Two emotions linger after a valiant attempt to summon some solemn thought about the end of John Ziegler's tenure as NHL president. Ziegler was to confirm today that he resigned/was fired after 15 years, effective Sept. 30.
The first emotion is frustrated anger, a shake-your-fist, good-riddance exultation that says this event was way too long in coming. Ziegler should have been gone four years ago when, in his absence, an NHL playoff game at the Meadowlands was officiated by three off-ice officials in yellow practice jerseys. The real referees had staged a wildcat walkout.
Ziegler may not have been responsible directly for that disgrace, that permanent blot on the face of the game, but he was accountable for it having occurred. He was absent, glaringly absent, when the league most needed him; and no matter how many crises your quick action prevents, you pay the dearest price for the one that forces its way into the public eye.
The second emotion is the urge to laugh. Because just a few sports away from ice hockey, where team operators have thrown their president out of office, we have the saintly, hallowed North American icon known as baseball.
Now, one of Ziegler's greatest shortcomings was the failure of his administrators to get the sport on free, network television. And that is a grievous failure. The people in Alabama and New Mexico need their hockey. You betcha.
Except baseball is on free network television and it still is just about impossible to find a Game of the Week. The third Saturday of every Norwegian Leap Year, fans in Mobile or Louisville might accidentally come across the Pirates and Cardinals on free network television. It says here a network contract is a terrible thing to waste, but nobody makes fun of baseball because it is the North American icon. It is untouchable. Which means it also is fine with America if baseball gives one chemically dependent pitcher the chance to be suspended seven times.
John Ziegler ran the NHL 15 years; he threw a handful of guys out of hockey for various controlled substance infractions, but if any of those dummies had been given seven chances to be suspended, Ziegler would have been laughed out of office by the nation's media geniuses.
On TV screens everywhere the other night, sports fans were treated to the sight of a Cleveland Indians player running toward the mound and launching a strident kick to the abdomen of Detroit Tigers relief pitcher John Doherty. Had Doherty's spleen been ruptured, and if the young man had died right on the field, the saintly, hallowed North American icon would have remained right next to apple pie on America's menu. And ice hockey, of course, would remain the continent's ranking Goon Sport.
But when you get to the bottom line on the "late" Mr. Ziegler, the bottom line is that in 15 years, nothing he did ever got the NHL an even break in the thoughts and minds of the American majority. Ziegler never sold the game when it most desperately needed a salesman. Too often, Ziegler was as difficult to find as a baseball game on network television.
The time Ziegler wore his highest profile was during the recent player strike, when he mouthpieced for the owners who now have thrown him out. Last week, baseball's owners apparently tried to hit Fay Vincent with the same gong and Vincent stuck it up their noses. Baseball is about to face the same labor war that hockey just went through for the first time. This will be the sixth or seventh lockout/strike crisis for baseball; Ziegler fouls up a couple of things on his first strike in 15 years, and he's bye-bye.
Now this isn't a defense of the guy. As a legacy, Ziegler leaves a list of problems as long as your arm. Biggest of all is the public belief that hockey is more messed up than any of its pro sports brethren when that simply is not so. Ziegler did some very good things that made the league money and moved it forward, but the image bullet is the one that killed him.