In a modest glass and concrete house along the southern shore of Georgian Bay lives a lean 78-year-old man who enjoys a Coors Light before noon and may be the world’s biggest booster of the 1972 Canada-Russia hockey series. His Nissan’s plate reads “TC 1972.” His phone number ends in 1-9-7-2. He scrawls a sentimental note next to the Paul Henderson stamp on all his outgoing mail:
40 YEARS AGO
His name is Alan Eagleson and he had a little something to do with creating that historic eight-game match with the Soviets – but has been disinvited from offiicially commemorating it.
On the day before former Team Canada players would announce a series of events and products to celebrate the anniversary – Team Canada wine, Team Canada book, Team Canada trip to Russia, Team Canada beer stein – Mr. Eagleson was here at home, reading Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson by his favourite non-fiction author, Robert Caro, just as he would be a day later during the lavish anniversary launch party. That’s also what he plans to be doing on Sept. 3, when the old-timers he first brought together as young men fly off for celebrations in Russia. Mr. Eagleson, Summit Series impresario, will be sitting here with LBJ because a) it’s a really long book and b) his invitation has been rescinded.
“I was in, then I was out,” he said, “but I’m not about to lose any sleep over it.”
Mr. Eagleson’s role on that team – the first ever to be called Team Canada – was so expansive that his title simply became Uncle Al. He was manager and motivator, travel agent and godfather, firebrand and peacemaker.
The ’72 series made him a household name. And then, two decades later, came his dizzying fall – dozens of charges of embezzlement, fraud, racketeering and professional misconduct. He pleaded guilty to reduced charges in 1998 and spent six months in Mimico medium-security prison. Considering some accusations involved skimming pension and disability benefits for retired players, it’s little surprise some don’t want him at the party.
“I didn’t like him then and I don’t like him now,” said Phil Esposito, Team Canada’s standout centre in the Summit Series. “Bobby Clarke likes him. I know Serge Savard likes him. But not me, and not Parkie [Brad Park].”
The players maintain a business relationship to promote the team and raise funds for the neediest among them. At a meeting earlier this year, they voted to include Mr. Eagleson.
“There were about 20 of us and three or so who didn’t want Eagle back,” recalled Bobby Clarke, who centred Paul Henderson’s line in the series. “All the guys said they’d go along with the vote. Then three days later Park and Dennis Hull said they wouldn’t come to any ceremonies if Eagle is there, so now he’s out.”
The Philadelphia Flyers legend is now returning the threat, saying he won’t attend any of the events in Russia and few in Canada unless Mr. Eagleson is reinstated.
“This pissing around with Eagleson, that to me just broke the team,” he explained. “You don’t do what they’re doing to a team member. That’s not my version of a team. The majority of players feel the way I do, but these two guys have threatened to destroy the team. … Eagleson is part of that team, maybe the biggest part of anybody.”
Another Eagleson defender, forward Marcel Dionne, has urged the ’72 players to give Mr. Eagleson a second chance. “There’s a lack of maturity in these types of things,” he said. “[Mr. Eagleson] paid the price. You have to find a way to forgive and go on with your life.”
Neither Mr. Park nor Mr. Hull, both of whom sit on the team’s player committee, could be reached on Friday. Another committee member, former Toronto Maple Leafs great Ron Ellis, who rounded out the Henderson line with Mr. Clarke, is playing referee.
“Twenty-five years ago when we first spearheaded a modest reunion, we just brought players and coaches,” he said. “From day one, this has been strictly a player-and-coach event. That’s how we’ve approached it all along and that’s how it will continue to be. I certainly understand the positive impact Al had on the victory, but as far as we’re concerned it was the folks sitting behind the bench that did it.”
Perhaps if Mr. Eagleson was more repentant about his past, the players would ease up, but contrition was never his strong suit.
“I think the only thing that will please some of them is death and I’m not interested in that,” he said. “I paid a terrible price for whatever happened. Anyone who doesn’t like me will blame me for their misfortune. God bless them. Tough luck.”
He expects he and wife, Nancy, will be celebrating quietly with a bottle of champagne on Sept. 28, the anniversary of Mr. Henderson’s dramatic game-winning goal. At this point, he’s more concerned with the anniversary organization, which has been plagued by cancelled events, elusive financing and a lack of political backing.
“It all seems a bit of a fiasco,” he said, slamming his fist on a lawn chair. “If I’d done it I would have gone to Stephen Harper and said ‘Forget that I’m the pariah. We delivered you the greatest event in Canadian sports history. It’s time you and the government recognized these guys because some of these players are hurting financially, emotionally and physically. This country owes them a great debt of gratitude, as do I.’”