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He came charging into hockey in 1966, riding along on the swift, powerful and lucrative skates of the 18-year-old Bobby Orr, and he hasn't left center ice since. Within a year he organized pro hockey's first union and thereafter won recognition as the great emancipator who elevated NHL players from indentured playthings of the rich to men of wealth themselves. In the years that followed he even helped preserve the NHL itself, largely by reshaping international hockey from an amateurs-only sport of narrow interest into a multimillion-dollar bonanza that has benefited not only the athletes, but also just about everyone else involved in hockey, from Montreal to Moscow.
Without argument, he has done wondrous things for the game, but hockey has paid a price. For while securing new freedoms for players and creating new windfalls for the sport, he has carefully seized, one after another, the various reins that control hockey. Today, the game—in Canada, the U.S., the world—is to a great extent controlled by a single man who is a union boss, a players' representative, a millionaire corporate attorney, a major Canadian political figure and an international power broker with many close friends and many bitter enemies—few of them declared—north and south of the U.S.-Canadian border and on both sides of the Iron Curtain. He is, by anyone's reckoning, the most powerful man in hockey. Indeed his power is so immense that it makes his position unique in all of sports.
His name is R. Alan Eagleson. Or, simply, Eagle.
From an unshakable power base rooted in 17 years of near-dictatorial rule as executive director of the NHL Players' Association, and fueled by what one associate calls "an ego the size of Guatemala," Eagleson, 51, has spread his personal and corporate influence from his Toronto offices into virtually every aspect of hockey in which there's a dollar to be made. Because he holds the ultimate bargaining chip—100% of the world's best professional hockey players—scarcely anything of import can happen in the sport without the approval, if not the direct participation, of Eagleson.
However, there's evidence that Eagleson has at times abused his multiple powers as head of the NHLPA, chief negotiator for Hockey Canada (the nonprofit corporation that administers Canada's participation in major international events) and personal representative of many of the NHL's stars specifically for his personal gain and the gain of his friends.
Eagleson, who was interviewed by SI in June 1983 but declined requests for subsequent interviews, insists that he has always acted properly in the performance of his duties.
Almost every deal and dollar transaction between any two or more of the many groups that make up hockey—individual players, the NHLPA, individual NHL clubs, the league as a whole, the bodies controlling the sport in the Soviet Union, Sweden and other countries, the sponsors and advertisers worldwide—must pass, one way or another, through Eagleson.
His shadow eclipses those of both John A. Ziegler Jr., 50, president of the NHL, and Dr. Günther Sabetzki, 69, of West Germany, president of the International Ice Hockey Federation, not to mention the NHL's club owners. Eagleson rules hockey from atop a sort of international pyramid, because he's likely to be negotiating today against the side he'll be representing at a different bargaining table tomorrow. Ultimately, Eagleson's or his clients' interests are represented on virtually every side of every deal in hockey.
To wit: One of Eagleson's management companies, Sports Management Ltd. or Rae-Con Consultants Ltd., looks after the business interests of some 50 (down from a 1980 high of more than 150) of the NHL's highest-paid players, including Marcel Dionne, Darryl Sittler and Lanny McDonald, and negotiates their contracts with NHL clubs. As executive director of the NHLPA, Eagleson speaks for all 480 of the league's players on all manner of issues: their insurance coverage, pension plan, licensing contracts, individual grievances against clubs and, most important, collective bargaining agreement with the NHL. When a new NHLPA-NHL contract is worked out—with never more than a lovers' quarrel cropping up, quite unlike recent negotiations in pro football, baseball and basketball—Eagleson immediately becomes an agent for the partnership of players and owners in international hockey and joins forces with Hockey Canada to arrange such competitions as the six-nation Canada Cup tournament, which grossed $6 million in 1981 and will be staged again this September.
"I'd say that half the time Alan doesn't know how many deals he's got going or where the lines cross," says Lou Lefaive, a former Hockey Canada board member. "He calls people's bluff. He can throw five balls into the air and somehow manage to catch them all when they come down." Says Rick Curran, a former Eagleson employee, "Alan thinks God put him on earth to run hockey."