Former National Hockey League President John Ziegler Jr. passed away last Thursday. The NHL and two teams that Ziegler worked for — the Detroit Red Wings and the Chicago Blackhawks — all issued whitewashed statements about how great Ziegler was for the NHL during his 15-year tenure as president. Various media outlets also issued brief stories, regurgitating what NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in his statement. All of these articles made a half-hearted attempt to puff up Ziegler’s accomplishments, but none really said that Ziegler did more harm than good during his run as NHL president. So I will.
I know that we shouldn’t speak ill of the dead. Mr. Ziegler was probably a nice person and wonderful family man. You also don’t get to the top of your profession by being a slouch. But once there, Ziegler did a poor job as the NHL’s President. During his tenure, the league had teams relocate or fold, and had little visibility in the U.S. Relations got so bad between the NHL and the NHL Players Association that the players went on strike in 1992, which ultimately ousted Ziegler as league president.
I don’t expect Bettman or the NHL, to say anything negative about Ziegler. But I also think it is important to understand that Ziegler didn’t really do all that much to improve hockey during his 15 years as league president. Here’s why.
Ziegler Didn’t Really Help NHL Expansion
Gary Bettman statement about Ziegler last week said in part:
“From 1977 until 1992, as just the fourth President in NHL history, John oversaw the growth of the League from 18 to 24 teams, including the 1979 addition of four teams from the WHA.”
In a 15-year span, the NHL did expand from 18 to 24 teams. But let us also not forget that under Ziegler, the Cleveland Barons folded in 1978, the Atlanta Flames moved to Calgary in 1980, and the Colorado Rockies moved to New Jersey and became the Devils in 1982.
Granted, Zielger was appointed league president in 1977, so he wasn’t the person who approved expansion franchises to Colorado or Atlanta, or who approved the Oakland Seals’ move to a weak Cleveland market. Those teams were messes that he inherited, not ones he made, but having one team fold and two teams relocate in a five-year span still does not look great on the resume. To this day, the NHL is the only major professional league to have a team outright fold in the modern era.
Ziegler did broker the deal where four World Hockey Association teams joined the NHL in 1979, with the Edmonton Oilers, the Winnipeg Jets, the Quebec Nordiques and the Hartford Whalers increasing the NHL to 21 teams. However, the terms of the deal were so unfavorable to the former WHA teams that ultimately three of them could not build solid enough foundations to thrive, and ultimately relocated in the 1990s. While the Nordiques, Jets and Whalers all relocated during Bettman’s early reign as NHL Commissioner, Ziegler laid the groundwork that ruined those teams.
The other three teams that were added under Ziegler’s presidency — the San Jose Sharks, Ottawa Senators and Tampa Bay Lightning — are thriving today, but it is hard to give him too much credit here. Ziegler granted the Gund brothers an expansion franchise in San Jose to keep the North Stars in Minnesota; a lot of good that did.
The addition of Ottawa and Tampa Bay brought in $100 million to be split by the NHL owners, and probably had more to do with raising money than increasing the NHL’s footprint. During the 1991-92 season, the NHL only made $5.5 million for its television broadcast rights — more on that later — while adding these two teams gave each existing club a $4.5 million cut of the expansion fees. But the Senators and Lightning, as well as the Sharks the year before, weren’t given very good players to begin with and struggled for a few years; as if Zigeler didn’t learn from the plight of the Barons, Rockies, Flames, Nordiques, Jets and Whalers.
Ziegler Didn’t Usher in Europeans, Either
Bettman also gave far too much credit to Ziegler for an increase in European and Russian players in the NHL, stating that
“…during his tenure, the share of European-born players in the NHL grew from two to 11 percent, players from the former Soviet Union first entered the League…”
I’ll assume that Russians are counted in that 11 percent, because Russia is part of Europe geographically, though not really culturally. But the influx of European players — particularly from Sweden and Finland — in the NHL had more to do with the WHA embracing and actively recruiting Europeans than anything Ziegler specifically did. The Toronto Toros of the WHA even welcomed Vaclav Nedomansky when he defected from Czechoslovakia. The WHA proved that these players could thrive in North America, which led to NHL teams recruiting European players.
The influx of Russian and Czech players in the late 1980s and early 1990s, had more to do with the fall of the Iron Curtain than anything Ziegler did. NHL teams paid Sovintersport for the release of Soviet hockey stars like Igor Larionov and Sergei Makorov. Sovintersport also received a portion of those players’ contracts. Changing political climate and not having enough funds for their hockey program are what ultimately led to the increase of Russians in the NHL; Ziegler just happened to be in charge when it happened.
The NHL was Buried on Cable TV in US
Did you know that no NHL games were broadcast nationally on network TV in the U.S. between May 24, 1980 and January 21, 1990? Yup, during the height of Ziegler’s tenure, the NHL was an absolute joke in the U.S. when it came to television. Not many could see NHL games outside of their home team’s broadcasts unless they had cable; even then, few networks actually wanted to air NHL games.
During the 1980s, the NHL was buried on cable, either on a fledgling ESPN or on USA, which attempted to be a sports network before settling into its comfortable role as a channel mainly known for airing cartoons, game show reruns and bad b-movies with the nudity cut out.
The NHL did have a sweet deal with SportsChannel from 1988 to 1991, which paid the league $17 million per year and televised upwards of 100 games per season. Yet, SportsChannel only had about only a third of the reach as ESPN did. For the NHL’s 75th Anniversary season of 1991-92, Ziegler was able to get only $5.5 million from SportsChannel in a one-year deal that was literally brokered the day the season started.
Under Ziegler, the NHL in the U.S. went from having games sometimes nationally broadcast on CBS or ABC, to its games just on cable. All those records that Wayne Gretzky set or broke were out of the public eye, as far as TV in the U.S. was concerned.
Conditions Stagnated for Players
Ziegler colluded with NHL Players Association Executive Director Alan Eagleson while he was in office. The two worked together to impose restrictive free agency polices and to keep player salaries low. Eagleson was supposed to have his players’ interests in mind; really, he served the league and ultimately his own interests.
Eagleson’s wrongdoings included embezzlement of players’ retirement funds and skimming money from players’ insurance settlements. Those transgressions are on Eagleson, though Ziegler knew who he was dealing with. It could be argued that Ziegler had to do whatever he could to keep player salaries low; if that meant colluding with someone who was selling out his own constituents, can you blame Ziegler? Technically, what Ziegler did made business sense, but it was still a morally bankrupt thing to do.
The Player Strike of 1992
Ziegler’s “crowning achievement” was when the NHL players went on strike on April 1, 1992. The players wanted an increase in playoff revenue, better free agency rules, and more control over their likeness rights for trading cards. The strike lasted for 10 days and ultimately led to Ziegler being forced to resign from his post as NHL President. Gil Stein replaced him as interim NHL President during the 1992-93 season, before ultimately being succeeded by Gary Bettman, who became the NHL’s first Commissioner on February 1, 1993.
It was an ignoble end to a presidency that oversaw instability by many of its clubs, little-to-no exposure on television in the U.S., and a rigged system that oppressed players and ultimately broke down.
During Ziegler’s time as president, the NHL was in the dark ages, decades behind the NFL, NBA and MLB when it came to television deals and the marketing of the league and its players. Ziegler may not have actively done anything to harm hockey, but it was through his inaction that he failed to improve the state of the sport he presided over. ■
Follow Sal Barry on Twitter @PuckJunk.
Photo credit: National Hockey League.