For the first time in 31 years the National Hockey League opens its season with a president whose name is not Clarence Campbell. The NHL's new boss is John Augustus Ziegler Jr., 43, a Detroit lawyer who inherits from the retired Campbell a host of critical problems, including empty seats, a flood of red ink, a schedule packed with mismatches, lack of a network television package, 18 owners who usually agree only to disagree and—because the NHL spurned a merger this summer—continued warfare with the World Hockey Association. Ziegler (right) was a vice-president of the Detroit Red Wings, a team which lost more than $2 million last season while compiling the worst record in hockey. He also was the chairman of the NHL's board of governors last year, selecting Ziegler as the league's first American-born president, NHL owners kept him on as board chairman, thus giving him a broad and unprecedented mandate to put their troubled house in order. Ziegler, though, has no more clout than that routinely wielded by Attorney Robert Alan Eagleson (left), the executive director of, the NHL Players Association as well as the game's leading players' agent. The ebullient Eagleson, 44, is largely responsible for the fact that the average player salary in the NHL is $85,000 (plus $11,000 in fringes), an obvious boon to the men he represents but a drain on club coffers. A Toronto resident and onetime member of the Ontario Parliament, Eagleson is also the prime mover in Hockey Canada, the quasi-governmental body that runs that country's ventures in international hockey. For better or worse, the future of hockey depends on what kind of leadership Ziegler and Eagleson provide—and on how they get along at the bargaining table. For clues to how they might deal with the sport's problems—and each other—SPORTS ILLUSTRATED brought them together in a New York hotel suite. Ziegler and Eagleson talked hockey for more than two hours, bantering on more than a few points but also sounding several encouragingly statesmanlike themes.
SI: Alan, when the NHL elected John president in June, you said, "The NHL took the easy way out in not choosing a 'tough' president from outside the league." Has anything happened to change your mind?
Ziegler. I'd like to leave.
Eagleson: Because of changes that have occurred in the attitudes of the owners, I've already changed my position with respect to John Ziegler. My concern was that he was an American—as a Canadian, I naturally feel that way—and that the NHL owners had put their heads in the sand. It was almost as though they feared letting an outsider know their problems. There were too many things happening in the NHL that looked to me to be too much like WHA wheeling and dealing, where you put an arbitrary price on a franchise of five bucks and try to stiff somebody with it for seven. I thought we needed somebody to come in and say, "Gentleman, you're kidding yourselves." Then, in various meetings, our opinion of John went up because of the way he was able to keep a handle on most of his owners. Of course, as he goes along, I think he'll find some of them a little less controllable.
October 16, 1977
Ziegler. If Alan is suggesting that sometimes he's in an easier position than I am, it's because he does not necessarily find the same independence in his players that I find in my owners.
SI: Let's talk about the operation John takes over. How much money did the NHL lose last year?
Eagleson: $18 million.
Ziegler. To be a little more accurate, there were 10 clubs out of the 18 in the league that lost a total of $18 million.
SI: The other eight made money?
Eagleson: No, probably two or three broke even.
SI: And several franchises were rescued from financial ruin. Meanwhile, the NHL turned down a merger with the WHA. The result is that the same 18 NHL clubs—and eight WHA teams—are starting this season. It has been obvious for a long time that hockey has spread its talent, audience and dollars too thin. Aren't 26 clubs simply too many?
Eagleson: I'm not convinced that there are more than 20 good hockey cities in North America. And I'm not convinced that the NHL has 18 of them. During merger talks, our very simple view was that four weak NHL franchises—Cleveland, Denver and, at that time, St. Louis and Atlanta—could be dropped in favor of four strong WHA franchises: Quebec, Edmonton, Winnipeg and New England. We could gamble on two other WHA clubs, probably Cincinnati and Houston. Then we'd have 20 pretty good hockey cities.
SI: Actually, Alan, haven't you advocated "restructuring" the NHL back to 14 or 15 teams? Which teams would go?
Eagleson: The places that worry me are, particularly, Cleveland and Colorado because the WHA folded in both locations and because there is just a very negative feeling about these cities.
Ziegler. When people have invested upward of $5 or $6 million, it would be unfair to come in and say, "Thanks a lot. It's been fun having you, but for the good of the league we don't need you anymore." If the economics don't prove out and they're unwilling to continue to invest, then we can restructure. But the feeling is that maybe we still haven't given it our best shot in some of these cities.
