Former U.S. Prosecutor and NHLPA Executive Director Paul Kelly remembers the late Russ Conway as one of the most dogged and passionate people he ever met.
“I met Russ as a federal prosecutor in Boston when Russ was a few issues into the investigation into Alan Eagleson,” Kelly told Boston Hockey Now recently. “Russ’ work had come to the attention of the FBI and the FBI decided that some of what Russ was reporting crossed the line from merely unethical conduct to criminal conduct and they wanted to commence an investigation.
At the time – this was probably late eighties, early nineties – I was the head hockey coach at Needham High, as well as a federal prosecutor, so when the case got referred into the U.S. Attorney’s office, the U. S. Attorney at the time was Wayne Budd and he said ‘Oh, well Kelly’s a hockey coach, let’s give the investigation to him’ so the case was plunked over to me and I remember meeting Russ then.”
The second Kelly and Conway met, he was immediately struck by Conway’s bulldog presence and the amount of work he was investing in the case already. He also could not believe the black book of contacts this investigative reporter from Haverhill, MA had and how well he was utilizing it to finish what he started.
“I mean the first time I met him, there was just level of enthusiasm and attention to detail and being thorough, and having these enormous connections, not only to Bobby Orr but virtually everybody and anyone in the hockey world,” recalled Kelly who is now a Trial Attorney at Jackson Lewis P.C.
The Hall of Fame hockey scribe and former Lawrence Eagle-Tribune lead Bruins reporter passed away at the age of 70 last Tuesday. Word of his passing once again reminded those in the hockey world old enough to remember how a dogged hockey reporter writing for the newspaper based in a small city just north of Boston, helped get back millions for NHL players that were being lied to and robbed by their union boss, Eagleson. Conway’s investigative reporting on the case also led to Conway being named a Pulitzer Prize finalist and his award-winning book: “Game Misconduct: Alan Eagleson and the Corruption of Hockey”.
The Journey To Justice Begins
As Kelly and Conway started to chop away at Conway’s proof of criminal action Eagleson was involved in, what Kelly learned was disturbing, to say the least. Hundreds of players were being deprived of their insurance and pension money via a grand scheme that Eagleson had created and until then, be able to execute without anyone really noticing, except Conway.
“What was happening was, Eagleson had the system rigged and he had these relationships with the insurers and he was advocating behind the scenes and instead of in favor of his players, he was basically telling the insurers to deny certain guys coverage. Those are just some of the things that went on there that never really were reported publicly, but Russ was aware of them and he fought hard to make sure the players, particularly injured guys, got what they were entitled to.”
This was enough for Kelly to push on for justice for the players and he and Conway, as well as two of Conway’s close confidants, Sue Foster and Carl Brewer, to embark on what became a three-year journey to an indictment.
“So we started an investigation that stretched on for three years and then once we indicted Eagleson, which was a chore, we ended up making several trips into Canada, to investigate and talk to people,” Kelly said. “We talked to several people, and put countless owners and players and agents and others into the grand jury. We traveled to Europe, over to London and checked out various real estate and banking that Eagleson was associated with.”
Conway continued to make use of his wide network of players, coaches and anyone who be able to help the case. What Kelly noticed most though, was how much attention Conway paid to help the really injured get their dues.
“Then players, particularly players that were disabled, and who were basically being forgotten, were who he always spoke to and tried to help,” Kelly said. “We had a whole string of players for example that suffered terrible, terrible injuries. Head injuries, and hip injuries and so on, who applied for their disability insurance coverage and were denied coverage. Russ would connect with those families and would drive that issue, including calling insurers, feeding information to us in law enforcement to press the issue.”
The day had finally come for indictment but a new journey would quickly ensue.
“Eagleson hired a team of lawyers and tried to block the indictment and we ended up going down to the Justice Department in Washington to convince them that the evidence with this was solid, which they agreed,” Kelly explained. “Of course once Eagleson was indicted, he contacted us through his lawyers and asked if he could surrender and we agreed he could do that. But then he reneged and became a fugitive from justice and forced us to extradite him after he asked to surrender and then changed his mind, which is a reflection of the kind of person he is. We managed to extradite him finally after it took us a couple of years to get him down to the United States and he plead guilty.”
As continued recounting the case, Kelly kept praising Conway’s persistence.
“Frankly at every stage of the process and throughout the investigation and then the prosecution, and then ultimately the end when Eagleson plead guilty in a Boston courtroom, Russ Conway was there,” Kelly said, pointing out that doggedness and passion Conway displayed then and throughout his career. “He was supported by Sue Foster and Carl Brewer. There was a team of people who were outside of law enforcement, and Russ was leading the pack. He was supported by them and then Bruce Dowbiggin, who at the time I think was with CBC news.
Of course, we also had a team from the FBI, the IRS and then the Justice Department. I gotta tell you without Russ and his team, that case would not have happened. We would not have gotten an indictment, a conviction or the forfeiture of funds that we got and returned a couple of million dollars back to the players, were it not for Russ Conway. I mean he was passionate, he was determined, and he just knew where the bodies were buried.”
A Labor Of Love
Conway never buried his desire to help the players though and almost 15 years after he buried Eagleson with jail time and millions to be paid back to the players, he made sure many of those same players wouldn’t lose out on money they earned again. Along with the previous CBA to the one the league and NHLPA are operating under now, expiring in 2012, the Senior and Extra Player Benefit plans expired as well. There was talk that the plans that saw the NHLPA and NHL combine to donate a fixed amount to former players over the age of 65, and that was created by a group led by Conway and put into the first CBA of the Salary Cap era would not be renewed. That just wasn’t going to happen on Conway’s watch though.
“Having gone through that experience and then served as the Executive Director of the NHL Players Association for a couple of years, I don’t think there is any person who has done more for retired players of the NHL, than Russ Conway,” Kelly said. “In terms of the Extra Player benefit, the Senior Player Benefit, which frankly was an idea that was hatched by Russ and pressed by Russ. Then with his assistance, I worked hard to get that amount of money that was put forth by the league and by the players association and was increased significantly. I understand from Glen Healy (Executive Director Of The NHL Alumni Association), it’s going to be increased again.
Russ quietly just did amazing things for the players that unless you talk to people like Milt Schmidt or Johnny Bucyk, the guys over the years that were the real beneficiaries of what he did for them, I don’t think the players of today can appreciate it. They will one day when they retire, but Russ was an amazing advocate for players.”
Conway’s wake is Monday and his funeral on Tuesday. Both will be attended by many of those former players he jumped over the boards for over 30 years. As Kelly pointed out though, it will be the Boston contingent that became his linemates and will be forever grateful to Conway that will miss him the most.
“He will be sorely missed and particularly by the Boston guys,” Kelly said. “He was so close with [Rick] Middleton, and [Ken] Hodge and [Don] Marcotte, Brad Park and Bucyk, and all those guys from the Bruins over the years where really were close friends who admired Russ.”