorish, vulgar...stick on any adjective you can think of." Adds Lefaive: "Alan is free of the inhibitions that keep most of us from saying f——at a banquet. He could be dining with the Queen and he'd say f——.And he wouldn't think there'd be anything wrong with saying it."
Eagleson operates with the comfortable knowledge that most NHL players are blind to the ways of big business. "We're not dealing with a series of Einsteins," he has said. And not many players would disagree. "We play hockey, a kid's game," says Bob Dailey, a former defenseman for Vancouver and Philadelphia. "We drink beer and have a good time during the off-season, then start back up. We don't know about big business, or any kind of business." Says Milbury, who is Boston-born and a graduate of Colgate: "Hockey players tend to be Canadian, number one. Most come from very conservative, working-class homes, don't go to college and leave home to play hockey when they're 15 or 16. Most of them are very happy with what they make, and have neither the interest nor the intention of rocking the boat. And Al does all he can to keep it that way."
Indeed, unlike their football, baseball and basketball counterparts, hockey players have never seriously threatened to strike. They've never held out for full free agency. And though their average salary has risen from $60,000 to $130,000 in the last decade, the increase over that period is markedly less than those in baseball (up more than $250,000) and basketball (up $160,000). Even the NFL average has risen nearly $100,000.
A "joke" on the players is what Toronto Maple Leafs president and managing director Harold Ballard called the 1982 collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and the NHLPA. Gus Badali, a Toronto-based agent whose clients include Wayne Gretzky and some 30 other NHL players, says "a couple" of NHL general managers have told him point-blank that the current collective bargaining agreement is the best ever—for management. "They certainly don't hide their glee," says Badali. Certainly Ballard doesn't. "How do the owners feel about Eagleson?" he says. "We like him. Wouldn't you rather have him negotiating against you than [former Major League Baseball Players Association executive director] Marvin Miller? Sure, it's a great contract—for us." Yet Chicago Black Hawks president William Wirtz says he believes the contract was a good one for the players, as well as the owners. Wirtz adds, "I think Alan is a brilliant negotiator."
Eagleson is peevish when asked to explain why NHLPA contracts seem to fall short of those in other sports, particularly in the area of free agency, which, in hockey, essentially does not exist. He insists that hockey's collective bargaining agreements measure up. He also points to the precarious financial conditions of several NHL teams and the lack of a major U.S. television contract to justify what might appear as soft-pedaling at the bargaining table. "My job is to preserve jobs for as many players as I can at as high a level of salary as I can," says Eagleson.
But to one general manager, Eagleson's reluctance to play hardball is strictly a matter of quid pro quo. "Al delivers us the players," he says, "and we give him international hockey. It's that simple." And international hockey is the cash cow of the sport.
It's Eagleson, of course, who's responsible for that. In the early '70s he was determined to see a Canadian team beat the stuffing out of the Soviets, who had been audaciously proclaiming world superiority in Canada's own sport. The reason for the U.S.S.R.'s apparent edge, Eagleson knew, was that Canadian pros like Orr, Bobby Hull, Phil Esposito et al. were ineligible for supposedly amateur world championship and Olympic competition. Eagleson is a fiercely conservative Communist-hating Canadian nationalist, but his involvement in the first Canada-U.S.S.R. "Supersedes" in 1972 may not have been entirely based on national pride. "It was truly patriotism that got Eagleson in," says Doug Fisher, a Hockey Canada board member at the time. "That plus cupidity, position, influence. Alan wanted to run the show like a political machine. It was only when the numbers started coming in that he began to see the dollar signs."