Eagleson: It's easier for me to divest the NHL of franchises than it is for John and the owners. It's not my money.
SI: Doesn't the league still have an expansion committee? Surely there can't be any serious thought of expanding?
Ziegler. We do have a committee but we have no plans for expansion at this point.
Eagleson: They're still recovering from the last one.
SI: John, we understand that you lobbied hard for a merger with the WHA. Because there was no merger, don't you consider this a defeat for John Ziegler?
Ziegler. We're the only sport that isn't operating under one league and I was in favor of doing what we had to do to reach a decision. If the legal and financial problems could have been solved, on a theoretical basis, yes, I was in favor. But it wasn't until we got all the information that we could make a judgment. And then, there was no question. I concurred with the board's vote to reject a merger agreement.
SI: The WHA owners vow to fight on. Will they last another year?
Ziegler. They say they will, so....
Eagleson: I think they can last in some capacity for another two, three or five years.
SI: What effect will the WHA have on NHL salaries?
Ziegler. Because of our financial situation, the lush bidding war between the leagues is over. For the last four or five years we warned everybody that the way salaries were going up, things would only get worse.
Eagleson: Well, you're right—if that's any consolation.
Ziegler. Absolutely none.
SI: Alan, what's happening here? Why you're cheerfully agreeing that high salaries have hurt the owners.
Eagleson: The players know that they're as responsible as the owners for some of the financial difficulties that exist. Having helped cause those difficulties, we could only hurt our credibility if we ignored them.
Ziegler. The players recognize that they've got a big stake in this game. A little more than 50% of the league's gross gate receipts go toward salaries, and that makes them a partner in this business. I don't know of any other business that pays 50% of revenues for labor costs. We'll have to reduce the percentage. It may not necessarily mean that players will make that much less. It means we will try to add to revenues and bring the percentage down that way.
SI: The NHL and the Players' Association recently signed a five-year contract giving management the right to buy out long-term players' contracts at 33‚Öì%. In other words, when a player on a multiyear contract stops producing, owners can dispose of such a player by paying off only one-third of his multiyear contract instead of the whole thing. Why did the players go along with this?
Eagleson: First, it was necessary for the owners' economic survival—and I'm not sure we're there yet. I said to the players, look, this may only be Act Two of a three-act play. Act Three may take place at Christmas when the owners might come back to us and say, "We can't even live with that." But a lot of players were also uncomfortable with the fact that there are some others earning major league salaries who are in the minor leagues. And there are some who are simply not playing at all but who say, "I'm all right. Jack. Just pay me my $200,000 a year and so what if I can't play?" Well, that festers within a team and gives a wrong impression to the fans.
SI: Ultimately, when you talk about player contracts, isn't it simply up to management to be more intelligent in negotiations?
Eagleson: This is my argument—and John, remember this—and why I can never be totally sympathetic to management's side. If a team gets stiffed by a player, whose fault is it? To my knowledge, no player has ever signed a unilateral contract with any NHL club. Somebody on management's side has always said yes or no. And management doesn't have to get stiffed. Like Bobby Clarke. Philadelphia got a bargain in him. They signed him for life.
SI: John, let's talk more about the owners. Most people agree that the NHL has done a sorry job of marketing its product. Why?
Ziegler. The NHL grew up as a confederation of just six members and everybody had the idea that you made it or lost it strictly on what you did in your own little market. If you didn't make it, tough. Unfortunately, some of that attitude still exists. Only now are we recognizing that we've got to operate as a league, with league-wide programs and promotions. Because what happened in Oakland [the failure of the Seals there cost NHL owners $12 million] and what happened in Cleveland [the Barons almost went belly-up last March but were saved by a $600,000 loan financed by Eagleson's NHL Players' Association] concerned everybody—we're still paying for it. You can't just look at your own franchise.
Eagleson: Hockey is more fragmented than any other major sport because of the parochial attitude of the owners. That was obvious during the WHA negotiations, when John was riding herd on three sets of cattle—one running toward the WHA, one running away and another group running around in circles.
SI: One area where the NHL blundered repeatedly is TV. NBC dropped hockey two seasons ago because of poor ratings and the league's refusal to provide the best game each week. Last season you had your own patchwork "network" that produced little, if any, profit. How important is a major network contract and what are you doing to land one?
