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John Papanek
July 02, 1984
Alan Eagleson, union boss, friend of management, players' agent and international negotiator, has used his many conflicting roles to take control of the sport in the NHL and beyond
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July 02, 1984

The Man Who Rules Hockey

Alan Eagleson, union boss, friend of management, players' agent and international negotiator, has used his many conflicting roles to take control of the sport in the NHL and beyond

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Esposito: "Are you kidding me? Can I say this to anyone?"

Sather: "I'll deny every word of it."

Sather now says, "Phil's reading too much into [that conversation]. I was saying that in principle the deal was set; it was going to be made either way. Essentially, I was saying that whatever the players wanted, they could have gotten. They would have gotten some concessions [if they had held out for them]."

Eagleson, who presumably would have known about any secret merger deal, flatly denies that any such arrangement was made. So does Ziegler. Still, Esposito, who now runs a counseling service for present and former NHL players and broadcasts New York Ranger games, regrets not having stood up to Eagleson. "I was like his puppet," Esposito says. "I admit that."

Eagleson's authoritarian control over the NHLPA is what has prompted Milbury to lead a long crusade to replace Eagleson with a full-time executive director. When Eagleson was asked recently to cite one occasion on which the Players' Association acted against his advice, he drew a blank. But he insisted that the NHLPA is run as a proper democracy, adding, "I negotiate the best deal I can [for the players] within the restrictions of whatever restrictions there are. And I don't think there are any."

Each time Milbury has pressed the need for a full-time director, Eagleson has threatened to quit (once he actually did, for a few days), implying that the NHLPA could not function without him, a position a vast majority of the players buy. In 1979, Milbury commissioned Price Waterhouse to survey 460 NHL players on whether or not they wanted a full-time executive director and whether a selection committee was necessary to choose one. He and his Bruin teammates bore the $700 expense of conducting the poll. At the February 1980 NHLPA meeting, Milbury distributed the survey results: Of the 154 players who responded, 101 preferred a full-time director.

Even before the results were announced, Eagleson launched an attack on Milbury, of whom he has said, "There's a guy I could have scuppered on a few occasions." Later he declared that if it was the players' wish, he would step down in September 1982. A selection committee was formed, composed of four players, a Toronto judge, a Harvard Law School professor and Eagleson, to choose Eagle-son's successor. The committee met once in 1980 and never again. In February 1983, the player reps agreed to vote annually on whether or not to retain Eagleson, and that June they voted 25-4 to keep him.

On May 30, 1984, in a show of hands, the player reps extended Eagleson's contract by a vote of 20-1. "I'd like to see a secret-ballot vote taken of all the players in the league on whether Eagleson should be retained," Milbury said recently. "I feel it would be a very close vote." Says Curran, "Those of us who have worked for Al always said that the only way to ever get him out would be if you could get every person in hockey—minus Al—into the same room at the same time."

How is Eagleson able to maintain the support he needs to represent so many different interests simultaneously? Two of his three great advantages are that his sport is ice hockey and that his domain is Canada. The Canadian hockey establishment remains relatively well-protected from the aggressive press and meddling courts that have eroded the once-authoritarian powers of American baseball, pro football and basketball czars. And though the makeup of the NHL is slowly changing with the influx of more Americans and Canadian players developed at U.S. colleges rather than in the Canadian junior leagues, the typical hockey player is still a relatively unsophisticated rustic who has been a semi-professional since the age of 16.

Furthermore, hockey isn't just the only major sport that Canada can call its own; it's one of the two or three most important components of the country's national identity. The ice rink is the battlefield on which Canada can wage war with the Russians, hand-to-hand rather than missile-to-missile. "Hockey isn't our national sport, it's our national religion," says John Hudson, director of media properties for the Labatt Brewing Company, which will sponsor Team Canada in all international competition through the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. "If we don't believe that then we're heathens—or at least agnostics."

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