The release this week of Bobby Orr’s autobiography, My Story, and his extended appearance on CBC-TV’s The National, brought back memories of a long-ago encounter with Orr and Alan Eagleson, the notorious agent and promoter and one-time close friend who made the hockey great and then betrayed him.
It was an encounter that saved my professional life at a moment when it badly needed saving–but that to this day still leaves me mystified.
Orr hasn’t said much about Eagleson over the years, but during his interview with Peter Mansbridge, he spoke about how his former lawyer and friend (“he was like a brother”) ruined him financially. “Shame on him,” Orr said. “Just, shame on him.”
And, as Orr pointed out, it wasn’t just him. Eagleson defrauded other players who were his clients, and skimmed funds from the NHL Players’ Association, among other criminal acts that in 1994 resulted in thirty-four charges of embezzlement, fraud, and racketeering.
He eventually pleaded guilty to three counts of embezzlement and fraud and spent six months in jail. He ended up disgraced and disbarred, stripped of his Order of Canada, and forced to resign from the Hockey Hall of Fame.
All of this was very much in the future when I met him. At that point, he was the most powerful man in hockey–the head of the newly formed NHL Players’ Association as well as the top agent for players in the league. He was also a force in Conservative Party politics, and, thanks in large part to his work organizing the 1972 Summit Series between Canada and Russia, something of a homegrown hero, one of the best known and most popular figures in the country.
This was the guy who was about to change my life.
While Alan Eagleson flowered at the top, I was hovering near the bottom. I had left the newspaper business to fulfill an ambition to be a freelance magazine writer. It had not gone particularly well–assignments had fallen through, and, most troubling, a story about Jack Cole of Coles Book Stores for The Canadian got spiked (although, curiously enough, the magazine later ran the piece pretty much as I had written it, but without a byline).
My wife at the time, Lynda, and I were raising two small children, there was a mortgage to pay, and not a lot of money coming in. I was frankly worried about my future when I went to see Nick Steed at Quest Magazine.
Nick was as tough and sophisticated an editor as I’d ever encountered. I suspect it was Nick’s idea to do a piece on Alan Eagleson. I silently gulped. What I knew about hockey amounted to a sneaking suspicion it was played on ice. Nonetheless, that was the assignment. And I had only two weeks to do it. “If I like the piece, you’ll always have work at this magazine,” Nick said. “If I don’t like it, you’ll never work here again.”
I staggered out of his office, convinced I was finished. This was an opportunity that was no opportunity at all. I wasn’t certain I could get in touch with Alan Eagleson let alone get him to agree to talk, all within two weeks.
As it happened, I had briefly met Eagleson, and my wife had encountered him a number of times in connection with her job at The Toronto Sun.
That was my only edge as I rang his office the next morning. To my surprise, he took my call right away. He said he remembered me, and he certainly remembered Lynda. I explained that Quest Magazine wanted me to do a profile.
“How soon do you need it?” he asked.
“I need it right away,” I said. “I’m in a bit of a jam here.”
“Come on over,” he said.
“Right now?” I said, shocked.
“Right now,” he said. “Get over here.”
I hurried to his office and was ushered in. Eagleson was in shirtsleeves behind his desk, a tall man with dark hair and aviator-style glasses, a rock jaw, and the sort of hail-fellow-well-met demeanor that lit up the room.
He almost immediately made you feel like you were his best friend and closest confidant. He exuded a warmth that was irresistible. It was easy to see how he could seduce young hockey players–even young magazine writers desperate for a story.
We sat in his office for an hour or so talking generally about this and that, then he suggested we adjourn to his Rosedale home. When I arrived, I found him out by the pool. We sat together and we talked through the afternoon, about how unfair hockey had been to its players before he came along and began negotiating for them, starting with Bobby Orr, and how much he had done to improve the average player’s lot.
As naïve as I was about hockey and as enthralled by my host as I was, it did strike me that the guy who headed the Players’ Association might be at odds with the guy who was an agent for individual players. That guy in effect would have to wear two hats at the same time when it came to dealing with team owners. Wasn’t that a conflict of interest?
Eagleson smoothly dismissed the notion. There was no conflict as far as he was concerned, and, at that point, no one was asking too many questions or raising objections to the arrangement. Alan Eagleson was good for the game of hockey, its players and owners–the golden boy with the twinkle in his eye and the reassuring smile.
Orr was accompanied by Paul Henderson, famous for having scored the winning goal in 1972 against Russia in game eight of the Summit Series. Henderson was playing for the Toros of what was then the World Hockey Association.
Delighted by these unexpected arrivals, Eagleson decided to move us all inside. We sat around his living room and the three friends talked shop and traded gossip, enjoying each other’s company late on a summer afternoon.
I felt a trifle uneasy sitting listening to the two biggest stars in hockey carry on. Even though Eagleson had quickly introduced me, he had not said who I was and what I was doing there. The two players never asked.
Finally, Eagleson, the gleam in his eye turning mischievous, announced that I was a journalist doing a story. Henderson seemed to take it in stride. But Bobby Orr appeared taken aback by the revelation. Nonetheless, both players smiled gamely, made the right jokes, and continued with their conversation.
Still, it was getting late, and the two soon departed, leaving Eagleson and me alone. As he walked me out, he wanted to make sure I had enough for my story. I said I had more than enough.
We shook hands, I thanked him for his generosity, and said goodbye. I then raced home and hammered out the piece as fast as I could. Nick Steed loved it. The Eagleson story went on to be nominated for a national magazine sports writing award, a particular irony for a writer as sports challenged as I am.
True to his word, Nick kept me working steadily for the next three years. What’s more, my freelance magazine writing career turned around, and I ended up writing for everyone under the sun in Toronto and New York. I doubt any of it would have happened if Alan Eagleson hadn’t come to my rescue.
As the years went by and the accusations of fraud against Eagleson piled up, I often revisited that afternoon with him. I went back to it not only to inspect my own gullibility, and to understand more about the limits of celebrity profiles, but also to ask myself over and over again: why?
Why would a man capable of such duplicity and deception open himself up the way Eagleson did? Why would he drop everything, take a complete stranger into his home and make himself so available? Why was Alan Eagleson, who in so many complicated ways turned out to be not a nice guy, such a nice guy?
Ego? I doubt it. Eagleson needed another reporter writing about him like he needed a hole in the head. He had everything to hide, and yet he hid nothing or seemed to hide nothing that afternoon. But then again, appearances are deceiving, and maybe that’s the answer to the riddle: perhaps Eagleson had decided long before I came along that hiding in plain sight was the best camouflage of all.
Whatever it was, that time with Alan Eagleson changed my professional life. For that, I will always be grateful to him.