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Columnist-Sport Participant « Douglas Fisher

Fisher

 

Columnist-Sport Participant
Douglas Fisher always had an interest in sports and particularly hockey.

    When I was a kid in Fort William I used to do the junior hockey report. I was encouraged by my high school teacher to get interested in sports history and I spent an awful lot of time working on that from the time I was 14 or 15. If I got the chance to go to Minneapolis I’d go to the University of Minnesota library where they had marvelous files. When I was at Queens I spent all my time on sports history.[285]

In the House of Commons Fisher had often addressed sports issues but it was in the late 1960s that Fisher began a more formal involvement with sports, particularly hockey, and with the cabinet ministers who controlled the purse strings for sports in Canada.

There are different versions of how Fisher came to write the final “Report of the Task Force on Sports for Canadians”.[286] Fisher recalls he “bumped” into the minister of health and welfare, John Munro, and asked him how the task force was coming along.

    He said, “I’m desperate, I don’t know what to do.” I said, “ Well I’ve got myself and somebody else who’ll volunteer if you’ll let us write it.” Within 24 hours we had a little contract, no pay, nothing like that, it just gave us the task of ostensibly putting together what the commission had come up with.[287]

Chris Lang worked for Munro at the time and was “running the task force” that had completed its work but “we didn’t have a story.”

    I sat down with Munro and he said. “There is only one story teller and it’s Doug.” So he introduced me to Doug and Doug got Syd (Wise). I would give them a set of recommendations and tell them how we arrived at it and they wrote it.[288]

There is a third version. Alan Eagleson worked with Fisher on hockey issues for many years. “Doug was involved with that committee on instructions from Trudeau. From that day until his retirement Doug was trusted by each succeeding Prime Minister and government.”[289]

Whatever happened, Fisher says the task force was a success.

    It was embarrassing almost the way the bigger provinces picked it up and ran with it in terms of establishing what was mammoth…to take amateur sport off the kitchen table and put it on a business plate…Let’s go for what Canadians have their heart in, hockey, football, and so on. This was a fundamental thing. It became a touchstone. Pretty soon everybody in sports organizations referred to it, although bugger all read it, but it got well touted. And Trudeau was interested the reaction was so good to this. So he raised his hand up and said go.[290]

Chris Lang explained two outcomes of the task force of significance for Fisher. “Out of that came the formation of Hockey Canada so Munro put him on the board, out of that came the formation of the Coaching Association of Canada. Doug got put on the board.” Any expenses Fisher incurred were paid for but he did not get paid for his services. In the Hockey Canada annual report his occupation is listed as “journalist.”[292]

For the purposes of this paper I will focus on Fisher’s role as a participant in Hockey Canada.[293] During his tenure at Hockey Canada Fisher worked with a series of cabinet ministers and, on occasion, with Prime Minister Trudeau to advance Canada’s interests in hockey, especially international hockey. In the 1970s developments in international hockey interested Canadians and the last game of 1972 Canada – Russia series is remembered by a generation of Canadians as one of those “I can tell you where I was” moments when Paul Henderson scored the winning goal. Fisher was a member of the committee that organized the series.[294] Lang says Fisher “was the author” of the series. Fisher now says:

    I’ve never advertised this but we wouldn’t have had that series with the Russians for another three or four years if I hadn’t been there. The key was snuffing out Bunny Ahearne. Get him out of the way. And that is the chore I did. And Trudeau was a big help because, he didn’t know that I had arranged it, but he did a nice little five-minute thing on videotape that I took over to an international hockey meeting in Switzerland…it went over very, very big with all these people from Czechoslovakia and the Russians were suitably impressed. The Prime Minister![295]

Fisher also prepared a memorandum for Trudeau before a visit by the Prime Minister to the Soviet Union. The undated four-page draft summed up the state of international hockey and outlined the points Trudeau should make. Here are two points Fisher made in the draft.

