Ziegler’s NHL tenure had lasting impact in Canada

NHL president John Ziegler, centre, tosses the coin ahead of the 1992 NHL draft lottery. (Rusty Kennedy/AP)

I was in university when John A. Ziegler Jr. became president of the National Hockey League. In a time without sports cable networks, all sports radio and social media, the reaction to the first American to run the NHL was vociferous in our country.

How could that happen?

Ziegler was counsel to the Detroit Red Wings prior to joining the NHL. His appointment was an indication of the shift in power. A shift to below the border. The powerbrokers of the NHL were now named Norris, Wirtz, Snider, and not Smythe and Molson. He took over a league that was 17 teams strong, and the league office was in charge of scheduling and officiating. Marketing, branding, central scouting were not priorities. Canadian TV rights were held by a brewery and U.S. TV rights were mere whispers by comparison.

The league talked like it was national in scope, but was regional in reality. It was very obvious that Ziegler worked for the owners. He managed them and the owners. The vision was far more on maintenance than it was on growth.

When Ziegler took over, there was a rival league, the World Hockey Association, and even though the WHA was struggling, it was still bidding for young stars and raising salaries. The landscape of professional hockey in North America did not allow for two leagues and 29 teams.

Over a two-year period, Ziegler orchestrated the merger of four WHA teams into the NHL and the arrival of a young Wayne Gretzky. Three of those teams were in Canada, much to the objection of the existing Canadian teams in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, who were not in favour of sharing their TV money. The following year, Atlanta moved to Calgary and it was 1990 when Ottawa was awarded its NHL franchise under Ziegler’s watch. It was that American, John A. Ziegler Jr., who helped Canada become a bigger part of the NHL.

On a personal note, my path crossed with Ziegler many times. I worked for national rights holders on both sides of the border when the league office was very small. In fact, on my first visit to the New York City office in the late 1970’s, there were seven employees in the whole office. Today, there might be almost 500.

A small league staff meant interaction with the president was easy and often. He was more than 20 years my senior, but always treated me with respect, a broad smile, a kind word and a firm handshake. He enjoyed that I called him Mr. President, which I did even years after he left the league and he represented the Chicago Blackhawks at NHL functions.

At the first NHL board meeting I attended as league VP, he went out of his way to say how proud he was of me, and what a great hire the league made. He made me feel special.

John was always well-dressed with finally tailored suits, and singlehandedly maintained a yellow tie as a fashion statement. He had the real look of movie star. He looked like a cross of Dirk Bogart and JFK. Hence the continual “Mr. President” reference.

Sure, there were warts on Ziegler’s tenure. I’m not sure he was the greatest communicator with his staff. His association with Alan Eagleson left something to be desired. The famous referee walk-out in New Jersey after the team filed an injunction concerning the suspension of coach Jim Schoenfeld (“Have another donut, you fat pig”) and the famous night of lights out at Boston Garden during the Stanley Cup final, while he was in England, probably led to his eventual demise, as did the player’s strike of 1992.

But faults and all, John Ziegler did the game of professional hockey well. He did the best he could do, with what he had to work with, and what the owners would let him do. The first American president of the league made the NHL more Canadian and set the table for the Gary Bettman regime to grow the business from the millions to the billions.


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