'They probably all took it too personally'

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from Chapter 5: The Union from "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire" by Damien Cox and Gord Stellick. Copyright © 2004 by Damien Cox and Gord Stellick. Reprinted by permission of John Wiley & Sons Canada, Ltd.

For the Leafs, already irritated by [Carl] Brewer's unwillingness to toe the line, there was a sense of betrayal that accompanied [Alan] Eagleson's rise to prominence, an uncomfortable sense that they'd been blindsided by an uppity lawyer they all knew well and had invited into their inner circle. Relationships between agents and teams were just forming back then, and while now it would be unimaginable for an NHL club to invite an agent along on a road trip, that's where Eagleson had found himself a year earlier in late November 1965 as the Leafs journeyed to Manhattan for two games with the New York Rangers, a Sunday-Wednesday double-header that was a popular scheduling peculiarity at the time. It was [Bob] Pulford who had managed to get Eagleson invited, possibly because Dave Keon had been permitted to bring his financial advisor, Dan McLeod, along on an earlier trip. Eagleson and longtime pal Bob Watson, the best man at his wedding, ended up on the town with team vice-president Harold Ballard, sliding into various after-hour clubs before returning to the team's suite at the Commodore Hotel to experience the remnants of one of the legendary parties thrown by the Silver Seven, the kind of booze and broads parade for which that privileged group of influential Leaf executives and directors had become famous. The evening included a few scantily clad women and was punctuated by one of the participants ordering breakfast at 5 a.m., then passing out face first into his poached eggs. Headed by Ballard and Stafford Smythe, the Silver Seven used their position as custodians of the Leafs to revel in the high life, indulging in every sort of joyful debauchery, and Eagleson was trusted enough, or not feared enough, to be invited in as a witness and participant.

What the Leafs didn't know was that the push for a players union was beginning and that the wheels were turning quickly. By December 1966, Eagleson was meeting with [Bobby] Orr and Eddie Johnston at their team hotel in Montreal to aggressively begin planning for the new association. As the movement became public knowledge, Leaf officials, [general manager and coach Punch] Imlach in particular, appeared to decide that they'd been double-crossed. "A large part of it was me," says Eagleson. "They'd known me for 20 years. I was just this (expletive) lawyer. Punch had control of the dressing room, and then here was this Eagleson guy coming in and he was losing the dressing room again. They probably all took it too personally."

Initially, Eagleson's organization attempts hit obstacles, even within the Leafs. George Armstrong and Johnny Bower initially declined to sign up, feeling they were being disloyal to Imlach, and when they agreed to join, Dave Keon opted out, according to Eagleson. Keon, however, disputes that version of events. "We never saw [Eagleson]," he says. "We heard things through Pulford about how it was going to be a good thing for the players, but we weren't provided with any information. Eagleson was never in our dressing room, which in hindsight was probably a good thing because he screwed us all." But, by June 1967, virtually all the players on all six teams had signed union pledges. "They told us we'd be farting in silk pajamas," says Leaf winger Eddie Shack, referring to the bold promises of pension improvements from union organizers.

On June 6, at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal at a meeting of the players/owners council, just five weeks after the Leafs had captured the Cup, Leaf forward Bob Pulford read a statement to the owners announcing the formation of the players association, an entity that would be represented in all matters by Eagleson. It was a turning point for all NHL players, one many would come to regret years later when Eagleson was charged with a variety of offences relating to mismanagement of the union, put in jail and kicked out of the Hockey Hall of Fame. "I know he's not popular with most of the players now, but the players owe Alan Eagleson a big thank-you," says Pulford. "We would never have got off the ground without him. The medical benefits, the requirement of waivers so guys couldn't just be sent down to the minors -- those are a couple of the hard fought battles that Eagleson waged on behalf of the players."

That it was Pulford who made the announcement that day in Montreal, not a member of the Habs, Rangers or Red Wings, just added another layer of betrayal in the minds of the men who ran the Leafs. Three minutes after Pulford spoke, [president] Stafford Smythe stormed out of the boardroom and screamed to Imlach, "You won't (expletive) believe it. They've formed a (expletive) union and they won't talk to us without that (expletive) Eagleson. No (expletive) way!" Unnoticed by Smythe in his anger was Eagleson, standing just a few feet away. "I don't think the Leafs ever agreed to accept the union," says Eagleson, revelling in the memory of that exciting day. "But they got outvoted."

It was a vote Imlach refused to accept. While progressive thinkers like Emile Francis of the Rangers looked to accommodate the new order, Imlach and the Leafs fought back, or tried to. Bobby Baun had helped teammates negotiate better contracts, and through that and his own salary fights, had seen his relationship sour with Imlach. He was also a strong proponent of the union and succeeded Pulford as president. Despite being only 30 years old and still a very capable rearguard, Baun was exposed in the '67 expansion draft and lost to Oakland. The following September, according to Eagleson, Imlach tried unsuccessfully to get all the Leafs to quit the union. "There were several issues in the 1967-68 season. I was always putting out fires in Toronto," says Eagleson. "It was Mickey Mouse (expletive). There was always a problem. Imlach put a heavier burden on himself and hurt the team."

