The careers of famous fighters rarely end gracefully. Whether it's Mike Tyson, Sugar Ray Leonard, Riddick Bowe or Kathie Lee Gifford, the story almost always ends the same: an underestimated opponent, an overblown sense of self and a close-up view of the canvas.
The man who once was arguably the NHL's most prodigious puncher now knows the feeling.
His name is Bob Goodenow, and his job was NHLPA leader. After the players' loud-and-clear "no mas" put an end to the lockout, Goodenow fades into "bolivion," as Tyson so aptly put it.
A decade ago, boxing's "eye of the tiger" had its legal equal in Goodenow, who used to be the NHLPA's Luke Skywalker to Alan Eagleson's Darth Vader.
Goodenow didn't nibble at and blow in owners' ears, as Eagleson became infamous for. He bit 'em off like Tyson did, spit 'em out, used 'em as hacky sacks, strung 'em together and wore 'em as a necklace. He wanted reparations for the NHL's owner-on-player crimes of the past, and he got them.
When they used to see Goodenow coming, the league's owners didn't know which body part to protect first. It never mattered: Goodenow clear-cut his way clean through their formerly private preserve, working hand-in-hand with player agents to raise the salary bar at every turn. He was wildly successful at what he did and almost immediately revered by the players.
But somewhere along the way, the trees had their revenge and Goodenow became unable to see the forest through them. "No salary cap, no linkage," he swore up and down, shutting out the whispers and screams that both concepts were an inevitability for every pro sports organization. He never got past the idea of owner as villain, twirling his moustache as the damsel NHLer lay tied to train tracks.
So he refused to hear Bettman's requests for consultation, then barely broke a sweat when the commissioner's pleas turned into threats. To hell with the Levitt Report, he told his employers, most of whom were only too happy to hear it. To hell with bankruptcies in Buffalo and Ottawa, he said. It's Us vs. Them, and Them just can't be trusted.
Goodenow's transparent distaste for Bettman and the owners eventually made his terra significantly less firma -- and because of it, the S.S. Players' Union now sits in dry dock, splintered and unsteady. The league has its cap and its linkage. All the players have to show for it is a 24 percent salary rollback and lower age levels of unrestricted free agency. In the words of 7-year-olds everywhere: big whoop.
With the players' understandable anger toward Goodenow steadily leaking into the public domain, his defenders tried to control the damage.
And their main argument was twofold: a) the agreed-upon CBA is an improvement on the league's last offer before Bettman canceled the season; and b) Goodenow warned his players they would have to fight for two years or more if they wanted to stave off a cap and linkage.
We hate to be the fly in that ointment, but the notion that the negotiated settlement is better than the mid-February, take-it-or-leave-it deal is nothing more than a red herring.
It's not a question of whether this deal is better for the players than the one in February 2005. It's a question of whether it's better than the one in February 2004, or in February 2003. Had the union been willing to listen then, the players might have avoided the gunslinger's match that pitted Bettman's bazooka against Goodenow's Glock. Instead, they put their fingers in their ears and set course for a battle some players now say they knew they wouldn't win.
The second argument, the idea the NHLPA lost the lockout because players didn't have the fortitude to follow through on Goodenow's plan, is equally dubious.
Look at the advice Goodenow gave the players. Did he actually expect the majority would batten down their financial hatches for two years or longer?
Did he really think that - no matter how feverish his warnings to them in the years leading up to the showdown - players didn't always live as extravagantly as their means allowed, leaving them ill-stocked to survive 730 days without pay? And what kind of league did he think players were coming back to after that kind of absence? Does the word "Chernobyl" seem appropriate to you, too?
What Goodenow did is like someone running a diet clinic that guarantees a 25 percent drop in a person's weight - but only if they promise not to eat anything for six months. Is such a plan possible in the most literal sense?
Of course it is. But does it factor favorably in the long-term health of the client?
Er, not so much.
Goodenow's biggest mistake wasn't the salary rollback proposal that alienated agents and players. It also wasn't the decision to allow players to take away jobs in Europe and in minor leagues across the world, a strategy that drew the wrath of fans and minor leaguers alike. It wasn't even the still-mystifying turnaround in philosophy that suddenly illustrated the acceptable side of cost certainty and made hypocrites out of men who are supposed to be marketed as heroes.
No, the biggest mistake Goodenow made, ironically enough, was the same mistake Bettman learned from before he mapped out his plan: He believed his constituents would show financial restraint during difficult times, only to discover too late that it was far easier said than done. But where Bettman climbed out of his significant hole using the monies his owners generated, Goodenow had no comparable revenue stream. As such, he had no shot at surviving the ultimate test of wills.
Only in the fantasy world of pro sports would the NHLPA have considered keeping Goodenow around after all this. Mike Modano fired his business advisers for losing a lot less of his money than the union's share of $2.1 billion in league revenues. Most, if not all, CEOs and union heads would have been shown the door abruptly had they made the same errors in strategy.
The unavoidable truth is, Goodenow rolled the dice and they came up snake eyes.
His flawed theories cost his bosses a bundle.
He is an old fighter at the end of a brutal fighting career, and there's nothing sadder than seeing a former champ have the towel thrown in on him.
E-mail Adam Proteau at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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