When you hear Bobby Clarke passionately defend the outcast Alan Eagleson on the 40th anniversary of the 1972 Summit Series both played major roles in, you almost feel sorry for hockey’s biggest Benedict Arnold.
“I’m still a little bitter Alan isn’t part of it,” Clarke said, referring to Summit Series celebrations taking place in Moscow this week and Toronto in the fall. “For me, you’re either a team or you’re not a team and I know the majority of people (on the team) want Alan back. There’s a small group that doesn’t, but he was a huge reason for our success, a huge part of us winning,”
Clarke is committed to Eagleson – now 79 years old and living in hockey exile – because he remembers the man as his defender, creator of the Summit Series (and later, the Canada Cup tournaments) and Team Canada’s protector from the Soviets, especially when the series shifted to the Soviet Union. So when Eagleson’s initial invitation to participate in the 40th anniversary celebrations was revoked after an outcry from some members of the team, Clarke decided he wasn’t going to be as involved as he would have were Eagleson in attendance.
“My standpoint is he’s my friend,” Clark said.“If he made some mistakes, I’m sorry, but he’s still my friend. And we’re all old men now. It doesn’t do anybody any good to keep Alan out. I don’t understand it, but for me it’s wrong. I’ll do some of the (celebrations), but I’m not crazy Alan’s not part of it. He’s a big reason why we won.”
Clarke is right – you can’t take away the history Eagleson helped make four decades ago. Unfortunately for Clarke and all of Eagleson’s remaining defenders, 1,000 power washers couldn’t clean the blood from his hands. Clarke or anyone else can revise history all they please, but Alan Eagleson is a pariah in hockey circles for good reason. And nothing he did for his country over the course of a few weeks can atone for it.
For those unfamiliar with Eagleson’s rise and downfall, a quick recap: He first came to prominence as a Toronto lawyer who served as business advisor for a number of Maple Leafs in the 1960s. He founded the NHL Players’ Association in 1967 and served as its executive director for a quarter-century. He stepped down in 1992 amid allegations and evidence of severe misconduct unearthed by player agents Ritch Winter and Ron Salcer as well as Massachusetts journalist Russ Conway. (Conway’s book, Game Misconduct: Alan Eagleson And The Corruption Of Hockey, remains the definitive accounting of Eagleson’s crimes against the sport.)
In the mid-90s, Eagleson was charged in the United States and Canada with a slew of offences including racketeering, embezzlement and fraud. He eventually paid a $700,000 fine to American authorities while serving six months of an 18-month sentence in a Toronto-area prison.
Eagleson wasn’t a man wrongly convicted. He systematically and callously shut out a group of NHL players from their pension and disability monies, leaving some destitute and broken. He swindled Bobby Orr and colluded with his NHL team owner pals (including notoriously cheap Hawks owner Bill Wirtz) and used NHLPA funds to fuel his extravagant lifestyle. He lied and lied and lied some more and has remained shamelessly unrepentant for the catastrophic damage he wrought on the game.
Ultimately, Eagleson betrayed NHLers in the worst way possible: he took the trust of athletes famous for their good nature and team mentality and twisted it into a poisonous origami sculpture to be admired by his country club buddies and a small inner circle of hockey friends (including then-NHL president John Ziegler) and clients he treated very well. He was so close to all levels of power, he was inducted as a builder in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1989. (Try and imagine the day his NHLPA successor Bob Goodenow or current union executive director Don Fehr gets into the HHOF. You’ll be trying for the rest of your days.) Eagleson later resigned from the HHOF after Park, Orr, Gordie Howe and other hockey legends threatened to leave the Hall if he remained an honoree.
For all he did for Canada at the Summit Series, Eagleson was, as usual, out for himself. Here’s an example: after the series ended, the plane carrying Canada’s players landed in Montreal and Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was waiting on the tarmac by the front exit of the plane to congratulate them. Eagleson, a political animal who had designs on leading Canada’s Progressive Conservative party, attempted to snub Trudeau by having the players exit at the rear of the plane, but was unsuccessful.
“I thought that was bulls---,” Esposito said. “But Al had political aspirations.”
That’s the Alan Eagleson now deservedly loathed by honest hockey citizens such as Hall of Famers Esposito and Brad Park. Forty years ago, he should have been happy with the magnificent on-ice achievement he was part of, but even then Eagleson was scheming to keep himself in control.
His traitorous behavior is the reason why the NHLPA needs strong leadership that isn’t out for its own interests. And it doesn’t matter if it’s 40 years after the Summit Series or 400 years – that despicable legacy can’t ever be shaken or spun for his benefit.
He was Team Eagleson first and Team Everybody Else after that.
“During that ‘72 series he was very supportive,” Park said.“He was the off-ice leader, the negotiator with the Russians on a day-by-day basis, and he was fighting an uphill battle. But he realized how popular that series was and how much money could be made, that was when he started all those Canada Cups and he went south. That’s when he became a crook.”
Adam Proteau is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His Power Rankings appear Mondays during the regular season, his column appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature Fridays.
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