Eagleson had similar arrangements with other employees he lent to Hockey Canada, including Goldblatt and Curran, collecting on their services much the same way he collected for telephones, office machines and secretarial services he lent Hockey Canada. In 1976, for instance, he submitted to Hockey Canada an expense statement for $83,281 labeled "office and general" expenses.
Eagleson sees nothing improper in such practices. "The guy works for me, and if I can put him to work and make a million dollars, it's my million dollars, not his," he says. "If I pay my guy 30 [thousand] and rent him out for 50 [thousand], that makes me smart."
But does he employ the same logic when renting himself out? Because his position as NHLPA executive director is a part-time job, he bills the association on an hourly basis, so his fees vary from season to season. The NHLPA paid him $151,900 in 1981-82 and $153,800 in 1982-83. (By comparison, Larry Fleisher, general counsel of the NBA Players Association, the only other sports union leader who works on a part-time basis, submitted bills for about $50,000 for 1982-83.) Eagleson says that he spends 50% of his time working for the NHLPA. He estimates that his work for Hockey Canada takes up anywhere from 10% to 75% of his time, although he insists that some of the international work is inseparable from the NHLPA time. The rest of his time is spent attending to his personal and corporate clients and his business and real estate interests.
Still, if Eagleson spends 40% of his time negotiating for Hockey Canada, should not Hockey Canada be paying him for that time rather than the NHLPA and his other clients? "Although on the surface that might seem to make sense," Eagleson says, "the net advantages to the Players' Association have been substantial. And there's no question in my mind that if I don't do what I do the way I do it, then the Players' Association is going to be in considerable difficulty because of the lack of revenue that international hockey provides.... Never once has any player said to me, 'Al, you're f——ing around too much on international hockey and you're ignoring your duties.' "
Eagleson's influence over the players was plainly evident at a very crucial league meeting in Nassau in 1979. At that time, the NHL owners had indicated that they had finally had enough of the draining bidding war that had been going on for seven years with the WHA, and they gave every sign that they would accept a merger with the rival league, whether the NHL players agreed to it or not. The players, whose salaries had grown dramatically as a result of the bidding war, weren't at all inclined to agree. In Nassau they considered demanding open free agency as their price for a merger; otherwise they would take the NHL to court, just as the NBA Players Association had successfully done to ensure that the 1976 NBA-ABA merger would be consummated on terms agreeable to the players. Eagleson, concerned about the perilous financial state of several teams, cautioned the players that the NHL might not be able to withstand such a lawsuit and that jobs could be lost. Still, Eagleson says he went to those meetings with an open mind. "I wanted to find out what the players thought," he says. "I studiously sat back and avoided [taking part in] any discussion."
Phil Esposito, then the union president, remembers Eagleson taking him aside and making an "impassioned plea" to "search your soul" and "do the right thing for all the players." Esposito took a long solitary stroll on the beach. Later that day, Eagleson reported to Esposito that the owners had agreed to increase benefits, sweeten the pension fund and let the players continue to profit from international hockey. No NHLPA member's job would be lost. Esposito's decision was made. He recommended that the NHLPA accept the deal, and the merger was done.
Two years later, Esposito was recounting that difficult day to Glen Sather, president, general manager and coach of the Edmonton Oilers, one of the four WHA clubs absorbed by the NHL. According to Esposito, the conversation went as follows:
Sather: "Did you guys [the players] think you had anything to do with that merger?"
Esposito: "Yeah. Without the players, you guys wouldn't have had a merger."
Sather: "Jesus Christ, Phil! Don't be so naive. It was already done [before the '79 meeting]. It was already done."