The first time I spoke to Russ Conway, he wanted nothing to do with me. “I’m tired of reporters trying to steal my stuff,” he said in his chowderhead accent. “I don’t need any help.”
I’d been recommended to Russ by National Hockey League legend Carl Brewer and his partner Susan Foster, who’d been pursuing notorious NHL figure Alan Eagleson for almost 20 years.
When I persevered and said that I might be different, he sparked up a cigarette, coughed and said, “All right. Eagleson won’t talk to me. If you can interview him, I’ve got five questions for him.”
Two days later, I was in Eagleson’s office on the day of the 1991 Canada Cup semifinals. As Russ had anticipated, Eagleson lied like a trooper to me because he thought that, like the others, I had no research.
Bad gamble. I had Russ’s initial work into Eagleson’s malfeasance and criminality.
I reported back to Russ, who was ecstatic with the results. And like Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains at the end of Casablanca, he said (approximately), “Bruce, this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
Indeed it was.
From 1991 until his death last week at age 70, Russ and I had a most unique partnership. I was an on-air reporter at CBC TV with a national platform. Russ worked for a modest family-owned paper, the Eagle-Tribune, in the shadow of the famous Boston media. We shared most everything we came up with for seven years.
Russ specialized in the stories emanating from his backyard and his deep contacts with the Boston Bruins and NHL.
I had Eagleson’s office two blocks away from mine in his home base of Toronto. (One night I actually measured the width of the four parking spaces that he called 10 spaces when he soaked the National Hockey League Players’ Association for their cost.)
The scoops and revelations – which later formed the basis of criminal charges to which he pled guilty – were journalism at its finest. Russ was shortlisted for the Pulitzer. I won the Gemini as Canada’s top sports journalist twice.
While the awards and threats that came our way were rewarding, the best part was the seminar on reporting I absorbed working with Russ (and Carl and Sue). His most valuable lesson was that the reporter is not the story. That may come as a shock to the uber egos of cable news networks and social media.
He always subordinated himself to the story and to the NHL players he was helping by exposing crooked insurance deals, phoney collective bargaining and the graft that Eagleson raked in during his quarter century as union head, agent and promoter of Team Canada.
Russ didn’t want to be a star.
In this age of instant-gratification reporting, it’s quaint to recall that Russ insisted on everything being triple sourced. He also insisted that we stick to the documents. We never exploited a rich trove of lurid stories from Eagleson’s personal life – of which there were many. We would get him on facts, not the drive-by smearing in which Twitter now abounds.
As a bachelor, his time was elastic; often the phone calls came late at night and lasted hours. But man, he made me a better reporter. From Russ and the indomitable Susan Foster I learned how to search corporate documents, mortgages, labour law and Hockey Canada manifests.
Russ never used email or any digital sources in his unique style of reporting. His phone, his tape recorder and his voluminous logs of leads and contacts formed the basis of his work.
While I sometimes chafed at the pace of stories in this method, he was ensuring accuracy and balance. He taught me to interview everyone.
So, to provide fairness, I sat with Eagleson, NHL president John Ziegler, later NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and a host of Eagleson loyalists among the players.
Then there were his allies in former prime minister John Turner and Supreme Court Justice John Sopinka, who gave him cover when the U.S. Justice Department and FBI moved in.
To be honest, until he finally testified under oath in a 1996 suit brought by his former client Mike Gillis – later a prominent agent and NHL general manager – I was convinced Eagleson would wriggle out of the net in which we’d snared him.
But that day in court I saw the pathetic, shallow man finally forced to admit the truth under the questioning of Gillis’s lawyer Charles Scott. In 1998, Eagleson went to jail (briefly) on a sweetheart deal engineered by his friends in power. (The U.S. was prepared to give him five years.)
All of which is not to say Russ was dull. He lived a 35-year midlife crisis with Corvettes, partying at Hampton Beach and avoiding marriage at all costs. His racing and golf exploits were talked about throughout the hockey world. Dinner with Russ and Carl Brewer at Barberian’s Steak House in Toronto was a feast of stories and anecdotes.
I’m eternally grateful to CBC News for backing my work through lawsuits, threats and intimidation (I wasn’t popular at Hockey Night In Canada). I spent dozens of hours with lawyers like Danny Henry vetting the work.
But Russ had a situation to be envied. The Rogers family that owned his paper didn’t have the CBC’s resources. But they still backed Russ the whole way and at great cost – even as he covered local high school sports at the same time.
He was also devoted to motor racing and local charities in the North Andover area. He was ubiquitous at the old and new Garden in Boston despite representing a second-tier paper.
Eventually, the NHL came to know him. That’s why he’s an Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award winner at the Hockey Hall of Fame.
He was generous. He always gave equal credit to me and Sue and Carl. I’ll always remember the personal note he inscribed for me in his book Game Misconduct. He told me we’d been a team working together.
From a reporter like Russ, respect for a job well done was the greatest compliment you could receive.
Troy Media columnist Bruce Dowbiggin career includes successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he is also the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster.