This is the first of a two-part personal reflection on and tribute to Russ Conway, the former Lawrence Eagle-Tribune Sports Editor and later, the Eagle-Tribune’s lead Bruins beat reporter and columnist who was inducted into the Hockey Hall Of Fame in 1999 and sadly passed away at the age of 70 on August 20.
“So many people walk around with a meaningless life. They seem half-asleep, even when they’re busy doing things they think are important. This is because they’re chasing the wrong things. The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.” – ‘Tuesdays With Morrie’
For Russ Conway it wasn’t just Tuesdays, it was any day! Any day that he wanted to talk hockey or racing, or just tell you one of the encyclopediae of stories he had from a life that most certainly had “purpose and meaning” and more importantly, any day he could help you or others.
Last Tuesday, I learned, via a text from my colleague and good friend Joe Haggerty, that Russ Conway, one of the most revered and fearless hockey journalists ever, had passed away at the age of 70. I had the pleasure of being a student on the job, then a colleague and then a good friend of Russ. Immediately after I found out he passed, the famous book by Mitch Albom and later the movie starring Hank Azaria ‘Tuesdays With Morrie’ entered my mind. To me, Russ Conway wasn’t just the accolades and titles he earned and deserved, he was my Morrie Schwartz.
Like Morrie, Russ definitely lived a life of meaning. No offense to Morrie though, Russ was much cooler. Think Reg Dunlap, and well pretty much every character Paul Newman played because, with his Irish wit and charm, he always seemed to be surrounded by the best-looking women in the room. Cool as the other side of the pillow. Oh and let’s not forget the old school Corvette he drove!
I reached out to Russ last Monday to talk about the time he called me late at night back on November 30, 2005, and let me know that former Boston Bruins captain and superstar Joe Thornton had been traded and that the Bruins had been “fleeced” in the deal. Unfortunately, he picked up and didn’t sound too well, almost frazzled, and asked if he could call me back. Russ always called back sooner rather than later and when he didn’t, maybe I should’ve followed up, as he did on so many leads because that would be the last time I’d ever speak to him.
As for the Thornton scoop, that was just a blip on the radar when it came to how many stories Russ broke during his over 40 years on the job.
“Russ was a marvel when it came to working a dressing room after a game,” fellow Hockey Hall of Fame scribe and longtime Boston Globe hockey reporter and columnist Kevin Paul Dupont wrote via direct message on Twitter, something Russ never used to break a story. “Writing for the Eagle-Tribune, an evening paper, he had the edge of the vast majority of us who were under tighter AM deadlines, and he made great use of that advantage—waiting patiently for the first wave of reporters to rush to their typewriters (and later laptops), then finding the one, two or three players for one-on-one interviews that he would work seamlessly into his story.
He was sharp, patient, shrewd and forever an independent thinker, elements that showed up routinely in his storytelling. Away from the job, be it in the press room, or elsewhere around the rink, he was quick-witted and loved to laugh. His written words will linger forever and for everyone to read. But for those who knew him well, and enjoyed his company, his humor and laugh will resonate just as long. He lived for the scoop—the expose of Alan Eagleson his crowning achievement–but he also was very approachable, especially to new reporters on the beat. In a very competitive business, Russ usually won but did so without bombast or boasting.”
Russ is and always will be best known for his investigative reporting and more specifically his expose on former NHLPA Executive Director and NHL player agent Alan Eagleson. Through his professional relationship and friendship, he formed with Bruins and NHL legend Bobby Orr, Conway discovered that Eagleson was stealing pension money from not only Orr but countless NHL players and clients. His expose on this, “Cracking the Ice: Intrigue and Conflict in the World of Big-time Hockey”, led to his award-winning book ‘Game misconduct: Alan Eagleson and the Corruption of Hockey’ in 1995.
“I don’t think there is any person who has done more for retired players of the NHL, than Russ Conway,” Paul Kelly, the former U.S. Prosecutor who worked with Russ to bring down Eagleson told me after learning of Russ passing away.
As Kelly, who also served as NHLPA Executive Director from 2007-2009, pointed out to me in an insightful and in-depth look into Russ’s pursuit for justice for the players, Russ’s work was always done behind the scenes until he needed to get the message out there to help others.
“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.”
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly echoed Dupont’s sentiments in separate emails to me last week.
“While Russ was passionate about hockey, he was even more focused on the people in the game,” Bettman wrote. “He always believed that people should be treated right and, when he saw problems, he tried to fix them.”
To Daly, Russ was a champion for the people in and around the game.
“Russ was a champion — in every sense of the word. He was a champion for change, a champion for transparency, and a champion for our athletes and former Players. And he didn’t do it because it was good for him — he did it because it was the right thing to do. Personally, I had a ton of respect for the man. He will be missed.”
Daly’s right except for one thing, Russ was also a champion for his peers and reporters coming up the ladder like current Eagle-Tribune sports editor Bill Burt, who worked under Conway for many years as an aspiring sports reporter. As Burt pointed out in a recent email to me, Russ also was there for the people many of us take for granted.
“Russ wore many hats,” Burt said. “He had his hockey people. He had his racing people. But the people that loved him most were the regular people — waitresses, bartenders, janitors, etc. He always had time to chat with someone that had an interest in hockey or racing. While Russ had national exposure, he was a local guy at heart.
What I learned most from Russ in this business is don’t accept being second best, just because you’re ‘smaller’ than the big newspapers or Websites. Try to beat them. Get a better story. He could’ve left The Eagle-Tribune years ago, but the owners allowed him to do things other smaller papers wouldn’t even attempt.”
Former Calgary Herald and Globe and Mail columnist Bruce Dowbiggin, along with Carl Brewer and Sue Foster, became part of Russ’ team that brought down Eagleson and he too was honored to have learned from one of the best and form a lasting friendship in the process.
“When I think of Russ, I always say when I met him it was like that scene in ‘Casablanca’,” Dowbiggin told me Sunday by phone.
‘Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.’
“He was a teacher to me and a good friend. Russ taught me how to be a journalist the right way. In an error of rushed deadlines and everyone trying to be first, Russ taught me how to be right.”
Russ did the same for me except with Russ, he was always first and right!
The second part of this personal reflection will be posted here this afternoon and will take a closer look at just how much Russ Conway helped the players and more specifically two former NHLers and Bruins, Rick Middleton and Brad Park who thanks to Russ, I now know and have as contacts should I need.