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Longtime skating agent Shep Goldberg dies at 65

Manager of Kwan, Brown remembered for fierce protection of athletes
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From L-R: Shep Goldberg, columnist Christine Brennan and longtime figure skating publicist, Lynn Plage. -courtesy of Lynn Plage

Shep Goldberg was in the final stages of battling cancer when a nurse asked him about his career.

"Sports marketing," he told her.

Then the nurse followed up with another question: "What are your hobbies?'

"Sports marketing," he said.

Indeed, sports marketing was both his profession and his passion for decades. In the wake of his death -- he died Tuesday at the age of 65 with his family by his side in his hometown of Detroit -- he will be remembered for his work and his lifelong hobby.

Most known for his work with figure skaters Michelle Kwan and Evan Lysacek, Goldberg worked with several other notable athletes, namely Olympic champion Mary Lou Retton. He had just begun a partnership with one of skating's newest young talents, U.S. silver medalist Jason Brown, this past spring.

Goldberg was known in sports circles as being an agent, but he always preferred being called a "manager," as he handled everything for his athletes ranging from their contracts to their marketing plans. He never worked with many athletes at a time, and when he worked with an athlete, he was devoted to them completely. Many recall him for his tenacity, as he would go to great lengths to protect his athletes, but he would just as easily smile and laugh with colleagues moments after a difficult negotiation.

Born Feb. 24, 1949, as Shepard Carl Goldberg, he grew up in Philadelphia and later moved to California, where he worked for a variety of sports teams, including the California Golden Seals, the Oakland A's and the Los Angeles Lakers. He later got involved in Olympic sports and worked with gold medalist Retton. It wasn't until later on that he started working in figure skating, but once he did, it became his world.

Tom Collins, a longtime figure skating show promoter who is now retired, was first introduced to Goldberg in 1984 when Goldberg was working with the Vidal Sassoon gymnastics tour. Collins was working in merchandising back then, and he struck up a kinship with Goldberg.

Nearly a decade later, Collins was in San Antonio, Texas, inspecting the Alamodome for his upcoming skating tour and was watching a bit of the figure skating competition at the U.S. Olympic Festival.

"All of a sudden, a scrawny little girl comes out on the ice with these toothpick legs, but I knew there was something special about her," Collins said. "I looked around for her coach, and it was Frank Carroll. I asked him, 'Does she have a manager?' Frank said no, so I called Shep and told him I was going to get him into figure skating.

"I called Shep, and he said, 'Who do you have for me? Dorothy Hamill? Peggy Fleming?' I said, 'No, Michelle Kwan.' He dropped the phone -- I'm not kidding -- and when he picked it back up, he said, 'Who?' He had never heard of her, but I knew she was going to be special from that day. Shep took my word, called [Michelle's father] Danny Kwan, and the rest is history."

The next year, 1994, Michelle Kwan was an alternate for the U.S. Olympic team. In 1996 she won the first of her nine U.S. titles and went on to claim five world crowns. With Goldberg at her side, she landed triples on the ice and he landed lucrative sponsorship deals off of it. She did not win an Olympic gold medal but many believed it was the way she handled defeat -- assisted, of course, by Goldberg -- that made her so beloved by her fans.

"Shep was a loving husband, caring father and, to all who knew him, a good and wonderful person," Kwan said in a statement released to U.S. Figure Skating. "I was 13 years old when Shep began working with me.

"For more than 20 years, Shep stood by my side as my manager, confidante and trusted adviser. He cared for me like I was his own daughter, helping me with difficult decisions, making jokes when I needed a laugh, and was always there through good times and bad. I am heartbroken that he's gone and will miss him more than words can express.

"At this difficult time, my family and I join Shep's colleagues and friends from around the world in remembering this incredible man who blessed all our lives, and in sending our deepest sympathy and prayers to his beloved Janet, Carly and Haley."

Goldberg became fiercely loyal to Kwan and her family and did whatever it took to be a success. 

"He did a great job and was an absolute genius when it came to negotiating TV contracts," Collins said. "He helped me in so many ways with Champions on Ice. He really worked and fought for his clients. Sometimes he would work so hard that we would argue. I'd say, 'Wait a minute ... I'm the one who brought you Michelle,' but he would protect his athletes, and I would always relent."

