It's opening night in the National Hockey League, otherwise known as the Headless Horseman.
While winter rival basketball enjoys unparalleled overall prosperity thanks to the acknowledged marketing savvy and firm direction of NBA commissioner David Stern, the NHL stumbles along in its unique leaderless fashion, missing out on national television money and exposure while strangling itself with an anachronistic labor relations setup more attuned to the '60s than to the '90s.
The masthead actually claims that this league has a president and, furthermore, that his name is John Ziegler. What he does, where he goes, whom he sees and what good he accomplishes is a mystery to fans, players, the press and even most league executives. He is a useless figurehead of no professional influence with a reverse Midas touch. The NHL would be better off if Eddie Shack took over. He'd at least challenge David Stern to a fistfight on "SportsCenter" and get the league a little publicity.
Oh, I forgot. The league is immensely popular. The NHL played to something like 96 percent capacity last year and will undoubtedly do so again this year. With seven teams in Canada, and four more in U.S. cities where the sport has had 75 years to entrench itself, hockey has a very solid fan base.
Those who like it adore it. They embrace it, warts and all, because for them this combination of finesse and violence, while lacking in the intricate strategy that highlights the other three of America's Big Four team sporting pursuits, provides an unsurpassed 60 minutes of sporting excitement.
But theirs is a parochial view. For millions of American sports fans, the game is a mystery. The rules -- what the hell is this "icing"? -- are arcane. The penalty calls are astonishingly capricious. The scoring is much too infrequent in relation to the energy expended. Most of all, the central mentality governing the game is primeval. Wanton attacks by thugs on skates, rather than drawing universal censure, instead secure blanket approval. Hockey lives by a private moral code that even a resolute football fanatic might find bewildering. In years past, the NHL could sneer at its critics. The arenas were full, so what else was there?
In such an insulated, myopic climate, a John Ziegler was elected president. He was a compromise candidate, and there surely is nothing inherently wrong with a compromise candidate being elected head of a major American sports league. After all, 33-year-old Pete Rozelle was just such a selection three decades ago, and he turned out to be the most important gray suit in the history of the National Football League. But as a certain dapper Texas politician might say, "We know Pete Rozelle, Mr. Ziegler, and you're no Pete Rozelle."
Pete Rozelle would have enough sense to schedule his vacation for the offseason. Pete Rozelle would have enough sense to know that in this modern era, a league must have a viable national television contract. Pete Rozelle would have enough sense to know that in 1991, a league must have a drug policy that runs a little bit deeper than simply saying, "Drugs are naughty."
John Ziegler may not know it, but there is money floating around for a winter sports league, and there is nothing inscribed in stone that says the NBA has to get it all. What's even more important is that NHL players are no longer the docile sheep they once were. They get around, and they have brains. They know what their basketball counterparts make, and they want their proper share of the Great American Sports Pie.
The NHL needs a national television contract, and it needs it yesterday. The last one was a fiasco. Ziegler chose the immediate gratification of SportsChannel America's money over the much greater exposure of ESPN, and with that foolish decision, he set the league back far more than the four-year length of the contract. For all practical purposes, the SportsChannel America contract was the proverbial tree falling in the forest. If the league had any marketing sense whatsoever, ESPN exposure could have provided two dollars in NHL-licensed paraphernalia for every dollar provided by SportsChannel America.
But at least there was a contract. When they drop the puck tonight, there will be no national TV contract. Amazing. Incomprehensible. Pathetic. For this alone, John Ziegler should be fired. And in terms of labor-management relations, the NHL is where the NBA was in the late '70s. The NBA rid itself of arbitrators making personnel decisions years ago. The NBA, with David Stern as a spokesman, respects its players. The
NHL, with John Ziegler as its spokesman, trashes them. The NBA, with David Stern's hand on the tiller, expands to the right cities, with the right ownership, for an extraordinary price. The NHL, with John Ziegler in charge, came up with an underfunded Tampa-St. Pete.
Where are the owners? Don't they understand that the 96 percent aren't the full story, that the league must keep growing? Aren't they envious of the NBA? Why isn't there an insurrection? There should be 22 owners pounding their fists on the table, screaming, "We want a president!"
What the NHL desperately needs is a dynamic, visible leader, a man who, instead of hiding in a Detroit office, will be omnipresent. They need a salesman who will get them a decent TV contract, push for a modern Basic Agreement and do every interview and talk show, preaching the beauty of the sport while babbling on about the virtues of Gretzky, Lemieux, Hull, Bourque and all the other great players the game has to offer.
Hockey is a great sport, yes. But the NHL is not a great league, and it won't be until it gets itself a president.