    That Canada will not return to the previous pattern of eligibility since it penalized her and no other country.
    That a huge country like Russia with its immense hockey-playing population should wish to meet the best Canadians available and that she could this informally if she is concerned about amateur standing.[296]

Eagleson acknowledged the importance of Fisher’s role on the committee.

    Doug participated in many direct negotiations with the Soviets and IIHF in the 60s and 70s. He was at my side on several occasions and gave me unstinting support. He would argue his position in a strong but gentlemanly way, and whenever I was out of place he would calm me down.[297]

Fisher recalls the board “kept telling me ‘you are the only one who can handle Alan Eagleson, Clarence Campbell and Sam Pollock.’”[298] Eagleson trusted Fisher completely calling him his “direct contact with the federal government”[299] Chris Lang used a hockey analogy to describe Fisher’s relationship with the mercurial Eagleson.

    He was the only guy in Hockey Canada who could check Eagleson. Eagleson could not lay a glove on Doug. Doug would not take any crap. Eagleson would take after people and he’d keep looking over his shoulder at Doug. He was afraid of Doug.[300]

During the 1960s and 1970s Fisher advised a series of Liberal ministers on sports issues. In 1977 he promoted the choice of Iona Campagnolo as Canada’s first Minister of Sport. After her appointment Fisher says, “She said ‘you got me in this office so you’re going to write some speeches for me.’ So I wrote speeches for her.”[301] Iona Campagnolo acknowledges Fisher’s role calling him a “mentor.” She says, “Fisher was always part of the advisory group that set the policy that delivered whatever direction we took.” Campagnolo cited Fisher’s advice before meetings with the NHL and his help in “drawing up guidelines” for the inquiry in hockey violence headed by Judge Willard Estey as examples of his on-going influence.[302]

Fisher’s work for Hockey Canada was demanding. It involved travel, international negotiations and, perhaps trickiest, negotiations amongst the various factions of hockey in Canada. It put Fisher at the centre of decision making on an issue politicians, and all Canadians, wanted to know about, the state of Canadian hockey. Eagleson says, “Doug never took personal advantage of his position. He never kept a scoop or major story to himself. He never broke a story which he could have done hundreds of times.”[303] Campagnolo says, “It never seemed to me that he was in a conflict of interest. He seemed capable of keeping the silos separate in his mind.”[304] Chris Lang, who was with Fisher throughout the Hockey Canada years says, “He never wrote on the policy…He never abused his position at all.”[305]

However Fisher did write about Hockey Canada from the very beginning. Even before the government released the task force report on May 12, 1969 John Munro had created Hockey Canada. Fisher was one of his nominees on the board and the June issue of Commentator found Fisher’s piece “Hockey Canada.” The article began by stating what could not be said. The participant set his ground rules for the observer.

    At the second meeting of the Board of Hockey Canada, Inc., a resolution was carried which put the responsibility for statements and news releases upon the president, Max Bell, and the managing director, Leighton “Hap” Emms. The reasons behind the concern to restrict and control information about this new and strange corporation will become clearer to the reader as time goes on. It isn’t easy to describe and explain the corporation without breaching the very first resolution I voted for as a director.[306]

The article was a survey of the state of Canadian hockey and how that impacted on international hockey. Losing had become a habit for Canada in international competition. Fisher wrote he’d attended the recent world tournament in Stockholm and “I can testify that the Russians (and the Czechs and Swedes) toyed with our team.” After outlining the issues facing Hockey Canada he said, “I expect that sporting buffs, in particular, will be surprised at some of the pending developments relating to the national team which I am not now free to divulge.” Still Fisher went on to list a number of “tentative projects” at Hockey Canada to make hockey “more widely played and enjoyed.”

After the 1972 Canada – Russia series Fisher wrote a long essay in the magazine International Perspectives. This magazine was not widely read and was published by the Department for External Affairs. All of Fisher’s connections are listed; newspaper columnist, television commentator, author of the task force report, chair of Hockey Canada’s executive committee and a former MP. At the end of advisory there was the caveat, “the views expressed in this article are those of the author.” But what about the details Fisher reported?