Ziegler. It's probably as important psychologically as it is financially. People say, "You don't have a TV contract and therefore...." A lot of "therefores" follow. It's a psychological downer. On Madison Avenue it's the numbers that count and we have to overcome that.
SI: But doesn't the NHL have a long history of burning its bridges with the TV networks? Even last year Chicago refused to switch any Sunday night games to Monday night so the NHL's own network could show Bobby Orr in action.
Ziegler. Possibly we didn't always deliver the right games. Maybe our owners didn't recognize the importance of a national TV contract. There were some who said, "I won't do anything that would take away seats or change my schedule."
Eagleson: Like: "I always play Saturday night at 8 p.m."
Ziegler. Hopefully, that is changing.
SI: One network has suggested—not entirely facetiously—that you change from three 20-minute periods to two 30-minute periods to eliminate one intermission and make the game better for TV purposes.
Eagleson: We'd play nonstop.
Ziegler. We've got to keep an open mind. But there is some purity in the sport that we hope to maintain.
SI: Let's touch on some changes that might make the game more palatable for the fans. Right now you've got four meaningless divisions—not even the players can tell you which teams are in which division—and an unfathomable playoff formula. Why not promote divisional rivalries and identities the way baseball does with its American and National leagues? Say, by going to two nine-team divisions with each team playing most of its games within its own division. Say 64 games within the division and 18 outside.
Eagleson: The players are for that. In fact, two of them, Phil Esposito and Jimmy Rutherford, did the league's work for it and came up with a two-divisional plan that makes sense geographically and competitively. For example, Montreal and Los Angeles have a rivalry that ought to keep them in the same division. That's because the Kings have so many Montreal graduates—or failures.
Ziegler. It's too simplistic.
Eagleson: Too sensible.
Ziegler. I think going to 9-9 is a mistake. Four divisions means four chances for first place, which creates interest. This is also something that baseball did and it's worked well for the most part.
SI: But in baseball, John, there is a separation of leagues, not the "let's play everyone" situation you have in hockey.
Eagleson: Personally, I'd prefer 6-6-6. Then the lowest anybody could finish would be sixth. Of course, if we had 18 divisions of one club each, then Cleveland could advertise: "Come see your first-place club...in Division 18."
SI: Why not try sudden-death overtime periods in an attempt to reduce the number of tie games—118 last season. The old argument was that clubs had to catch trains after the game. Now everybody flies out the next morning. Don't tie games leave everybody dissatisfied?
Eagleson: The players could live with overtime.
Ziegler. I remember as a young fan in Detroit, watching overtimes during the playoffs and enjoying them. Of course, that's when the Red Wings were on top and they won most of those overtimes. But how would you like to see your team steam from behind in your own building to tie it up with one minute to play only to lose in overtime?
Eagleson: Instead, now the Red Wings are a last-place team and that's why John was made league president. On the basis of his success with the Red Wings.
Ziegler. SPORTS ILLUSTRATED already printed that [SCORECARD, July 4].
Eagleson: Print it again.
SI: Hockey has been embarrassed by controversy and court actions over on-ice violence. The NHL has taken steps to cut down the violence. Can't more be done?
Ziegler. Hockey has gotten a bum rap on this. It's a violent sport, there's no denying it. You can't put men skating 20 mph, where part of their purpose is to run into one another, and you can't fire a hard rubber puck at more than 100 mph, and say there isn't violence. But people get confused. There's some unfortunate use of sticks in hockey and if that's your definition of violence, then, yes, that's out. That's bad violence.
SI: But what about the fighting? Doesn't that turn fans off?
Eagleson: No, a lot of them like that aspect of it—I don't know why. But basically, because of rule changes [game misconducts to the third player entering a fight, heavy fines for players leaving their benches to join an altercation, etc.] I think that violence has already become less of an issue.
SI: Divisional realignment, overtime, fighting—at least it's possible to kick these subjects around. But everybody seems stumped when it comes to restoring the NHL's competitive balance, which has been destroyed, above all, by Sam Pollock and company up in Montreal. Wouldn't it help the NHL if there were some suspense about who was going to win the Stanley Cup for the next decade?
Eagleson: Some of the players came up with a cure. Just make Sam an itinerant general manager working one year for each team. Within 18 years you'd have them all balanced. Of course, who'd want to take the 18th spot?
