When they closed the doors to the Great Hall in the Hockey Hall of Fame this past week, they left a workman inside.
His job was to remove R. Alan Eagleson's plaque from the Great Wall, the place of honor that many in hockey believe is almost sacred. When the doors reopened Thursday, the spot honoring one of the most powerful men ever to be a part of "The Game" was empty. A workman with a simple set of tools had taken the plaque down and carried it away.
Nothing could be more fitting. Hockey has always been a working man's game. Hard-working players play it. Hard-working people watch it. Many of them love the game like nothing else.
It explains why people were so passionate about getting Eagleson out.
You can give Eagleson, the founder and former executive director of the National Hockey League Players' Association, a fair amount of credit for resigning his last vestige of power in hockey. In removing himself from the Hall, he ended a nightmarish saga that on Tuesday would have forced the directors to choose between him -- a convicted felon who stole from the game itself -- and 38 living members who went on record saying they wanted him out. Eighteen of those Hall of Famers said they would resign from the Toronto landmark if Eagleson was allowed to remain.
That list included the greatest of the game's greats -- Gordie Howe, Bobby Orr, Maurice "Rocket" Richard. And the list was growing. The specter of seeing them all enter the Hall, gather their belongings and walk out again, presumably forever, was too much for any hockey fan to even imagine.
That was enough for Eagleson, who could see the handwriting on the wall of his Ontario prison cell, where he's serving time for theft and fraud. He's being punished not just because he stole from giant corporations, the pillars of hockey's financial base, but he also stole from the workaday players. Some of those players left the game injured or crippled -- and in the case of Ed Kea of St. Louis, almost dead -- but Eagleson didn't care. He stole from them, too. For many that was too much.
That's why the game's greats were poised to line up outside the Hall on Tuesday. They were willing to send a very real message to the directors inside. They would be there for themselves, but also for the players and fans whose voices are rarely heard.
They knew there was a movement inside the Hall to keep Eagleson. He was, and in many ways still is, a powerful and politically connected force in hockey and in Canada. His friends include former Prime Minister John Turner, a member of the Hall's board. Philadelphia general manager Bob Clarke had gone public in support of Eagleson staying in. Clarke went so far as to call some of the other Hall of Famers looking to oust him "jackals . . . jerks . . . fringe players."
And the Eagle might have won. There are 18 directors on the Hall of Fame Committee and no standards for removing an inductee, even a convicted felon. Had the board accepted a proposal of a super majority, say 75 percent, Eagleson would have needed only five to vote against removal for him to stay in. That made a lot of people nervous, especially the players.
The controversy that should have ended with Eagleson's conviction was suddenly threatening to tear hockey apart.
"I sat in the U.S. federal courtroom in Boston and watched him plead guilty," said Johnny Bucyk, a Hall of Famer who made precious little as a player and now supports himself by working as a broadcaster for the Boston Bruins.
"The FBI wasn't wrong and neither was anybody else who checked into his past," Bucyk said. "He abused our trust as players, and he abused the very game itself. Then Bobby Clarke comes out and calls us jackals, jerks and fringe players for watching him plead guilty to fraud.
"Eagleson used hockey and he used us. If we're jackals, jerks and fringe players, the Hall of Fame can do without me. . . . He's a disgrace to hockey. He's in jail for the way he manipulated the game and the people who trusted him."
Ferny Flaman, another Hall of Famer who played for Boston and Toronto, wanted justice done.
"He was going to get $50,000 a year, U.S. money, in pension," Flaman said. "I'm getting $409 Canadian and $134 American for 14 seasons. I get $4,900 a year. He did as much for us as we're doing for him right now. I can't believe anyone would want him to stay in."
There's a lot of pain in those voices. Bucyk, Flaman and hundreds of others were pros, but not when money was a big part of the game. The Hall is an extra special place for them, a place of honor achieved strictly by performance. Maybe they didn't get rich like Eagleson and a lot of people around the game today, but at least they had their place in the game -- a very special place.
Eagleson soiled that. It seems hard for people -- especially the players who weren't his victims -- to understand. But in lending him their support, they added insult to the many who were injured and then left hopeless by Eagleson's financial deceit.
Those were the people Eagleson hurt. The workaday players and their fans who had no voice and couldn't be heard. His being a crook and in the Hall mocked them all.
In resigning, Eagleson ended that.
There's a school of thought that says it was the only truly right thing he ever did. That's neither fair nor true. Eagleson did some good things for the game and there are lots of "builders" in the Hall of Fame who did considerably less. There are also a few convicted felons still in there.
But in firing off a resignation letter, Eagleson not only pre-empts his opponents, he saves the board and a great many of his still powerful friends from having to wage a difficult and unsettling battle on his behalf.
In resigning, Eagleson brings closure to an ugly episode. He is in jail because he stole from the game. He has lost his honor and most of his power. But most important, he had to listen to the voices of the people he had hurt.
Those were Hall of Fame players who spoke out against him.
Eagleson and everyone connected with the Hall of Fame had to listen.