Statute of Limitations Saves Corrupt Boss

The U.S. Supreme Court refused June 25 to revive claims by former NHL players that they were victims of a conspiracy waged by NHL teams and the ex-head of NHL Players’ Ass’n, Alan Eagleson, to keep salaries low. The Court let stand a two-year-old federal appeals court ruling that players waited too long to sue. Eagleson served six months in prison for hockey-related fraud. He pled guilty in Boston on Jan. 6, 1998, to three counts of mail fraud and was fined $1 million in Canadian funds. The next day in Toronto, he admitted to three counts of fraud and was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

The U.S. charges related to using money from international hockey tournaments for himself, family and friends and to diverting $15,000 from disability insurance proceeds belonging to ex Chicago Blackhawk Glen Sharpley. The Canadian charges stemmed from rinkboard advertising deals that defrauded the NHLPA, Hockey Canada and Labatt’s Breweries.

Former NHL players Dave Forbes, Rick Middleton, Brad Park, Ulf Nilsson and Doug Smail filed a class-action lawsuit against the NHL and most of its individual teams in 1995 on behalf of about 1,000 NHL players who were employed during Eagleson’s tenure. He headed NHLPA from its inception in 1967 to his resignation in 1990. The players alleged a conspiracy existed from the 1970s to the 1990s, in which NHL teams knew Eagleson was misusing union money but did nothing because he helped negotiate favorable contracts for the teams. They sought damages that some hoped would reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

The U.S. District Court in Philadelphia dismissed the players’ lawsuit in Aug.1998, saying the retirees should have known by at least 1991 about the allegations against Eagleson and that the four-year statute of limitations in civil racketeering cases had run out by their 1995 filing date. According to the District Court, the players should have been aware of the problems as early as 1984, when a Sports Illustrated article discussing the allegations of Eagleson’s wrongdoings was published, or 1989, when labor attorney Ed Garvey issued a damning report of Eagleson’s union leadership after Garvey was hired by several players to investigate the NHLPA executive. In 1991, Eagleson’s activities were detailed in a series of newspaper articles and allegations against him were widely read in NHL circles. The players, however, argued that because Eagleson was not actually indicted on criminal charges until 1994, the statute of limitations should be measured from then.

Eagleson only served jail time in Canada. His parole and the condition that he remain in Ontario after his six-month incarceration expired in July, 1999. He now lives in England with his wife Nancy but returns to the Toronto area frequently to visit his children and grandchildren. After his convictions, Eagleson was disbarred by the Law Society of Upper Canada and ousted from Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame. He resigned from the Hockey Hall of Fame and the Order of Canada. [Toronto Star 6/26/01]