JOHN A. ZIEGLER, JR.
PRESIDENT, THE NATIONAL HOCKEY LEAGUE
NEW YORK, N.Y., AND MONTREAL, QUEBEC
Smile, things can't get any worse. The summer was a disaster for the NHL. One moment you announced with great fanfare that a five-minute sudden-death overtime would be inaugurated to reduce the number of tie games this season; the next minute you mumbled there'd be no overtime because you had forgotten to clear it with the Players' Association. Score one big loss for the paying customers.
Then, after spending $25,000 on a nine-month executive search, you thought you had finally found the right man to do the public-relations and marketing job the league needs so badly. How could you've known that the guy, who was working right there at Madison Square Garden all the time, would quit for a better job after his first day at the NHL?
And once again the league neatly stickhandled around the problem of violence. Despite what you think, those people who cheer hockey fights are not hockey fans; they're fight fans. Listen. The solution to on-ice violence is simple. The first time a player drops his gloves or swings his stick, kick him out of that game and the next five; also, don't allow teams to replace suspended players on their roster. For the second such incident, kick the player out of that game and the next 10. And when some cheap-shot goon KOs a clean superstar like Wayne Gretzky—as one Penguin did last season—or Mike Bossy or Marcel Dionne, kick the thug out of that game and suspend him for the next 10.
But enough of that, John.
You have been in office for more than three years, and I'm still waiting for you to exercise some leadership. In fact, everyone is waiting. Stop playing the role of a high-priced clerk for the Board of Governors. The NHL has a severe identity crisis, but it seems that you spend more time visiting the various hockey federations in Europe than you do playing activist president of your league. One NHL owner said to me, "Ziegler is more of a world traveler than Henry Kissinger ever was." John, the NHL's problems are not in Stockholm or Moscow; they're in 21 North American communities.
Another thing. No president of any league suffers more from a lack of professional counsel than you do. Not one person on your executive staff ever coached, managed or played in the NHL. You should immediately hire some respected "hockey person" with whom you can shoot the bull over lunch or cocktails. Someone to explain to you what a Terry O'Reilly is, what a Guy Lafleur is, what a high stick is. When you hired Bobby Orr as a special assistant last year, I thought you might use him as a sounding board. Instead, you made Bobby a gofer, and now he wants out.
But enough of that, too.
To me, John, the real problem with your game today is that there are no rivalries. The NHL plays six months of meaningless regular-season games that serve only to decide which five of the 21 teams will not make the Stanley Cup playoffs. And the present NHL scheduling format—every team playing every other team four times—is a joke. What hockey needs is an immediate return to the pre-expansion days when rivalries made the game exciting. What generates rivalries? Fans knowing players, and fans disliking teams. Fans can't know players when they see them only twice a year; fans can't dislike teams when they do not know, or care, where Winnipeg is.
Here's what I suggest you do to revive—indeed, to save—the NHL. Realign the league for the 1981-82 season into three seven-team divisions. As indicated on the opposite page, one division would be composed of the seven Canadian clubs; the other two would be composed of the 14 U.S.-based teams. Each team would play 66 games within its division—11 against each rival—and one game against each of the other 14 teams. Total: 80 games, the same number teams play now. And to cut travel costs, have a visiting team play two games in, say, three nights against the same divisional rival. So Gretzky doesn't play in Washington one year. Big deal. Reggie Jackson has never played in Pittsburgh.
Now for the kicker. Only 12 teams—the top four finishers in each division—would qualify for the playoffs; a Stanley Cup berth should be a reward, not the complimentary pass it is now. Two best-of-seven series would be played in each division to determine the three divisional champions. At this point I suggest that you invite the European club champion to join those three NHL divisional winners in a showdown for the Cup.
John, the puck is on your stick. This time, please don't miss the net.