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HOCKEY’S INVISIBLE MAN « Douglas Fisher

Fisher

 

HOCKEY’S INVISIBLE MAN

ALAN EAGLESON HELPED CHANGE THE GAME FOREVER, NOW HE’S A PARIAH OF THE SPORT
SOURCE: BY DOUGLAS FISHER

It may be understandable, but it is nonetheless odd: salvoes of stories and pictures have been recalling a great national happening without notice or even mention of the key actor in the long drama, and arguably the crucial element from beginning to the grand denouement.

After all, Alan Eagleson chose and directed most of the initial Team Canada operations. He did it exuberantly, loudly, and flauntingly, not hiding any conflicts of interest (e.g., as both agent for some players but top executive of all of them).

Most Canadians, and particularly serious hockey fans, have had their memories twigged pleasantly by the stories and replays of the three momentous weeks that closed with a great victory over the Soviet Union 25 years ago this week.

The resurrected moments and personalities have been focused on the players – on Paul Henderson’s winning goal, on Phil Esposito’s gutsiness and his blunt demand for public understanding and on Soviet goalie Vladislav Tretiak’s sudden stardom. Fine! Recall the Mahovlich brothers, the “sleepers” like Bill White, Gary Bergman, and J.P. Parise, the ruthlessness of Bobby Clarke, the jack-rabbit streaks by Yvon Cournoyer.

But what about the man so instrumental in both series and victory?

Alan Eagleson was the core personality and catalyst, not just of the Canadian team in its lurch from disaster to victory, but in attaining and staging the whole series. He was the key wheeler-dealer, before and during the series, and for a long time afterwards in the course of international hockey.

In instance after instance his imprint of aggressive refusal to accept Soviet superiority was on Team Canada.

Of course, his belligerent behavior as the mastermind and spokesman for the Canadian endeavor created contention and a lot of appalled consternation at home.

Should it be forgotten in the repeated apotheosis of Paul Henderson’s winner that there was a raging public debate in Canada for weeks over “the finger” which Eagleson gave the Russian crowd as Canadian players rescued him from rinkside gendarmes and escorted him across the ice to their bench in that climactic third period?

EVERYBODY’S GAME
If ever there was a sporting event whose creation required a lot of bargaining, official diplomacy and the fusion of many personalities and contradictions, it was the 1972 Canada-USSR series. It broke open hockey internationally, making what Canadians thought of as “our game,” everybody’s game – in its organization and in the way it was played and the players recruited and coached.

To attain the series took more men and the use of more institutions (e.g., Hockey Canada, External Affairs, the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association, the NHL board of governors) than just Eagleson and his mastery of the National Hockey League Players’ Association, which he had launched and then built into an effective union by the late 1960s. He was to provide the vital assurance needed by Hockey Canada to get and hold the series with Russia.

Hockey Canada had been created in 1969 under the auspices of the Trudeau government to establish our due place in international hockey – so our best could play other nations’ best (meaning the Soviets). To do this the best players had to be available, and Eagleson’s clout as leader of the NHLPA assured this, coupled with the acceptance of American owners of NHL teams that their counterparts in Toronto and Montreal, supported by Clarence Campbell, the league president, wanted this “national team.” They appreciated the problems the Canadian government could cause the league’s owners if they didn’t co-operate with Hockey Canada’s aims.

This latter point was one that Hockey Canada’s leaders didn’t like to emphasize, but once Eagleson threw himself into the endeavor to play our best and “beat hell” out of the Russians he used it quite adroitly, in particular with the most influential Americans in Chicago and Detroit. (I know this from chairing the Hockey Canada committee for the series.)

So Eagleson picked the coach (Harry Sinden) and approved his aides. He planned and arranged the management and care of the teams, the travel plans, the schedules, the referees and the deals to televise and broadcast the games. A deal he struck with Air Canada brought 3,000 Canadian fans to Moscow for the series.

His TV deal proved very lucrative, and he himself flogged most of the major commercial time. The series was much like the later Calgary Olympics – a stunning financial success. So much so it awoke the barons of pro hockey to the advantages of hockey as a world, not merely a North American, enterprise.

Perhaps it should have been obvious – certainly hockey leaders like Father David Bauer knew it – but it was the NHL players’ head who made the owners of pro hockey teams realize that Europe was a source of great playing talent and future revenues from series and exhibitions, and nationalism added an enormous excitement to games. (Witness what’s shortly to happen in Japan’s winter Olympics.)

RETURNED IN 1976
The 1972 series led by popular Canadian demand to the ’74 series – and our defeat in Moscow – in which Eagleson played no part. But he came back to the international forefront in 1976 with the Canada Cup series, which pitted teams from six nations against each other, including the United States.

A single example of what flowed from ’72 lives among those of us who watched the most exciting game of all one Christmas season when the Montreal Canadiens and the USSR fought to a draw.

For good or ill Alan Eagleson was more responsible than anyone else for there having been a Canada-USSR series in 1972 and also for so much that flowed from that series, particularly in more scope for both players and fans. In North American hockey there followed more thorough training for fitness and skills, more diversity in game strategies and tactics, plus a surge in skating speed and game pace.

Yes, a case can be made that much that has come to be in hockey today is retrograde, particularly for Canadians.

Our share of NHL jobs has markedly declined and the opportunities for successful franchises here are declining as pro hockey burgeons in the United States.

But all such consequences can hardly be laid at the door of Alan Eagleson.

Now he’s being shunned, a pariah of the sport, because of alleged misdeeds in his former role as head of the NHLPA and as director of several international series in the 1980s. He faces both court indictments and a weighing of his professional conduct as a lawyer.

As a reader, you may have a hunch that I hope he is cleared of wrong doing, in part because he is a friend, in part because his ambitious purposes led to better pay for players and better payoffs for fans.

And, of course, the famous victory we recall this anniversary.

The Toronto Sun
Copyright © 1993, SunMedia Corp.

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