Fisher took the reader inside the series and his main character was Alan Eagleson. Fisher had the best access to Eagleson of anyone. Eagleson himself recalls, “We sat together for the four games in Moscow and we shared all the ups and down of our team side by side.”[308] Fisher knew the pressure Eagleson was under during the series.

    “He called me several times at two and three in the morning just to talk,” says Fisher, “because everybody was dumping on him about how lousy the hockey club was doing…he told me himself he was heading for the meadows. And he was shaking all over all the time.”[309]

So when Fisher assessed Eagleson’s contribution in the article the participant’s inside position gave him a unique perspective. Fisher said the team called Eagleson “Big Bird”. He wrote, “Metaphorically, he was at the throttle of the series juggernaut; we were passengers, waiting to straighten up the accounts after it was all over.”[310]

But did Fisher, the observer, break confidences? Did he, even writing for an obscure magazine days after the series ended, reveal what happened in the boardroom of Hockey Canada? In the article Fisher noted that, “As a director of Hockey Canada, Mr. Eagleson disagreed with the tentative arrangements it had made to sell the TV rights.” He explained how Eagleson struck out on his own and forced a different television deal on the board. In the planning stages of the series a huge controversy was the eligibility of Bobby Hull to play for the team. Hull had just signed with the new World Hockey League (WHA) and so was not allowed to play in the series because only NHL players were eligible. Lang notes, “For example the Bobby Hull issue and the WHA…he never wrote about it. He had very strong views but he never wrote about it.”[311] Fisher did write about Hull. While it is true that Fisher did not clearly state his position on the Hull controversy, he revealed how the board debated the issue.

    I knew there would be a hue and cry over the Hull matter if we honoured our understanding with the NHL…Hockey Canada decided after a long internal debate, political interventions from the Prime Minister and strong disagreement from a minority of its directors to go only with NHL players.[312]

This article walked a very fine line. Ostensibly, it expressed the views of the author, but the participant revealed much of the debate in Hockey Canada leading up to the series and even what happened rink side in Moscow. “I won’t forget Mrs. Eagleson, distraught at her husband’s seizure by the police, screaming at the Russians around us: ‘We’ll never come back to this bloody dictatorship.’”[313]

A review of Fisher’s Toronto Sun columns from Moscow between September 22 and 29, 1972 showed that there was no acknowledgment of Fisher’s role with Hockey Canada. He filed four columns but neither the Sun editors or Fisher disclosed the stake he had in the series. It would be Fisher, in his capacity as chair of the executive committee of Hockey Canada, the “author” of the series, who wrote the players on Team Canada after it was all over thanking them for their services and explaining how much they would be paid.[314]

Much that was in these columns was what any columnist might zero in on. Fisher touched on how England, after losing its soccer supremacy, rebuilt its program, about the Canadians who had traveled to Moscow to watch the series and the behavior of the Canadian players on and off the ice. But in each column the participant-observer revealed something that the sports reporter in the press box did not have access to. On September 25 he wrote, “I sat near the ebullient Alan Eagleson, the Team Canada impresario. He was bouncing, shouting, kidding, needling. Very witty, too, including an Akim Tamaroff accent.”[315] As noted earlier Eagleson said he sat next to Fisher and I would argue that Fisher was, by his own admission, also an impresario for the series. The day before the final game Fisher used a political analogy to predict how Canadian hockey might change because of the series.

    It seems to me that two definite though rather formless readjustments will take place in Canada following the USSR-NHL series. The first will be somewhat like what takes place in party politics after one party, particularly one in power, has suffered a stunning electoral reverse. This is attributed to inferior organization and campaigning methods.[316]

Because of his position with Hockey Canada Fisher knew he would have an important voice in those “formless readjustments” but the reader might not have known Fisher’s role in the series and with Hockey Canada. The day after the series Fisher told readers how, just before the game, there was a “last hour crisis over referees, at the ministerial level the Russians put it to our government people that our team’s brutality was so gross that it was useless to talk about another series.”[317] Fisher’s Moscow columns did not skate as close to the line as the essay in International Perspectives where, for example, his take on Eagleson’s role was much more detailed. But each of the columns did give the careful reader an insight that only the Fisher, the participant, could impart.

