It was 1971, and the 23-year-old Harvard graduate had just taken a deferment from law school to join the Olympic hockey team headed to Sapporo. Cavanagh had already been invited to the Bruins' training camp and, for an agonizing period, the Cranston, R.I., native was poised to become either an up-and-coming center in the NHL or a renowned trial attorney.
So when he broke his wrist while practicing for the Olympic team, Cavanagh, a deeply religious Catholic, might have taken it as a sign from above.
"When I was making my decision, I prayed about it," he says. "Given the gifts I had and the upbringing I had, it was better for me to use my talents as a lawyer and not continue playing hockey. My vocations were to be a lawyer and to be a father."
That would have been news to the kid who was always on the ice ponds of Roger Williams Park in the 1950s and 1960s. As a child, Cavanagh was, above all, an athlete, the intensely competitive first boy of nine children who picked up a tennis racquet on a whim in his early teens and blew away guys who'd been playing all their lives. But the sport he loved most was hockey.
Skating didn't come easily at first. "I was the one who said my hands were cold, my rear end hurt and I wanted to leave," Cavanagh, now 60, says. "All of a sudden, I was the one who never wanted to leave."
In grade school, Cavanagh counted down the seconds till he could run out to the ponds with his skates and a hockey stick. In high school, he and his brother David, now a priest in Cambridge, Mass., got up at 6 most mornings for one-on-ones before class. On the high-school hockey team, Joe spurred David on with his philosophy that everything, even practice, requires 100 percent effort.
"Our coach had these brutal wind sprints that left us absolutely exhausted—down, back, down, back—and by the end we'd be hanging on the boards," David says. "Not Joe. Joe would come to me and say, ‘Get off the boards. If you do it in practice, you'll do it in the game.' The way he played hockey, he brought [that intensity] to everything."
And though few noticed at the time, Cavanagh demonstrated an early talent for finding legal loopholes.
"One time in high school, we were shooting pucks in the driveway and broke some glass, so our father said, ‘That's it. No more shooting pucks in the driveway,'" David says. "I go upstairs and then hear more glass break. I go downstairs and see Joe, and he's not shooting pucks, he's hitting tennis balls. He was already using his legal capacities for distinguished matters."
It shouldn't have been a surprise. Their father, Joseph Sr., was making his name as a trial lawyer in insurance cases. But even with a pedigree, Cavanagh didn't consider a career in law until later in life.
After a post-graduate year at Phillips Andover Academy, he entered Harvard with a major in government in 1967. His grades weren't stellar, but Cavanagh, known as "the Cav," was a college sports legend, an All-American in hockey for three straight years and the school's No. 2 tennis player.
"He had just one gear: full-on," says Rich McLaughlin, a lifelong friend who began playing hockey with Cavanagh at age 9. "He's not the biggest guy in the world compared to the guys he was playing against, but he wasn't afraid of anything. Joe was tough. He got a few stitches on his face, and a couple concussions, too."
But when his wrist snapped, Cavanagh suspected it was time to make a change. "I knew that if I continued to play hockey, I would never continue with school because I loved hockey too much, and I didn't think then that I liked school," he says.
Just as it had with skating, Cavanagh's ambivalence turned into devotion. "It was a new world to me, and I put sports behind me," he says.
After he graduated in 1974, he returned to Rhode Island and joined Edwards & Angell on the advice of his father. He dove into a wide variety of cases. Fellow associate Colby Cameron, now of Cameron & Mittleman, says Cavanagh was as focused preparing for trial as he had been at hockey drills.
"As a matter of practice, he always rehearses over and over again his summations to the jury," Cameron says. "Some litigators are flamboyant. Joe is not flamboyant. Joe is just solid as a rock."
With less than five years of experience, Cavanagh was lead counsel for the Providence Journal in three major antitrust cases, winning two of them.
"Joe was very uncomplicated from my observations. What you saw is what you got," says James V. Wyman, retired vice president and executive editor of the Journal. "And what you saw on any given day was a fella who came to the office with his briefcase, ready for just about anything."
In 1981, during the murder trial of Claus von Bulow, he argued for access for the Journal, the Associated Press and the Boston Globe. In 1978, his sports background proved an unexpected bonus when he was brought back to Boston to help sort out the chaos that erupted when, with the NFL playoffs looming, the New England Patriots sued head coach Chuck Fairbanks for signing a coaching contract with the University of Colorado.
"We had a lot of sports writers and people who wouldn't normally be in court," Cavanagh says. "My co-counsel was about to introduce me, but the judge cut in and said, ‘Don't introduce me to Mr. Cavanagh. I know him very well from following his illustrious career at Harvard.'
"Of course, all the sportswriters thought that must've meant I was a great lawyer, but it had nothing to do with being a lawyer and everything to do with hockey," he laughs.
In 1986, with a growing family of his own—Cavanagh now has nine children—he decided to leave Edwards & Angell to start Blish & Cavanagh with John Blish, who died last year. The Journal went with him. "One thing I always found reassuring was the fact that he pursued everything with a passion and a thoroughness," Wyman says. "He never took shortcuts."
Even at a much smaller firm, Cavanagh still represents big-name clients in the state's most important cases, including Anheuser-Busch in the infamous 2003 West Warwick nightclub fire that killed 100, and Sherwin-Williams in the state's long-running lead-paint class action suit. A son and a daughter have both joined his firm.
But every once in a while, hockey skates back into his life. His son Tom is now a center for the San José Sharks. And in 1994, Cavanagh was inducted into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame in Minnesota.
"My time as a hockey player has helped me as a trial lawyer—determination, not getting angry, working after the little losses—but I truly forget that I was an athlete," he says. "It's started to come back now that they say, ‘Oh yeah, Dad played too,' but I don't even think of myself in those terms anymore."
No regrets, he says. Well, maybe just one-—"I never had the opportunity to play against the Russians."