John Ziegler, in his second season as president of the National Hockey League, has been panned in many circles for lethargic leadership. But even if Ziegler was blessed with unlimited energy and executive ability, he still would be shackled by the league's constitution, which places power in the hands of the owners.

How well they handle the assignment is obvious from hockey's current status as a minor-league sport, surpassed by tennis and taking its kicks from soccer, which at least has a network television contract.

Former NHL President Clarence Campbell, in assissing his powerless role, said, "Hockey has never conceded anything like the power to its chief executive officer that baseball, football and basketball have. If you're satisfied, you give him powers. If you don't trust him, you don't give it to him."

Most hockey owners trust nobody but themselves.

When NHL owners familiar with the successful basketball merger tried to convince old-liners of the advisability of a similar ending to the hockey war, Toronto's Harold Ballard said, "I don't want to hear any more about that African game."

Carl Lindermann, now with CBS, tried valiantly to make the NHL television setup of independent stations work last season. He recalls that "when I tried to get the Rangers to switch a playoff game with Buffalo to fit TV needs, Bill Jennings said, 'If it costs the New York Rangers 25 cents, I won't do it.'"

And Ballard and Jennings have been voted into the Hall of Fame as "builders."

Ed Snider, the Philadelphia Flyers' owner, had some unkind words for his colleagues after he worked hard to ef fect a merger with the World Hockey Association and saw it torpedoed.

"A lot of things about this league bother me," Snider said. "Sometimes it seems that you can have a meeting with all the governors and think that you're getting things accomplished. But then you realise that the real action takes place later, at 4 o'clock in the morning, in the smoke-filled rooms.

"I'm afraid there's a bit of a cancer in the NHL, an atmosphere where people can look you eyeball to eyeball and still not tell the truth . . . There are cliques that sit around voting each other into the Hall of Fame and trying to run everything. There are an awful lot of things that smell corrupt to me."

Snider himself is not deserving of a pedestal. A Sept. 25 exhibition game with the Boston Bruins in Portland, Maine, was canceled, although all 6,600 seats had been sold, because Snider insisted on a portion of the gate receipts, which were supposed to go to the NHL Players Association.

The most obstructive factor in NHL business is the unanimity rule where "property rights" are concerned. Peter O'Malley, former president of the Washington Capitals, said that "the definition of property rights was as difficult for me to understand as the definition of tort when I entered law school."

Abe Pollin, the Capital' owner, says that if he were permitted to accomplish one thing unilaterally, he would instruct the genie to throw out the unanimity rule.

"This league is not too different from others," Pollin said. "A good number consider the welfare of the league, some are in the middle and some care only about their own teams. Hopefully, more in hockey will consider the bigger picture."

Alan Eagleson, executive director of the NHL Players Association, said in a similar vein, "My first request would be to get rid of that unanimous vote. You can get somewhere if you can persuade three-quarters of the board you've got a reasonable case."

Curt Bennett, the extremely bright Brown University graduate and Rhodes scholarship nominee who plays for St. Louis, said, "Some owners are vindictive and under the rules one guy can block anything. The main objective should be a good product. The strong are going to get stronger and the weak weaker the way things are set up. We need more excitement. The whole league is geared for the top six teams. They make a lot of money off the other 12 and they don't care about the league."

"I don't think the owners will ever give up unanimous consent," Cambell said. "It's terribly frustrating to pass a resolution and not get it, but if you're stealing somebody else's property, he should have a veto. What other protection does he have?"

Unfortunately, what some shortsighted owners are doing is stealing the whole sport from the fans who love it. Competitive imbalance has turned many games into ho-hum affairs, the outcome assured in the early minutes.

"Nothing seems to have been considered about the obvious lack of competition in the league," Eagleson said. "Let the vested interests be heard and they'll say, 'This won't help Montreal' or 'This won't help Toronto.' They're not thinking of what will help hockey."

"From Montreal's point of view, things aren't too bad right now," said Sam Pollock, a member of the Canadiens' board of directors and the Hall of Famer who built Montreal to its current position of dominance. "There are problems in hockey, sure, there are always a lot of problems in growing up. But as for the Canadians giving to the have-nots, it is not going to happen. This is like any other business."

Except, in O'Malley's terminology the NHL is "As to likelihood, I'd say it's more likely they'll paint the ice blank."

With the NHL's record of inanity, that might happen, too.

Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver share lucrative television income from the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. American teams do not, instead retaining the rights to any United States network deal. The prospects for same are dim, especially since none of the networks cared to show even one game of the NHL-Soviet series next February, a show designed exclusively to stimulate network TV interest.

"Hockey deserves its shot on TV," said Lindermann, "but I haven't figured out how. It's the most exciting game in an arena, but it doesn't come over that way on TV. Maybe when some of the second or third-rate (stuff) that's on the air runs its course, we'll be able to fit it in.

"It's a very frustrating situation. There is management interest here and there are sponsors, but you can't get the stations. There's a southern antipathy. They just don't want it."

When NBC televised NHL games nationally, its Atlanta affiliate instead showed Sunday afternoon movies, because the ratings were higher. Last year, the station that televises some of the Flames' road games refused to join the NHL network, because it considered the Flames' coverage to be sufficient.

"We don't have national coverage and the national networks are guided by ratings," said O'Malley, who served on the NHL television committee. "I'm afraid the speed and excitement doesn't come through on the screen."

Jim Reld, program director of WDCA-TV, which televises 15 of the Capitals' road games each year, has been impressed with viewer response, if not the ratings.

"Hockey fans are very vocal," Reld said. "It would be nice if the rating services could hear from them as much as we hear from them. I've never seen any group of sporting fans that are as vocal. Hockey generated more telephone calls than all other sports put together."

"Hockey fans are like Goldwater backers," said Beano Cook, public relations man for CBD Sports. "They're loud and vociferous, but there aren't too many of them."

NHL owners in their avarice seem determined to reduce those numbers, but the innate excitement of the sport itself so far has resisted the assault.

The Chicago Black Hawks, in their sellout days, sneered at prospective ticket purchasers and refused to televise home playoff games. Then empty seats appeared and multiplied. The Hawks last year reached the Stanley Cup playoffs, as the champions of the inferior Smythe Division, and the faithful were rewarded with $18.75 ticket prices. Chicago owner Bill Wiriz is a Hall of Famer, too.

The players have been chastised for their greed - the league's average player salary is $96,000 - but much of the limited positive input has come from them. The players initiated the waiver draft, which is showing some alight effect toward equalization of talent. They have also proposed a free-agent compensation plan similar to football, with compensation in draft choices and determined by salary, that could alleviate a chaotic situation if the league's appeal of the Dale McCourt case falls.

In fact, the player's position has seemed so sensible in the face of inanagement intractability that there was wonder why Eagleson hadn't been chosen as the league president, instead of Ziegler.

"It's much more fun working with 400 players than 18 owners," Eagleson said. "Much nicer, too."