Was Fisher in a conflict of interest as he shaped Canada’s hockey policy and functioned as a journalist? Brian Mulroney says:

    Anybody who has had the opportunity to write about government, who’s had the opportunity of serving in government, might acquire a bit of a partisan tilt but so what? If he acquires the experience and parliamentary experience of senior bureaucratic ranks or what have you. Knows how government actually functions instead of constantly guessing puts him at a considerable advantage and I always thought Doug had that advantage over many of his contemporaries because of his personal experience.[318]

Another politician, Liberal Herb Gray, says, “To do it the way Fisher did was a mark of respect that people had for him. That people thought he could write and give advice and not be considered too much on one side or the other.”[319]

Peter Worthington was editor of the Toronto Sun during the Canada-Russia series. Fisher had moved to the Sun after the closure of the Telegram in 1971. Did Worthington see a conflict in Fisher’s participation in policy issues?

    Not at all. I think, in fact, it added to what he did for us…Not even a hint of any problem that way. Never raised anything or issue about it. We relied on his judgment, He had good judgment…So I think, on the contrary, we approved and welcomed any other activities he got involved in. He was never conflicted.[320]

Tom Kent, was himself an editor and, at the same time, an advisor to the Liberal opposition in the late 1950s. Kent thinks there was a conflict for Fisher being both journalist and advisor to ministers.

    I can illustrate that from my own experience. I left journalism essentially because I had become closely involved with a friend of mine, that is to say Mike Pearson, in politics. When I was editor of the Winnipeg Free Press I’d of course been pretty highly critical of the latter days of the St. Laurent government. When that government had been defeated the more progressive wing of the Liberal party wanted me to be involved in the re-building and I found it really impossible to resist that because of Pearson’s personality and it was that that made me feel that I should ease my way out of journalism.[321]

Kent had a privileged, and undisclosed, access to the Liberal leader and, finally, left an important editorial position. Fisher’s role at Hockey Canada was public knowledge. However he too used his privileged access to the world of international hockey in his journalism and no effort was made to disclose his participation to his readers on a regular basis.

Fisher was a regular panelist on the weekly CTV program “Question Period.” The conflict of interest issue over sport policy was raised on one program and Fisher says it cost him his seat on the panel. Fisher recalled the program with Iona Campagnolo, Minister of Sport, on the November 1, 1977 edition. Fisher was not a panelist on that program.

    Bruce [Phillips] was interviewing her and he said something about why would you have Fisher working for you when he’s got a salary. She didn’t answer that at all. She answered what I could bring to it. That I knew more about sports programming and politicians and parties. Bruce went on to say that I was raking in the money.[322]

Fisher went on to explain that after the taping a technician called him at home to tell him of the exchange. Fisher complained to Phillips, the CTV Ottawa bureau chief and host of the program, telling him to, “Kill the show. If it runs you’ll regret it.” Then Fisher complained to Murray Chercover, the head of CTV News.

    Chercover phoned me on Saturday. Chercover, as the vice-president, came in riding his big horse. “What’s with this thing?” I said, “Well, get rid of it.” Well, he said, “It ruins the show.” And I said, “I don’t care.” He tried being sweet and then he tried tough stuff. “In other words you’re going to get me blackmailed (from the show).”[323]

Fisher’s determination to go straight to the head of CTV News on a Saturday showed that he was very aware of the issue of his integrity as he balanced his participant-observer role. Fisher says his role as a regular on the program ended after this run-in with Chercover.[324]

Phillips doesn’t recall the specifics of this incident more than 30 years ago.

