The six-player selection committee is sworn to secrecy. But the way agent Steve Bartlett understands the situation, it came down to a spirited player debate at 2 a.m. in January to ordain the next leader of the NHL Players Association.
Bob Goodenow vs. Steve Bartlett.
Goodenow, 37, a Dearborn, Mich., attorney and former captain of the Harvard hockey team, was the winner. The runner-up applauded graciously.
"It made me feel really good that some of the guys on the committee told me, 'As far as your interview and your ideas, we liked you best. We sat there arguing whether we could overlook Bob's five years of labor law experience that you didn't have,' " said Bartlett, from Rochester, N.Y. "I hadn't pursued the job. It was a shock I was officially in the final five. I honestly felt that if I couldn't get it, I wanted Bob to win. I didn't believe the other candidates had a feeling for the pulse of the players or were that close to the game."
For a salary of $250,000 Canadian, Goodenow must abandon his job as agent for 25 players and serve as deputy executive director of the NHL Players Association until Sept. 15, 1991. Goodenow also will serve as lead negotiator at next summer's tell-all collective bargaining negotiations.
The NHLPA's first and only boss, Alan Eagleson, who endured a firestorm and almost a player revolt in 1989, will step down after 24 years when his contract expires Sept. 15, 1991.
This is Goodenow's baby now. After he gained his law degree at the University of Detroit, he battled on behalf of a Pittsburgh corporation through a nasty 11-month strike against the Teamsters in the early 1980s. Goodenow was licensed to carry a .38-caliber snubnose -- just in case. He didn't need it, but a union fellow in Pittsburgh by the name of Frank Caputo says it still makes him nauseated to think Goodenow is on labor's side now.
All of hockey's eyes were on Goodenow this past summer. In his final act as an agent, Goodenow negotiated a four-year, $7 million deal with St. Louis to re-sign free agent Brett Hull. Not shabby for a fellow who played out his option at $125,000 and scored 72 goals. It was a Goodenow coup.
"What a swan song as an agent," Bartlett said. "The Hull deal gives Bob credibility and, at the same time, puts the fear of God into the owners. They know he's a force. It was great timing on his part. He's got ammunition now. I think a lot of people -- both from the players' standpoint and the management's -- were watching. I don't think a lot of the owners knew Bob very well. And now they have a flavor of what he's all about."
The reaction from management, not surprisingly, was sharp.
"Awful," Quebec owner Marcel Aubut said. "Hull's deal created a precedent that could put us all out of business. Half the league could go out business trying to match that deal."
"Scares the living daylights out of me," Vancouver General Manager Pat Quinn said.
Bruins General Manager Harry Sinden even kiddingly suggested hand grenade be thrown into the Blues' offices. But, then, Sinden turned serious: "I'm not happy. I got into a situation created by other people -- I'm talking about what St. Louis did -- and I had to capitulate."
The Bruins' Raymond Bourque renegotiated far beyond $1 million a year. Cam Neely came close to seven figures a year, although Kevin Dineen and Whalers teammate Pat Verbeek said Neely sold himself short. In Montreal, Denis Savard signed for $1.1 million. . . . Al MacInnis in Calgary, Rick Tocchet in Philadelphia, the list of big numbers kept growing. When Edmonton President-GM Glen Sather saw Philadelphia's Ron Hextall sign a bonus-filled contract that could push him to $1.7 million a year if he met certain performance goals, Sather said in exasperation, "One more step toward the ruin of the National Hockey League."
"Now, I hear Mark Messier wants to be renegotiated to $2 million lTC a year with the Oilers," Whalers owner Richard Gordon said. "What would you do? All I can say is that each club must look at it on an individual basis and do what they think is right. It ain't easy."
"Individual basis: That's the Hartford position," Whalers General Manager Ed Johnston said. "The Hull signing made it difficult on GMs. But you've got to separate, each case is different. Some of these guys have made postseason All-Star teams. Some led their teams to the Stanley Cup finals. Timing is everything: Hull and Goodenow would have been more than happy to take $500,000 a year ago."
Johnston has decided to hold the line on Ron Francis, who'll make $370,000 in his option year. He's willing to push Francis, who he points out has never been a postseason All-Star or in the finals, above $500,000 as the highest-paid player on the team. But he says he isn't willing to spill $700,000 or more into Francis' pocket. (A footnote: Not that Francis is in his class, but Detroit's Steve Yzerman never has been in the finals or been a postseason All-Star, either. And he's making $1.35 million this year.)
The Whalers have managed to hold a middle line so far. The average salary in the NHL last season was $222,017. The Whalers were 11th among 21 clubs. St. Louis was last with a $156,250 average and $3.5 million total payroll.
"What shocked everybody was that it was St. Louis, where everybody seemed to making $110,000 last year," the Whalers' Pat Verbeek said. "Then, bang, Hull and Scott Stevens sign and they're the only team with two million-dollar players. I think it enraged everybody in management. But I just think St. Louis was tired of being middle of the road."
If soaring expectations flop, it could all change. But for now, the Blues have become the darlings of the Gateway City. Season tickets, as low as 6,000 three years ago, have grown from 9,800 to 12,000. Factor in the $5 increase per ticket, and the Blues are making it all work nicely -- for now.
Although Hull's signing sets a standard, Gordie Howe, who says didn't make $100,000 until his last year in Detroit (1970-71), and Bartlett both point to the Wayne Gretzky deal two years ago for a precedent.
"Wayne's deal showed that a team will do anything to try to win," Howe said.
"The Gretzky deal was such an incredible break from the traditional norms of hockey business," Bartlett said. "He was an untouchable, which everybody quickly learned was a diminishing asset because of his age. Yet another team felt he was the savior in terms of fan support and visibility. LA mortgaged their future for a fix. You can debate it for years, and it will take years to sort out.
"Clearly, it didn't hurt Edmonton too bad. And it may be worth the gamble for LA. These things could end up being a win-win situation if people are careful."