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The Bridge President: Remembering former NHL president John A. Ziegler, Jr.

John A. Ziegler was a soft-spoken diplomat and a firm believer in not trying to fix something that wasn’t broken.

John A. Ziegler Jr., whose tenure as NHL president was bookended by two tumultuous events – the league’s war with the WHA in the late 1970s and the 1992 NHLPA strike – died at 84 in Florida Oct. 25, 2018. No cause was given by the league in its announcement, although it was believed Ziegler had been in failing health for months.

A native of Grosse Pointe, Mich., Ziegler became the NHL’s first U.S.-born chief executive in 1977, replacing 72-year-old Clarence Campbell, who had been president since 1946. Ziegler was a force in the league’s boardroom before becoming president – first as an alternate governor for the Detroit Red Wings, then chairman of the board of governors – and was admired for his diplomacy.

Throughout the 1970s, the NHL was hemorrhaging money due to the poaching of players by the rebel WHA. When Ziegler became president, 10 of the NHL’s 18 teams were losing a combined $18 million. The league itself was insolvent, which Ziegler kept secret.

He executed or oversaw a series of moves that changed the NHL’s direction: merging Cleveland’s failing Barons franchise with the Minnesota North Stars; negotiating CBA changes with NHLPA head Alan Eagleson; settling the WHA conflict by adding Edmonton, Quebec, Winnipeg and Hartford in 1979; and, restructuring league operations to erase the red ink.

The emergence of cable TV led to pioneering deals with USA Network and ESPN, returning the league to a U.S. national platform after NBC dropped hockey in 1976. Corporate. This period of stability and growth set up the league’s huge expansion under Gary Bettman. “John provided invaluable counsel during my early days as commissioner,” said Bettman in his statement on Ziegler’s passing.

On the ice, divisions were realigned to emphasize geographic rivalries. It was the “Gretzky Era” – a blend of hyper-offensive hockey combined with fisticuffs. Fans began filling arenas to around 90-percent capacity league-wide and if Ziegler’s critics questioned the league’s direction, he’d respond, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

A Hall of Fame builder inductee in 1987 and Lester Patrick Trophy winner in 1984, Ziegler was described as “conservative” by the New York Times, despite a dapper yellow tie a frequent accessory of his. Intelligent, well-spoken and thoughtful in public settings, Ziegler was admittedly shy and, in the words of one longtime employee, “never really comfortable in the spotlight,” especially with the media, which grew critical of his performance while overlooking his accomplishments.

The criticism peaked during the 1988 New Jersey-Boston playoff semifinal when Ziegler could not be located after Devils coach Jim Schoenfeld’s one-game suspension for a Game 3 confrontation with referee Don Koharski. The Devils obtained a court order permitting Schoenfeld to coach Game 4. In protest, the on-ice officials refused to work, necessitating local amateurs to fill in, wearing yellow practice jerseys until striped shirts could be found. It became known as “Yellow Sunday.”

Ziegler remained absent until the afternoon of Game 5 when, in a Boston hotel, he had to face a room of reporters who grilled him mercilessly. He never disclosed his whereabouts or explained his absence.

Although he oversaw significant innovations afterward – a return to U.S. network TV with NBC, the NHL All-Star Weekend, video review and the development a blueprint for the league’s eventual expansion, which began with the San Jose Sharks in 1991 – “Yellow Sunday” was viewed as the start of Ziegler’s fall.

Some well-intentioned measures backfired. In 1988, he helped forge a U.S. TV deal with startup SportsChannel America, spurning ESPN for a more lucrative offer. But many cable operators declined to carry the overpriced newcomer, leaving most American hockey fans without access to national telecasts for four seasons.

Most contentious to critics was his close relationship with Eagleson, a closeness Ziegler did not share with Eagleson’s successor Bob Goodenow. NHL owners voted Ziegler out after settling the 10-day April 1992 strike. The popular theory was owners didn’t like the terms of the deal. But some maintain Ziegler’s fate was sealed when he and Goodenow failed to reach a new CBA prior to the season’s start and Ziegler allowed it to proceed, handing the NHLPA all the leverage.

After his presidency, Ziegler maintained a low profile, but served as an alternate governor for the Chicago Blackhawks for many years. Hawks owner Rocky Wirtz acknowledged “John was a friend, to me and to my family,” adding that Ziegler’s positive imprint on the game “cannot ever be overstated.”

This story appears in the January 7, 2019 of The Hockey News magazine.

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