    I did raise a question with him once, or I might have said something for publication once in connection I think with Hockey Canada, the details which now elude me. And Doug did take umbrage with that. He said what the hell are you talking about. I said well Doug if you are offended I said I have a little trouble here but that was the only occasion. In my view people have a right to know about other activities if they have a bearing on what is expressed, absolutely.[325]

Phillips says that at no time during his tenure at “Question Period” did Chercover ever discuss any editorial or panel issues with him about the program. Phillips says Fisher’s role as a regular panelist ended because he wanted to diversify the panel and move away from having the same three panelists every week.

Phillips is clear that he was never concerned about Fisher’s ethics.

    I don’t disagree with you about the principle involved here but I am not sure that Doug has ever done anything other than express his own view independently reached and nobody owned Doug Fisher. Absolutely not.[326]

Phillips then turned to the realities of journalism, something he knows well from years of providing commentaries for CTV. “I don’t think a guy could sit down, write a column, and then have a proviso at the bottom saying I’m a friend of Iona Campagnolo, I’m a friend of Pearson, you know, we’d all be out of business.”[327]

285.Fisher interview, October 17, 2008.
286.“Report on the Task Force on Sports for Canadians,” tabled in the House of Commons May 12, 1969, Chairman Harold Rae.
287.Fisher interview, November 23, 2008.
288.Lang interview, May 19, 2009.
289.Eagleson, Alan, email, December 10, 2008.
290.Fisher interview, November 23, 2008.
291.Lang interview, May 19. 2009
292.Hockey Canada Fonds, Annual Report, MG 28 I 263, Volume 5, File 300-24 and File 300-25, Library and Archives Canada.
293.Note: Fisher was also on the Board of Governors at the Sports Hall of Fame. Don Johnson was on the board with Fisher and says for a time Fisher chaired the Board. Email November 11, 2008.
294.Note. The other members were Alan Eagleson and Bill Wirtz of the NHL. Eagleson email. December 10, 2008.
295.Fisher interview, March 25, 2009. Note. Bunny Ahearne was the president of the International Ice Hockey Federation.
296.Hockey Canada Fonds, Fisher draft for the Prime Minister’s Office, MG 28 I 263, Volume 4, File 300-I, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa.
297.Eagleson email, December 10, 2008.
298.Fisher interview, March 25, 2009, Alan Eagleson ran the NHLPA, Clarence Campbell was President of the NHL and Sam Pollock was General Manager of the Montreal Canadiens.
299.Eagleson email, December 10, 2008.
300.Lang interview, May 19 2009.
301.Fisher interview, November 23, 2008.
302.Campagnolo, Iona, interview with the author, March 16 2009. Note: The Estey Commission was struck after the World Championships in Vienna in 1977. The Canadian team rough play was headline news.
303.Eagleson email, December 10,2008
304.Campagnolo interview, March 16, 2009.
305.Land interview, May 19, 2009.
306.Fisher, Douglas, “Hockey Canada”, Commentator, Volume 13 # 6, June 1969, pg. 8.
307.Fisher, Douglas, “A hockey series that challenged Canadians’ view of themselves”, International Perspectives, Nov/Dec 1972, Ottawa. pg. 13.
308.Eagleson email, December 10, 2008.
309.Clayton, Deidre, Eagle: The Life and Times of R. Alan Eagleson, (Toronto, Lester & Orpen Denys, 1982) pg. 119.
310.Fisher, International Perspectives, pg. 18.
311.Lang interview, May 19, 2009.
312.Fisher, International Perspectives, pg. 18.
313.ibid. pg. 19.
314.Hockey Canada Fonds, Fisher letter to Team Canada players, MG 28 I 263, Volume 18, File 300-6-2, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa.
315.Toronto Sun, September 25, pg. 9.
316.Toronto Sun, September 27, pg. 9.
317.Toronto Sun, September 29, pg. 9.
318.Mulroney interview, March 27, 2009.
319.Gray interview, April 15, 2009.
320.Worthington interview, April 28, 2009.
321.Kent interview, April 1, 2009.
322.Fisher to Hoff, March 17, 2009.
323.Ibid.
324.ibid.
325.Phillips, Bruce, interview with the author, March 20, 2009.
326.ibid.
327.ibid.

©George Hoff


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