Goodenow: Too much lion, not enough fox?

Originally Published: October 14, 2004
By Damien Cox | Special to ESPN.com

It's not hard to see Bob Goodenow as Col. Nathan Jessep.

You remember cuddly Col. Jessep, don't you? The senior military officer put on the spot by Tom Cruise in "A Few Good Men"?

Bob Goodenow
Union chief Bob Goodenow's main concern is doing his job, not what people think of him.
There's a moment early in the film when Jessep demonstrates his steely nerve, his defiant demeanor in the face of questions he chooses not to entertain.

"You want to investigate me? Roll the dice and take your chances," says Jessep. "I eat breakfast 80 yards away from 4,000 Cubans who are trained to kill me. So don't for one second think you're gonna come down here, flash a badge and make me nervous."

That, or at least the approach, mirrors that of Goodenow, for the past 13 years the hard-nosed leader of the National Hockey League Players' Association.

When threatened, he shrugs. Tell him he's ruining the game? He shrugs and offers a blank look. Suggest he needs to think of the good of the sport. He'll tell you he works for the players, first and last.

So don't think Gary Bettman's going to lock out Goodenow's players and make him nervous. He eats breakfast ... well, let's not push this too far. After all, Goodenow is the furthest one can imagine from a Hollywood-type character.

He's Dick Cheney, minus the flamboyance.

Want laughs? Watch Nickleodeon. Goodenow is a serious guy who approaches his job in a serious way.

"His demeanor is such that I hope he's not like that at home," said Bill Watters, a former player agent and assistant GM with the Toronto Maple Leafs. "It's hard to get a chuckle out of him. That may just be his way of doing business."

Is there a sensitive, sociable side to Goodenow? Absolutely. Take him out of the context of NHL labor relations and he can be almost affable, nearly charming.

But he guards that side as carefully as he has guarded the interests of his constituency, a union that has grown to 700 members from 500 members since he took over from Alan Eagleson due to generous and over-aggressive NHL expansion.

"Some people have the need to be loved," said NHLPA senior director Ted Saskin, who has worked with Goodenow since the fall of 1990. "That's not Bob's nature. He wants to be respected. He wants to do a good job."

For the most part, that has meant Goodenow has avoided the limelight and controversy, commodities that both followed Eagleson, his predecessor.

The most controversial element of the 51-year-old Goodenow's reign, really, has been his supposedly tight relationship with agent David Frost, the man who it is believed was the target of former St. Louis Blues forward Mike Danton's murder plot. But even that didn't stick to Goodenow, didn't taint his leadership of the union, much to the disappointment, quite probably, of the NHL's 30 owners.

If Eagleson was too cozy to ownership, Goodenow has been anything but. Before his arrival, the NHL hadn't had a strike or labor-related work stoppage of any kind since the Hamilton Tigers refused to play the 1925 Stanley Cup final unless they were each paid an additional $200 per man.

Some people have the need to be loved, That's not Bob's nature. He wants to be respected. He wants to do a good job.
Ted Saskin, NHLPA senior director
Since Goodenow become the union's executive director, the players have struck once, a bold decision on the eve of the 1992 playoffs, and, including this fall, have been locked out by the owners twice after collective bargaining negotiations failed.

Whether that has made Goodenow an outstanding union leader is open to interpretation. But one strike and two lockouts later, it's pretty clear he is despised by ownership.

"I get the feeling that the owners, at the end of the day, want this guy's head on a stake," said Watters.

In recent days, Los Angeles Kings executive Tim Lieweke was fined by the league after calling Goodenow "a bald-faced liar." Last week, Philadelphia Flyers chairman Ed Snider seemed to express the fondest dreams of the league's owners when he suggested the "free market" cherished by the players might be best created by "no union."

That threatening attitude has, for the most part, been the way in which the owners and the NHL executive have dealt with Goodenow since he took over the union. He loves to tell the story about how, at a plush restaurant in Switzerland, he was berated so loudly soon after taking over the union by influential league owners that the restaurant's owner had to come by and ask the men to reduce the volume of their conversation.

When NHL president John Ziegler said, in June 1991, that spiraling player salaries and a militant union could kill the league, Goodenow, then the new boy on the block, responded in a manner that suggested he was anything but intimidated.