Imlach decided he would fight the new union on his own turf -- the Leaf dressing room. "Go out there and (expletive) skate around until we're finished," Pulford was told one day during the September 1967 training camp as Imlach prepared to address the team. With Pulford out of the room, Imlach then lit into the team over "this stupid (expletive) association" and the "traitors" on the team who had joined the union. Mid-rant, Tim Horton stood up and skated out to join Pulford. Most of the others soon followed, but young players like Ron Ellis remember feeling torn between sticking with their teammates and listening to the feared coach who had coached the team to the Stanley Cup just four months earlier. "Imlach wanted to break the union and he knew his chances were better with me out of the way," recalls Pulford of that day. "So I skated by myself for what seemed like a long time and started to wonder how things were going to play out. After what seemed like an eternity I saw Tim Horton coming on the ice, and a few seconds later out come Dave Keon. God bless them. If they hadn't joined me on the ice, that might have been the end of the union right there."

It was, to many, the day Imlach lost his control and power over the dressing room, but the resulting tension and upheaval tore the team apart. Even [George] Armstrong, "the absolute greatest captain ever," according to a veteran like Marcel Pronovost, could no longer see his skills as a liaison between players and management used constructively: the barrier between Imlach and his team was now too great. The natural rivalries that always exist between teammates jostling for their share of ice time became exaggerated and poisonous. When Jim Pappin couldn't get a spot in the lineup, he held a grudge against Ellis, whom he viewed as one of Imlach's boys. When Imlach traded Frank Mahovlich in March 1968, he blamed the union for the nervous problems that had twice landed The Big M in hospital. Armstrong warned youngster Jim McKenny and other young players to be careful with their choices. "He told us to stay away from that (expletive), that we didn't need to get on Imlach's bad side because of the union," says McKenny.

Baun, meanwhile, came to resent Pulford over the years for handing over the reins of the new association just a few months after making that announcement to the owners in Montreal. By then a member of the Seals, Baun accepted the presidency of the union after Pulford told him the position had made him a "marked man" in Toronto. "I think that was the first indication of the way Pulford really operated," said Baun, who ultimately broke with Eagleson while Pulford remained friends with the former union boss. "From being a guy we believed was looking out for the players, history shows he was a guy who was really just looking out for Pulford," said Baun.

Peter Stemkowski, meanwhile, said he and his teammates all viewed Pulford as the player who led the fight against Imlach and watched in confusion over the years as Pulford became a dedicated, tight-fisted management man with the Blackhawks. "It's interesting that Pulford was the guy who most detested Imlach, yet he is the one guy from that team who has become the most like Imlach," says Stemkowski, Pulford's linemate in those '67 playoffs. Pulford remains unapologetic for his continuing friendship with the disgraced Eagleson or his switch to the management side. "When I was a player, the players needed help," he argued in the winter of 2004 as the NHL and players union prepared for another in a series of labour showdowns the following fall. "Any reasonable request was always shot down by the owners. It was complete unfairness. I was always active on the players' behalf. I was a vice-president of the pension society committee and as active a player as possible on behalf of players as it related to NHL affairs. Now, it's gone too far the other way. The pendulum has swung too far. We have to bring it back. The players long ago didn't need the kind of help that we needed in the 1960s. We have to bring some sanity back into the game."

The union, unquestionably, was the grenade in the dressing room that helped destroy that '67 Leaf champion at a time when the tide of sports history was moving relentlessly in new directions. The old system was breaking down and there was nothing Imlach, [Springfield Indians owner Eddie] Shore or any other executive could do about it. Unionism spread to the minors. By May 1968 the NFL Players Association was bracing for a major showdown with the league, and in June baseball experienced another round of player independence when various players refused to play on the day of assassinated politician Robert F. Kennedy's funeral. The average salary in hockey was said to be $15,500, about 50 percent below that of baseball, and when Orr went to negotiate a new contract he asked for $100,000, a salary the likes of which Gordie Howe and Jean Beliveau did not then command. Eagleson began making unprecedented noises about the union wanting a piece of the NHL's television revenue.

The Leafs, with four Stanley Cups in the previous six seasons, should have been better positioned than any other club to move forward and meet the new challenges of professional sport. They and the Canadiens, after all, had kept all Canadian TV revenues to themselves for years and the less-than-generous terms of the expansion agreement should have allowed them to protect enough talent to stay at the top. Indeed, Montreal had won Cups in 1965 and 1966, and after falling to the Leafs the following year, the Habs were still so well-stocked and organized that they carted off eight Cups in the next 12 years. The Leafs, however, squandered talent, sold their farm teams to generate cash and profits and fought changes in the game. Player after player went to war with Imlach over salaries and was sent packing. Every negotiation was bitter, and good players were lost because they stood up for themselves. Imlach left a twisted wreckage when he was fired in the spring of 1969.