SI: In a feeble effort to spread the talent around, the new players' contract provides for an internal "waiver draft" by which have-not clubs can claim marginal players from haves like Montreal and Boston. The number of players the strong clubs can protect will drop over five years from 23 to 19, excluding first-year players. But realistically, isn't that going to move all of about eight players?
Eagleson: That's probably 80 less than we should move but it's eight more than we moved before. We would have liked a protected list of 15. Again, it's easy for us to say.
Ziegler. If you'd told me 18 months ago we'd achieve even this much, I'd have said. "What've you been smoking?"
SI: Pollock built his empire by trading expendables for first-round draft choices. The first-round draft choices—Guy Lafleur and Steve Shutt, for example—became stars and the expendables remained expendables. Why not prohibit clubs from trading first-round choices?
Ziegler. I always felt that clubs should not be restricted from trying to improve themselves as they saw fit. History suggests this judgment may need reevaluating. But then, if you prohibit a club from trading away a first pick, you may deny it the chance to get the one key player who might lift it into the playoffs next year. Ultimately, any imbalance must be corrected by management, by good drafting.
Eagleson: There are no magic formulas. You can't legislate against stupidity.
SI: Something that has produced some exciting play is international hockey, particularly the two memorable NHL-Soviet series. Yet eventually isn't international play just going to create one more problem for the NHL? After all, once you've seen Canada-Russia, how can you get excited by Colorado-Washington?
Ziegler. We feel that international competition creates interest in hockey. The fans want it and it produces revenue. And there's prestige to be gained from it.
SI: Even when the Russians beat you as they did 5-2-1 in the club series two seasons ago?
Ziegler. That's just a fact of life.
SI: Alan, besides being head of the players' association, you're also an agent for individual players, with the result that you represent some players at one level, others at two levels. While wearing your agent's hat, and with the help of four accountants and six secretaries, you represent not only 100 players and several coaches but also half a dozen general managers, the very men with whom you negotiate players' contracts. You join the management to stage international tournaments. And while leading the NHL players' association, you've delivered players into the WHA. In 25 words or less...
Ziegler. That'll be a first.
SI:...aren't there some obvious conflicts here?
Eagleson: I declare my conflicts in advance and people agree to deal with me on that basis. I have told the Players' Association on innumerable occasions that anytime they get tired of me, let me out. I can make more money doing other things.
SI: John, Alan joked earlier about your involvement with the Red Wings, a team that has made the Stanley Cup playoffs only once in the last 11 seasons. It's been said that you were Detroit's de facto general manager. What blame do you bear for the club's troubles?
Ziegler. I was the club's counselor and a vice-president, and as part of management I accept responsibility for the results. But I was never de facto general manager. Contrary to public opinion in Detroit, Bruce Norris [the Red Wing owner] has always permitted his general managers to make all decisions with respect to player personnel.
SI: We noticed that your entry in Who's Who mentioned your law practice but made no reference to your involvement with hockey.
Eagleson: Smart move, John.
Ziegler. I've held vice-presidencies of lots of companies, and they're not listed, either.
SI: As though declining attendance, lack of a TV contract and the rest were not enough, a recent Harris survey shows a 35% dropoff in fan interest in hockey. Everything considered, do you really feel that hockey is a major-league sport?
Ziegler. Yes, I do. First of all, it's a great sport. Second, it is in the major markets and the grosses are major league. Attendance was down last year but not by much. We probably have more individual coverage—games televised locally—than any other sport, baseball possibly excepted. As for the testings you mentioned, these are always a year behind what's going on. We've had major problems, but the solutions. I feel, are under way. The momentum is turning, especially with the attitude now by the players that they're a partner in the business.
Eagleson: The partnership John refers to is a solid one. We're not always happy with the owners and they're not always happy with us, but we can sit down and thrash out our problems. And often agree on action to be taken.
SI: Alan Eagleson "runs" hockey—or so people say. John, as the new president of the NHL, do you agree?
Ziegler. I think it would be a mistake to make that judgment. But it would also be a mistake to fail to recognize that Alan, by personality as well as position, is a major influence in our game. And as long as we improve the game and get the arenas filled. Alan can be king for all it matters to me.
SIX GOT RICH
TWO BROKE EVEN
TEN LOST $18M
FAN INTEREST IN FOUR MAJOR SPORTS