"[The owners] are trying to shape public opinion in their favor, and it's a rather weak effort in that regard," responded Goodenow, the former captain of Harvard's hockey team.

When commissioner Gary Bettman first locked horns with Goodenow in 1994, Bettman tried to bully the players by threatening to unilaterally impose a new economic scheme on the players that would include mandatory two-way contracts, the elimination of salary arbitration, elimination of guaranteed contracts, elimination of training camp and regular-season per diems and the reduction of the player roster to 19 players from 20.

Goodenow didn't blink. After a 103-day lockout, a new deal was struck that, over the past decade, has proved to be wildly favorable to the players and a nightmare for the owners.

No wonder he inspires such strong feelings both ways. He takes every battle to the wall and wins most of 'em.

His driving philosophy, one built during his early years with the union, is that he believes players who establish themselves as NHLers should not have to concern themselves with finances when they retire and should have enough economic assets to comfortably turn to another vocation if they desire.

But if the owners hate him, the players appear to support and respect him unquestioningly, no surprise given that salaries have climbed to an average $1.8 million from less than $300,000 in 1991.

Bob stays on top of every situation. Does he take it to the side of going overboard? Probably. But he fights for causes, and he fights for the union. No player doubts where his heart is.
Glenn Healy, former NHL goalie
"He makes it really clear that he works for the players," says former NHL goalie Glenn Healy, who was a member of the players' association under Eagleson and Goodenow. "Bob stays on top of every situation. Does he take it to the side of going overboard? Probably.

"But he fights for causes, and he fights for the union. No player doubts where his heart is."

More than a few agents, meanwhile, are quietly dismayed with Goodenow's approach to the current stalemate, questioning whether his passive belligerence in the face of a league that clearly has economic problems is taking the union on a ride to disaster. But it is also evidence of Goodenow's unassailable leadership position that none of those agents will make their criticisms public.

"I don't think players fear him," says Healy. "The guys look at him with respect. He's very focused, and you learn that when you golf in his golf tournament. It's the only full scramble tournament where you're in and out in five hours. That typifies the way he does business."

Insiders say Goodenow never ridicules or berates players in front of their peers, an approach for which Eagleson was notorious. He insists that players be informed, arming all with laptop computers so they can stay on top of union affairs. Indeed, while many league executives are truly in the dark with respect to the strategies and collective bargaining plans of the Bettman administration, those players who wish to be in the know have no trouble gaining Goodenow's ear or information on union affairs.

The fact that he played the game in college and as a minor pro helps him relate to players, and he goes out of his way to make himself available and tours from city to city to converse with his membership.

That said, Goodenow can also sometimes be a bully, particularly with members of the media who challenge his positions.

"He doesn't suffer fools well, that's for sure," says Saskin.

Over the past five years, Goodenow has taken a calculated gamble in declining to sit down with the league and negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement when Bettman and Co. made appeals that teams were suffering dangerous financial losses.

There are those who suggest the union's best chance for a deal might have been two years ago. Indeed, the union is clearly now in a give-back position to some degree, having already offered an across-the-board pay cut of 5 percent, and if ownership holds its ground in pursuing a salary cap or significant claw-backs it is difficult to envision how the deal will get better for the players over the coming months.

Former Vancouver Canucks GM Brian Burke worked with Goodenow as a player agent in the mid-1980s, but since then has found himself either in management or employed by the league, and thus in direct opposition to his former colleague. He questions whether Goodenow's bulldog approach will work this time, as least not as well as it did in 1992 and 1994.

"In my humble opinion, a big part of being an effective leader is knowing how and when to make a deal," says Burke. "There was a Confederate general named John Bell Hood, and when Robert E. Lee was asked about Hood, he said, 'too much lion, not enough fox.'

"Being willing to fight at the drop of a hat isn't always a leader's mission."

The hockey world knows Goodenow can fight, knows he is tough. Getting his players back to work anytime soon, however, may well require more finesse, less Col. Jessep from hockey's best known hard-liner.

Damien Cox, a columnist for the Toronto Star, is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

Damien Cox, a columnist for the Toronto Star, is a regular hockey contributor to ESPN.com. In this role, he writes numerous columns on the NHL.

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