John Ziegler Interview Part One: The Man Behind The Former NHL President

Alan BassSenior Writer IDecember 3, 2008

First off, I want to thank Mr. Ziegler for taking the time to speak with me.  I got an extreme amount of information from him regarding the NHL, and the position of President/Commissioner.  I wish him the best, as he is feeling a bit under the weather as of recent, but I'm sure he will be back just in time for the yearly NHL winter meetings in Toronto!


How much do you follow hockey now?

I follow it fairly closely, I’m the governor for the Chicago Blackhawks, and I go to governor’s meetings, and I watch games on television.


What do you think of the media’s treatment of Gary Bettman?

Well I can’t say that I’m familiar with a lot of the articles that may have been written with respect for Commissioner Bettman, so it would be difficult to comment on them.  Generally, I found in my own experience that too often, someone in any sports’ media will jump to conclusions without really knowing the underlying facts as to why decisions are or are not being made.  And most sports’ writers approach to leagues and their operations mainly as sports’ leagues, where in fact they are all businesses, and they are in the entertainment business, and they all have a form of entertainment, the National Hockey League’s being presenting hockey games.  And too often, they will make judgments solely from a perspective of perhaps forgetting that the Commissioner is in fact in charge of running a business.  And the business must succeed for these wonderful games to be continued to be presented to the fans who enjoy that entertainment.


When you were the president, what do you feel they criticized you the most for that you did not deserve to be criticized for?

Again, my title as President is basically the same as Commissioner, in fact when I took the job, they wanted to know if I wanted the title of Commissioner and I said no, because the league needed to be changed and needed to be run like a business and needed to be perceived as a business for us to get the business straightened out.  I don’t think there was any one thing, there were different issues at different times, and to the extent that I would have disagreements or felt that articles were unfair, and my judgment of unfairness was that I did not believe the writer had a full background or understanding of the business that presented these wonderful hockey games.

I think they forget that it is first a business.  And the second aspect of that, and this is that criticism of the media…many people in the sports’ media have not run a business and don’t have a background on the kinds of things that need to be done when you are running a billion dollar business, particularly an entertainment business.

For you personally, what do you think was the hardest part for you, being the president of the NHL?

The most challenging and the most interesting was to get up to 24 owners and their executive staff to come together on issues that were important to keep the league successful in growing.  You have an inherent conflict of interest within ownership.  The league is a mixture of a trade association with any partnership, particularly the NHL.  Each franchise is responsible for its own market, and the success in that market principally.  And the league does an overlay of helping to support the marketing of clubs.  The league has national television contracts…responsibility for national sponsorships, and now has responsibility for major websites, and the products and programming that goes into that.  And as a little example of the conflict, the league may wish to have on its website with its banner, an advertisement for Coca Cola, and in one of the arenas, perhaps, their biggest beverage sponsor might be Pepsicola, and immediately you have a conflict there.  Those kinds of conflicts arise very often.  As to what is good for the league, may not be the best for one or two individual clubs.  So the challenge is to get the 24, now the 30 owners or executives agreeing on things that need to be done, even though at times, it may adversely affect one club more than it might another.  That is the biggest challenge, in my judgment, for a Commissioner and his staff.


When you resigned, there was a lingering threat of a lockout, correct?

We had just had a strike, and [Bob Goodenow] called a strike just as the playoffs were about to begin.  We were able to settle that dispute and got a one year contract in which time it was set up for the union. Particularly with new leadership, to learn the economics of the new league.  At all times, when there’s no contract, the union has…the right to go on strike.  Ownership, conversely, has the right to say, “If we’re not satisfied with the terms under which we operate, we may choose not to operate,” which is a lockout.  So that is always present when you go into the negotiations of the CBA.  It was not that imminent at the time, although it was being discussed.


Was there anything inside that people in the media did not know that attributed to the strike or your resignation?

There were a number of factors that were going on.  There was a division among ownerships as to whether or not we should settle the strike on the terms that we did.  There was a minority who wanted to just scrap the playoffs and have no Stanley Cup, no playoffs, whatever.  My position, and the majority position was, “we’re not in a position at this time to lock out the players, and we can afford to take a year to educate the union and to prepare ourselves if it becomes necessary to take a lockout.”  If you go forward, the league and owners locked out for half a season in 1994-95, but they ended up collapsing in January and wound up getting none of the things they bargained for.  The reasons for that happening was that the preparations for the lockout had not been satisfactory.  What happened was that there were teams that financially could not afford a lockout.  What you have to do in preparing for losing a full season is to make sure that you have the financial ability available for all of the teams to get through a shut down such as that.


Thank you very much, Mr. Ziegler, for taking the time to do this interview with me.


Alan Bass is a Senior Writer for Bleacher Report and the Community Leader for the NHL and Philadelphia Flyers’ section.  He is also the co-host of NHL 2Day, a weekly radio show on  You can contact him at  You can also check out his BR archives here.