Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Review: "Game Misconduct", by Russ Conway

"Game Misconduct" is a book that I've always had on my 'To Read' list, and finally got around to this summer.  It is based on the "Cracking the Ice" investigative series written for the Lawrence (MA) Eagle-Tribune by journalist Russ Conway, which outlined many of the crimes perpetrated by Alan Eagleson while he acted as head of the National Hockey League Players' Association and concurrently as a player agent.  It is an outrage to read, and like many similar books, leads you to wonder what if someone had acted sooner, asked the right questions, persisted in the face of abuse or stonewalling...

Mr. Conway covered the Bruins from the late sixties and grew close to a few of the players, notably Bobby Orr.  In 1990, the members of the Cup-winning 1970 team held a reunion to which he was invited, and during that event he spoke to a few players who had tales of being done wrong by their team, the league, their insurance providers.  A great many were suffering physically, mentally and financially due to past injuries, poor or no health insurance coverage, and pitiful pensions.  All of it seemed outlandish, and he decided to do some digging.

In broad strokes, he found Alan Eagleson to be in a perpetual conflict of interest while acting concurrently as a player agent, head of the NHLPA, agent for coaches or management personalities, and promoter of international hockey tournaments, to say nothing of his close relationships with NHL owners.  For example, he needed NHL permission to use their players to stage Canada Cups, so was hard-pressed to drive too hard a bargain during negotiations for collective agreements.  The players he represented as an agent would sometimes have different goals and interests than the rank and file NHLPA member.  His cozy relationship with Bill Wirtz of the Chicago Blackhawks, and the fact he represented their GM Bob Pulford, meant he couldn't go to the wall for NHLPA members who needed their association's support in claims against the Hawks.

And so on, the book is a litany of dereliction of duty, mismanagement and misappropriation of union funds, opaque or secretive bookkeeping practices, outright stealing from certain players, questionable negotiation decisions when bargaining against the owners, such as the failure to obtain free agency for his members, or to obtain any concessions from the league in order to agree to a merger of the WHA and NHL, which severely hampered the players' earning potential by curtailing demand for their services.  Mr. Conway follows the trail by speaking with players who've been wronged or duped by Alan Eagleson, and by examining whatever documentation is available, which is precious little.  Mr. Eagleson would delay, deny, browbeat, insult, and otherwise frustrate anybody who asked pointed questions, who would demand to see the books.

A lot of players come across as pathetic figures, broke, in debt, desperate, and who accepted pitiful settlements from the league and its in-house insurance companies.  Mike Milbury, for once, is the good guy, who perpetually demanded answers and transparency from the head of the union, although he was never satisfied in this area, until a criminal investigation was launched in the U.S.

Others who don't come off very well are our own RCMP, who dragged their feet during the entire investigation, sometimes failing to cooperate with the FBI or other jurisdictions.  Mr. Conway makes a point of reminding readers of the retinue of gladhanders and political hacks Alan Eagleson accumulated during his run, and how political forces may have steered the ship rather than a search for justice.

The Canadian sports press also takes a beating.  Mr. Conway uses their own quotes to hang them, as it were.  The reluctance of Canadian journalists to take on Alan Eagleson, to tell the story of the investigation, of the facts being revealed, is partly due to the myth of the man, how he took on the Commies in '72 and by gosh beat them, and how he represented Bobby Orr, and how he took on NHL owners and won, by forming a players' union, where Ted Lindsay and Doug Harvey among others had failed.  Alan Eagleson was also a good source of material for them, and he wasn't above using NHLPA funds to wine and dine them to curry their favour.

Red Fisher of the Montreal Gazette takes a specific beating, having been an investor in an Eagleson-Orr venture which was foundering.  Mr. Fisher received a $15 000 cheque to indemnify him, vastly more than his investment stake was worth at the time, with the understanding that he'd not speak ill of the NHLPA boss.  This is a grave conflict of interest for a reporter, to be in a business partnership with one of the major players of the world he's supposed to cover, and it's difficult to understand how that came to be.  Certainly Mr. Fisher was taken aback when contacted by Russ Conway on this matter.  

Ultimately, among many other transgressions and highly questionable practices, Mr. Eagleson is convicted of fraud for funneling money from Canada Cup rink-board advertising revenue to a personal Swiss bank account, and trying to cover his tracks later by attempting to return the money and falsify invoices when the heat was on.  The galling aspect of this is that it's probably the tip of the iceberg, one of the few times he stole money from the players where there was a paper trail, where he got caught.  The many estates and mansions and jet-set lifestyle of the man don't speak of an executive who lives on his paltry pay and commissions.  

Actually, the thing that really galls is his repeated assurances to anyone who'd listen that he never made a penny off international hockey, that he did it all for love of country and the game.  The double-billing for office space for Hockey Canada and the NHLPA, the lavish, undocumented expenses, the sinecures for his family, all speak otherwise.

This is an eye-opening work, which frustrates the reader at times.  Without making a direct comparison, I often felt like I did when I read Stevie Cameron's "On The Farm", and was frustrated that there were so many ways and opportunities to collar this guy but they kept being wasted.  Another book which came to mind was Jon Ronson's "The Psychopath Test", and how it deals with the Hare Psychopathy Checklist.  Mr. Eagleson does check off many of the boxes, notably being inappropriately profane, charming, manipulative, irascible, devoid of empathy, among other traits.  I had to wonder while reading Mr. Conway's book whether Alan Eagleson is not in fact a sociopath.

I will recommend this book, if only to give prospective readers a good background on why and how the NHLPA has come to have such an adversarial stance in its dealings with ownership.  The players have not only been underpaid and bullied throughout much of the history of the NHL, but its union was actively subverted, criminally so, by ownership, and no one had ever been made to pay for this.  Bill Wirtz's son Rocky now owns the Blackhawks and offers up the ludicrous puffery that the team isn't profitable, has never been profitable, after all these decades, and with a salary cap, public funds to build and operate his stadium, and his owning the station he sold the local TV rights to, as well as the liquor distributorship that hold the contract for the arena.

So yeah, a not-quite-enjoyable read, more of an engrossing one, if you have the stomach for it.

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