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Alan Eagleson: Exposing the Eagle

He never played the game, but he was the most powerful man in hockey. Alan Eagleson played many roles off the ice: agent to the stars, union boss and international hockey impresario. But he was also accused of less savoury activities: cozying up to management, bullying players and misusing their money. Then came the investigations, criminal convictions and a dizzying fall from grace.

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In his 25 years as head of the National Hockey League Players' Association union, Alan Eagleson has served the players. Now, an explosive series of television and newspaper reports show that behind the scenes, Eagleson was more than willing to serve himself as well. There are numerous allegations of malfeasance: misused money, conflict of interest, and backroom deals that sacrificed the best interests of hockey. In this clip, the CBC's Bruce Dowbiggin presents the first segment of his series that would help bring down the Eagle. 
. In his early days as head of the NHLPA, Eagleson was heralded as a saviour. He was the first to effectively organize professional hockey players in North America.
. Players had tried and failed to organize many times. In 1947 they asked for a pension fund, and the owners refused. (Instead, they organized the All Star game to raise money for pensions.)
. In 1957 a group of players took the league to the Ontario Labour Relations Board and got the pension fund and minimum salary upgraded.

. Until the 1970s, professional hockey (and professional baseball, which was unionizing at the same time under famed labour leader Marvin Miller) operated under the "reserve system." Team owners had exclusive rights to re-sign their players to contracts on a "take it or leave it" basis, with little room for negotiation.
. As Detroit Red Wings player Ted Lindsey, who lead the 1957 attempt, later described the situation, "We were underpaid serfs, hired to play hockey and keep our mouths shut."

. Already representing players on all six hockey teams as a lawyer, Alan Eagleson began canvassing other players and talking with the media about forming a union. In December 1966 an NHL Players' Association meeting was convened and the first thing the association did was hire Eagleson on retainer.

. Eagleson circulated a flyer among players that read, "I, the undersigned, hereby direct and authorize R. Alan Eagleson to act as my agent in pursuing the formation of a Players' Association for Professional Hockey." By May 1967 he had signatures from all but two NHL players, and those of all 180 American Hockey League players. (The AHL was created in 1936; in 2001 it merged with the International Hockey League to become the major NHL farm league.)

. Alan Eagleson went public with the union on June 6, 1967, in Montreal. The following day Eagleson and his players' representatives met with the owners, and the union was officially recognized.
. The National Hockey League had no collective bargaining agreement with the Players' Association until 1976.

. As Eagleson solidified control over the NHLPA, doubts were raised about his work. Retired Maple Leafs defenceman and former Eagleson client Carl Brewer pushed for information about pensions. Current players questioned Eagleson's cozy relationship with NHL president John Ziegler and Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz, and his simultaneous representation of both players and management.

. In 1989 a large group of players hired labour lawyer Ed Garvey (former head of the National Football League Players' Association) to assess Eagleson's performance. His report was damning, citing "shocking" conflicts of interest, "sweetheart agreements with the NHL" and almost no progress in a decade of collective bargaining. Eagleson kept his executive director job, but agreed that a committee should search for his replacement. He clung to his position for another two and a half years.

. At the same time as Bruce Dowbiggin's CBC Television exposés, journalist Russ Conway of the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune in Massachusetts investigated the shadier side of Eagleson's affairs in print. His work eventually helped lead to an American investigation of Eagleson. In 1995 his work was turned into a book, Game Misconduct: Alan Eagleson and the Corruption of Hockey.
Medium: Television
Program: CBC Television News
Broadcast Date: Oct. 9, 1991
Guest(s): Carl Brewer, Alan Eagleson, Bobby Hull, Gene McBurney, Brendan Shanahan, Bill Watters, Rich Winter
Reporter: Bruce Dowbiggin
Duration: 9:00
Hockey footage: National Hockey League, Hockey Canada.

Last updated: September 28, 2012

Page consulted on September 10, 2014

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