Union deserves fresh start, new leader

Updated: July 20, 2005, 7:59 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

TORONTO -- You know things don't look so good on the job security front when even your former antagonists are happy to praise you.

What's that old Roman saying? We come to praise Bob Goodenow just before we bury him.

On the eve of a ratification vote that will see the National Hockey League's players accept a deal they said they'd never accept, even ownership types are going out of there way to point out Goodenow's good points.

Bob Goodenow
Players have been reluctant to point the finger at union chief Bob Goodenow, for now.

"I have actually been defending Bob this week," said former Atlanta Thrashers president Stan Kasten. "He's a much better guy than anybody's giving him his due."

"As far as I'm concerned he's done what we asked him to do," added Carolina forward Jeff O'Neill, one of more than 200 players expected to show for their first look at the new collective bargaining agreement. "He's led us and I think he's done the right things. Maybe as a group we underestimated how strong the owners were going to be. But we were all behind Bob and we were all in this together. For people to judge whether we won or lost this deal I think is ridiculous."

In spite of the praise, it is an untenable position in which Goodenow finds himself during two days of meetings in Toronto. He did not want this deal. He had little to do with the crafting of this deal. And now he's going to end up falling on the sword (or being pushed onto it) because of the deal.

Fair? Maybe not. Inevitable? Yes.

It might not happen today or even tomorrow but before this new CBA is a year old, the players, and perhaps Goodenow himself, have no choice but to find a new leader for the 700-member association. Not because of what transpired over the past months, although Goodenow's recent résumé is littered with ill-advised decisions, but because of what his continued presence represents going forward.

After all, the future doesn't stop with Thursday's ratification. If the players are to take full advantage of the first-ever partnership with owners, they have to be a part of the game's revival on the ice and in the boardroom as well. One can hardly expect Goodenow, who fought tooth and nail against the deal, to champion the same deal going forward no matter how many times he says he is merely here to do the players' bidding.

But when all the evidence is weighed and considered and when these first furious months of the new deal pass and the league returns in October, then the players will have to look at who is best to lead them and Goodenow simply has too much baggage.

"It'll be a great day for hockey when he goes," one agent said.

"Bob used to have a lot of contact with owners when he first took over the PA," added another agent. "But he allowed [commissioner] Gary [Bettman] to paint him the same way to the owners that Bob painted Gary to the players."

That is to say, Goodenow became the embodiment of all that was wrong with the league from the owners' perspective just as Bettman is the players' bogeyman. That genie cannot be put back into the bottle and so Goodenow must.

Not that this is something that will be undertaken lightly by players.

Loyalty is a quality ingrained in them since they first tottered out onto a sheet of ice as children, and no matter their feelings about this deal and its 24 percent rollback and salary cap that will limit team payrolls at $39 million; they will not rush to judge Goodenow.

"I think it's unfair for guys to start to point the finger. It is what it is. Any deal that we would have gotten was going to be significantly worse than the one that we came off from," said Islander captain Michael Peca. "It's just sad to me seeing guys point the finger. We're proud to be hockey players. When you're in the locker room and things aren't going well you don't want to be the guy to point the finger. Guys should just save their opinions for the people that they're upset with and try to understand this better."

"When you look at Bob or at the executive committee, I think they did a great job. We had to stand up for what we thought we could get and that's the nature of the business," said St. Louis forward Doug Weight, who will likely be bought out by the Blues under the new CBA. "Now we have to move on."

With salaries tied to league revenues (54 percent this year and then floating either up or down depending on the health of the game), it is possible, even probable, the next great battle between the union and players will be in expanding the players' role in that partnership.

One prominent agent said he would have negotiated a handful of seats on the league's board of governors as part of this deal.

"Bob missed the boat two years ago," said one veteran agent.

It was then that Bettman approached the union about reopening the last CBA in an effort to try and put a lid on salaries, hamstringing the league's small-market teams and dumbing down the game. But Goodenow declined. He also declined to have the union play a role in former Securities and Exchange Commission head Arthur Levitt's 10-month investigation into league finances that confirmed owners' claims of a grim financial picture. It was easier to call the owners' claims into question from afar even though the union acknowledged the problems when they offered a 24 percent rollback on their salaries in December, a rollback incorporated into this new deal.

There is more than a little irony at play here.

They'd have tarred and feathered him.
former Atlanta Thrashers president Stan Kasten on the players reaction if they'd been asked to accept the deal they're expected to ratify Thursday.

Had Goodenow proposed this very deal to his membership last September when the lockout first started, players would have erupted.

"They'd have tarred and feathered him," Kasten said.

Instead, Goodenow and the union put the owners to the test by wading into the lockout. It seemed a good bet at the time. The owners had failed such tests in virtually every previous negotiation with the NHLPA.

Unfortunately for Goodenow, and ultimately hockey fans who have been without hockey since the end of the 2004 playoffs, he failed to recognize in a timely fashion that owners were infused with never-before-seen resolve. He also failed to understand the players' stomach for the lockout. He told them it might take two years to break the owners, but he failed to grasp that was too long and too steep a price to pay.

By early in 2005, some of Goodenow's top players were trying to negotiate around him. (This in spite of Chris Pronger's claims to the contrary Wednesday in Toronto.) But time had run too short and the season was lost and with it much of Goodenow's credibility.

In the aftermath, this new deal which includes the salary cap the players said they'd never accept and a link to revenues they likewise insisted was a non-starter, was struck largely without Goodenow's input.

Thursday morning the players will ratify that deal. It is a vote that will signal the start of this new partnership and the beginning of the end for their leader.

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

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