MONTREAL -- John Ziegler's NHL government formally toppled yesterday, and exultant team executives wasted no time hacking giant pieces off the stony statues erected during his 15-year tenure.
Reaching out for a public too often brushed aside in recent years, and seeking to improve the sport's battered image, the league restructured its operation by appointing league counsel Gil Stein president, electing Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall board chairman and creating a four-man Chairman's Executive Committee.
Stein will serve as the league's fifth, and last, president, and McNall leads the executive committee that will seek a permanent successor to Ziegler. When the new league head is designated and approved, he will receive the title of commissioner and the office of president will be "retired."
The executive committee will remain, however, with each of the league's four divisions being represented, effectively forming regional councils that will streamline operations in the increasingly cumbersome 24-team league.
Montreal's Ronald Corey will head the Adams Division, Philadelphia's Ed Snider will lead the Patrick, Detroit's Michael Ilitch will handle the Norris and Edmonton's Peter Pocklington will direct the Smythe. Each will conduct a conference call or in-person group meeting at least once a month.
"We need to get the league up and running in a lot of areas," said Stein, 64, speaking specifically about network television -- a foreign notion during Ziegler's reign. "The priorities are obvious.
"It's obvious we need to address national network television in the United States. This league is 75 years old, and hockey is still the best-kept secret in the United States. And we intend to do something about it.
"We think we have a product that is nonpareil. We think we have stars that are the best athletic stars in any sport in the world. We think we have a dazzling display of stars and a dazzling game. There is a dazzling display of stars out every night, but you can't see them on a cloudy night. Our job is to blow away the clouds.
"Our job is to find out what it takes to get the National Hockey League's game where it deserves to be with regard to national network exposure in the United States, and we will obviously and relentlessly do everything that needs to be done to get us there."
That approach was endorsed by North Stars owner Norman Green, who approves buying network time, if necessary, to get the product in front of the U.S. audience.
"The recognition that exposure of the game, the selling of the game, is more important than short-term dollars -- I think almost everybody on the board feels that way," Green said. "You're talking about short-term dollars or expense; long-term, it would be far more profitable."
Ziegler supervised a league that grew in size from 18 teams to 24, principally through the inclusion of four teams from the former World Hockey Association in 1979. Under his direction, the NHL became a billion-dollar industry. But the deposed league head was realistic yesterday in a cordial, relaxed, reflective farewell appearance.
"Part of this restructuring is, it's time for a change," Ziegler said. "Some owners had ideas that they want to go in a different direction. There is a momentum for change, a momentum of 'Let's remove the establishment,' and I am the establishment."