Incredibly, the manner in which the Eagleson-Brewer-Imlach wars affected the Leafs was not yet over. Ten years after being fired, Imlach returned to Maple Leaf Gardens as the successor to Jim Gregory, who had taken over from Imlach. The Leafs had come full circle. Under Gregory's leadership, the Leafs had once again become a solid hockey club that had made the league semi-finals a year earlier. Quickly, however, the Imlach influence turned the Leafs into a circus, and part of that circus involved bringing Brewer back from five years of retirement to once more skate for the Leafs at age 41, fully 15 years after he had mysteriously bolted the club. Also signed were 38-year-old defenceman Larry Carriere and 30-year-old Darryl Maggs, both of whom had played for Imlach's coach and confidant, Floyd Smith, in the disbanded WHA. The two former Cincinnati Stingers and Brewer were regarded as Imlach spies in the dressing room, a rather strange accusation against Brewer given his previous tussles with Imlach. Their presence, however, fuelled the growing chasm between Imlach and team captain Darryl Sittler, one furthered by Imlach's refusal to let Sittler participate in the popular NHL "Showdown" intermission series. Sittler was represented by Eagleson, and to Imlach that meant that Eagleson had influence within the team in the same way he had influenced the Leaf dressing room in the final seasons before Imlach's first firing. It was the same fight all over again.

This time around, Imlach's spite knew no bounds. Sittler had a no-trade contract, so instead he dealt Sittler's linemate and best friend, Lanny McDonald, to Colorado for Pat Hickey and Wilf Paiement on December 28, 1979. After telling the classy McDonald he'd been traded, McDonald asked where he was going. "None of your business," growled the Leaf GM. McDonald asked the identity of the players he'd been traded for. "That's none of your business either," said Imlach. Imlach also concocted the idea of giving Paiement Number 99 to wear, the same as the growing legend that was then Wayne Gretzky, to create the perception that he had traded McDonald for a "star" player.

Imlach also fought with another Eagleson client, goalie Mike Palmateer, who was playing out the option year of his contract in the 1979-80 season and wanted a no-trade clause in his new deal like Sittler. "Why is the standard NHL contract that was collectively bargained with the NHLPA and doesn't include the right to no-trade provisions good enough for everyone else in the NHLPA except for the client of the head of the NHLPA?" Imlach fumed. Palmateer, the best goalie the club had employed since Bernie Parent, was dealt to Washington the following June and the Leafs went into the 1980-81 season with the unproven Jiri Crha as their starting goalie, an experiment that had predictably bad results. When Eagleson arrived in the Leaf offices that fall to negotiate contracts for Rocky Saganiuk and Robert Picard, Imlach bellowed, "I'm ready for you, you (expletive)." On Imlach's desk when Eagleson poked his head in were a half-dozen vials of medication Imlach was taking for his heart condition. While that exchange seemed lighthearted, Eagleson was often heard to boast, "I told Punch Imlach I'd piss on his grave. And I did."

A promising Leaf team was thus destroyed by Imlach's enmity for Eagleson just as Imlach's hatred for the players association had undermined a championship Leaf team in 1967. In the 1980 playoffs against Minnesota, the club arranged for two hotel shuttle buses to pick up the team as it arrived in Bloomington. As Imlach sat on one bus and cursed his players, each and every one of them walked past and got on the other bus. Brewer, who by then had become a malcontent and more welcome in the dressing room, made a shoulder fake as though he was about to get on to Imlach's bus and then strode to the other vehicle. Ultimately, Imlach dumped Brewer, Maggs and Carriere, believing their contracts had been only for the 1979-80 season. But by failing to do the proper paperwork, specifically failing to sign the three players to termination contracts, the Leaf GM inadvertently gave all three an option for the following season. Maggs and Carriere walked away, but Brewer pursued the matter despite dressing for only 20 games in his comeback season. The fight raged for years until Brewer finally received a cheque for $27,418.52 in 1987 as compensation for Imlach's oversight. The defenceman's appeal to his former agent, Eagleson, for help in the matter went unheard, and many believe that further motivated Brewer in what became his historic fight to investigate the abuse of players' pensions. Imlach's stupidity on Brewer's contract, in a weird historical twist, may have inadvertently been a crucial factor in the series of events that finally toppled Eagleson.

Interestingly, hearkening back to Eagleson's experiences with Ballard and the Silver Seven in New York back in 1966, Ballard had a much better relationship with the players union boss. After Ballard was convicted of 47 fraud charges in 1972, Eagleson called both the crown attorney and the judge to plead for a lenient sentence. When no TV partner could be found for the 1972 Summit Series, Eagleson called Ballard and convinced him to form a company with him that would find a sponsor and sell the TV rights. Years later, Eagleson boasted that if he needed $100,000 in a hurry, he could call Toronto boxing impresario Irving Ungerman for half and Ballard for the other half. Finally, when Ballard was searching for a new general manager in 1989, he offered the job to Eagleson, who turned it down. The Leafs had finally warmed to Eagleson by the time he was about to become an NHL pariah.

Through all the tangles with the NHL union and the explosive growth of athletes' rights, the Leafs never quite got it right, always reading the current incorrectly. After winning it all in 1967, that lack of insight into the sport's changes meant the Leafs had, without question, disembarked from hockey's train of manifest destiny.