Frank Carroll, who coached Kwan and Lysacek, echoed those sentiments, saying Goldberg would not accept no for an answer when it came to his clients.

"He was a tough negotiator," Carroll said. "He was someone who would not give up, and he did some things for his clients that nobody else could do."

Goldberg began working with Kwan when she was a young, pony-tailed teen and continued to manage her years after her competitive skating career ended. Now 34, Kwan collaborated with Goldberg on a variety of post-skating projects, ranging from her work as a U.S. diplomat with the State Department to her role as a commentator for Fox Sports at the recent Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. 

Within skating circles, Goldberg's presence was always noticed. He loomed large, especially in the skating world, which is populated by so many tiny people, and he knew everyone who worked in the press box and all the coaches who were rinkside. He was powerful, as longtime skating writer Jo-Ann Barnas noted, but also he was "a gentle soul."

Although Jason Brown was a new client of Goldberg's, he quickly grew to get to know him and had been looking forward to working with him. 

This week, however, Brown will skate with a heavy heart as he will compete at the Rostelecom Cup of Russia in Moscow.

"Shep was an incredible man," Brown said. "He made a lasting mark on the world of figure skating and I'm so grateful for the time we had together. My love goes out to his wife and daughters."

U.S. Figure Skating executive director David Raith plans to attend Goldberg's funeral services.

"Shep was not only a business associate but a friend," Raith said. "He was a pillar among those in the athlete representation profession, and his marketing and public relations acumen was an industry leader. Our deepest condolences to his wife, Janet, daughters, Carly and Haley, and all of his family. He will certainly be missed."

His absence has already been noticed. He was unable to attend the Hilton HHonors Skate America last month in Chicago while dealing with his illness, and it was only then that people began to wonder about his health. As protective as he was about his clients, he was equally protective and private as his own health began to fail.

He emailed a close circle of colleagues about his health but even then did not provide many details. When news began to leak, friends and colleagues -- some of whom had not worked with him in years -- came out of the woodwork to express their sadness.

Christine Brennan, a columnist with USA Today who worked closely with Goldberg for her newspaper columns and book projects, said Goldberg's work in the field was in a class of its own.

"This was simply the best pairing of an iconic role model and an agent in Olympic history," Brennan said. "Michelle Kwan and Shep Goldberg reflected each other's class and dignity at a time when many athletes and sports were losing theirs. And Shep was much more than an agent. He was a fabulous marketer, representative and friend. Add Mary Lou Retton and Evan Lysacek and you can see why Shep was such a respected and beloved force in the Olympic world for 30 years."

Phil Hersh, the venerable Chicago Tribune sports reporter who has followed figure skating for more than three decades, added that the best way to reflect on Goldberg's career was this:

"Through 14 seasons as an elite competitor, when Michelle Kwan became one of her sport's most beloved and accomplished athletes, she wound up having several coaches but just one agent: Shep. And he remained her agent for the eight years since Michelle's final competition. That he could inspire such trust and loyalty from an athlete like Michelle, whom the world's biggest agencies would have loved to represent, is a clear measure of Shep as a man, a friend and a professional. "

Even when Goldberg's answer was no, and reporters were familiar with that reply, he somehow managed to keep close connections with the writers.

"Reporters and agents are natural adversaries," explained Bonnie Ford of ESPN.com. "We want access and candor; their job is to protect, serve and often, spin. Shep's gift was that he was able to observe those boundaries and still maintain personal rapport with those who covered his clients. I respected him whether his answer was yes or no, and will miss our conversations about his family."

Although his work and passion were intertwined, his family came first. His home base since 1996 was the Detroit suburb of Northville, Michigan. He and his wife, Janet, had been married for 32 years, and they have two daughters, Haley and Carly, both of graduates of the University of Michigan.

Goldberg would talk about his daughters glowingly and always had a photo to share and a beaming smile to go with it. Haley is the features assistant for the New York Post while Carly is a Teach for America alum who is in her third year of teaching fourth grade in Chicago.

Funeral arrangements are still being determined. The family is suggesting that any donations be made to standup2cancer.org