Whom do we like in this year's Stanley Cup finals? Glad you asked. Just in time for the playoffs, which begin in three weeks, the NHL players have authorized a strike. For their part the owners have reportedly threatened to stock their teams with scabs from the minor leagues if the players walk out. So we're taking the Phoenix Road-runners over the Binghamton Rangers in six games.
Strike? The NHL Players' Association? Isn't this the historically apathetic, just-happy-to-be-here bunch that has never filed an antitrust suit, much less gone on strike, in its 25-year existence? The very same. Suddenly, however, the NHLPA has stopped behaving like management's patsy and started behaving like a labor union with teeth.
The negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement to replace the one that expired on Sept. 15 have been more businesslike than bitter. But that will change if the players, who already have been paid in full for the regular season, walk out before or during the playoffs, as they have threatened to do. By striking then, the players risk losing only their meager playoff shares, which range from $3,000 a man for first-round losers to $25,000 for members of the Stanley Cup winner. The owners, on the other hand, hope to break even during the regular season and make the big money during the playoffs. Hence, the players are well positioned for a strike. At week's end, talks between the two sides were intensifying, but no progress had been made.
What firebrand has infused the players' association with such solidarity? Who has become the burr in the backside of NHL president John Ziegler?
That man is Bob Goodenow, who is sharp enough to have graduated from Harvard and tough enough to have played in the International Hockey League. Goodenow, a 39-year-old labor lawyer, brings plenty of both qualities to his role as the NHLPA's new executive director. After earning a degree in economics and government at Harvard in 1974, Goodenow tried out for, and was cut by, the Washington Capitals. These days at least a few owners must be wishing that Goodenow had enjoyed a long NHL career. Had he done so, Goodenow probably wouldn't be in the position he's in today.
Before replacing Alan Eagleson as NHLPA executive director on Jan. 1, Goodenow spent a little more than a year as the union's deputy director. During that time he inundated the players with information, conducting seminars all over the league on the key issues that are now keeping the players from coming to terms with the owners on a new collective bargaining agreement. They are:
•Free agency: NHL rules severely restrict player movement. The owners maintain that true free agency would be financially ruinous for them.
•Arbitration: Disputes are resolved by league-appointed arbitrators. Call them crazy, but the players would prefer independent arbitrators.
•The entry draft: The players want it reduced from 12 rounds to six in order to give incoming players market salary and more freedom of opportunity.
In pursuing these objectives the players have shown the determination and zeal of the newly empowered. "We've never been this well informed," says Boston Bruin center Dave Poulin, a 10-year NHL veteran. Does he find the prospect of a strike scary? "What's scary," says Poulin, "is that we've never done it before."
According to his Harvard teammates, Goodenow's strengths were a heavy shot and a level head. After captaining the Crimson to a Final Four appearance as a senior and washing out with the Caps, Goodenow signed with the Flint Generals of the IHL. Goodenow reached the nadir of his playing career while riding the buses in the "I" and decided to pursue a law career.
He passed the Michigan bar in 1979, practiced labor and tax law in Dearborn, Mich., and represented hockey players, among them Kelly Miller of Washington, Joel Otto of the Calgary Flames and a blond right wing who played for the St. Louis Blues, Brett Hull. In '90, Goodenow negotiated a four-year, $7.1 million contract for Hull, a deal that helped other stars land similar megasalaries.
Goodenow insisted that he receive less than the 5% cut that many agents normally get for that type of contract work. "He would only accept about a fifth of what he earned," says Hull. And rather than stay at a hotel while working for Hull in St. Louis, Goodenow crashed in a guest room at Hull's house. "Why should I spend my client's money at some $150-a-night hotel?" says Goodenow.
Such frugality is in sharp contrast to Eagleson, who reportedly refused to allow the players, his employers, to review his expense accounts. This and other seeming improprieties, like representing general managers and players at the same time and maintaining a cozy relationship with Ziegler and some of the owners, finally led to a manifestation of player unrest in the spring of 1989. A few months later Eagleson offered his resignation, effective Dec. 31, 1991.
When Goodenow took over as NHLPA chief, he immediately stepped up the efforts he had begun to educate the players on labor matters. Information packets were mailed to the player representatives. They, in turn, organized six one-hour meetings for each of their teams to discuss the issues and then filed written reports to Goodenow.
"Basically, we taught six classes," says New Jersey Devils defenseman Bruce Driver. "We wrote down the feedback and sent it back to Bob. We never realized just how much power we had until the strike votes came in." That resounding mandate—the players on all 22 teams have authorized the NHLPA's bargaining committee to strike—has given Goodenow the hammer in negotiations.
Bright though he is, as an 18-year-old Michigander, Goodenow found Harvard academically and socially intimidating. "It was a struggle for him," says a friend. "But once he realized he could keep up with those people, it gave him quite a bit of confidence."
One of those people was undoubtedly Goodenow's teammate and roommate, Leverett Saltonstall Byrd, grandson of Admiral Richard Byrd and a scion of two of Massachusetts's Colonial families, the Leveretts and the Saltonstalls. 'Goodenow would tease Byrd and his Brahmin buddies about their conservative ways and the effete New England hockey they'd grown up playing. They in turn would dismiss his remarks as the prattle of a Midwestern yokel. Byrd remembers Goodenow being a creature of routine and strict discipline: "This was his day—class, practice, weights, dinner, study, and then, around 11 o'clock, he'd allow himself a pizza break."
That discipline—plus his hard shot and poise under pressure—prompted Bill Cleary, Harvard's coach at the time, to put Goodenow on the point on the power play. Says Mark Noonan, another former Crimson teammate, "It sure as hell wasn't because he could skate backward."
Eighteen years later Goodenow finds himself on the point of another power play. The stakes are higher, and his teammates are different and more numerous. But he remains levelheaded—and as incapable as ever of skating backward.