In a recent two-part series, Washington Post Staff writer Robert Fachet outlined many of the problems facing the National Hockey League in particular and sport in general. In a recent interview with Fachet, NHL President John Ziegler offered these comments to questions.
Q. It has been said that many NHL owners are primarily concerned with self-interest, rather than the overall good of the sport. Your views?
Ziegler: Changes for the good of the game are easier to put in if the economic situation is more stable. We have not been able to innovate from a draft standpoint or be quite as helpful to teams that need help because of economics. All teams have shown an increase in cost because of the war with the World Hockey Association and no significant increase in revenues. There have been substantial losses by certain teams. Economic success has become more tied to direct success on the ice. Ownership, therefore, has been unwilling to make changes. If an investor gives up too much, say in the form of a player or two, it could cost him on the ice and maybe reduce his revenue by $2 million. It's human nature not to take that chance.
Q. Why has so much of the sport's positive input come from the players, including the potentially promising waiver draft?
Ziegler: We had the intraleague draft for many years before the waiver draft and hockey is still the only sport that permits a team to take players from another team. For a year before the waiver draft was put in, my self and some of the owners had a number of items we felt should be advanced and attempted to be accomplished, and we wanted to do it through collective bargaining, rather than doing it at the ownership level and imposing it on the players. The players had asked for a reduction of the restricted list in the previous intraleague draft and we coupled our waiver draft concept with the concept of moving away from no-cut contracts. As part of the economic problem with the WHA, we had eliminated the process of terminating contracts and made all those contracts noncuttable, thus turning assets into liabilities and forcing tremendous economic burdens on the teams. We worked hard through Alan (Eagleson, the players's executive director) and the executive committee to at least give the clubs an opportunity not to lock themselves into debts they could never get out of ... The rules for the intraleague draft had been set for a number of years and clubs had made plans relying on those rules. We persuaded ownership to lay out a five-year plan for the new waiver draft, so that those who had followed the rules would not be penalized for success immediately. Our concern was that the prices of waiver not be so prohibitive that they would prevent players from a chance to be picked up. The players' major contribution was negotiation of reduction of waiver prices.
Q. Are less-skilled players, slap shots and cheap shots taking away the sport's excitement and eroding fan interest?
Ziegler: Our percentage of capacity today is probably only 11 or 12 percent from the highest it's ever been. We're at over 80 percent of capacity in our buildings. The game is different. Players are bigger and faster. There are probably more skilled players now than in 1966 (last year of the six-team league), certainly more than in 1967, although the percentage of skilled players on each team today is lower than 1966. The skills are different. There are fewer center ice checks because of the speed. You can't take the chance of the player getting past you... The game really changed when the slap shot came in. It put the mask on the goalies...It became the style to shoot into the corners anf forecheck very hard. But the style Jack Adams championed in the days when he won seven Stanley Cups in Detroit - a strong power play, one outstanding line, a good second line and a checking line to go against the other team's No. 1 line.
Q. Is the widespread use of helmets responsible for fans no longer being able to identify with the players?
Ziegler: We lose some of that intimacy, between the fan and the players on the ice, but that's where we are. It's a fact of life and I don't think you can go back to where it was.
Most helmets are worn because players have worn them since they started playing hockey.
Q - Are the cheap-shot boarding and high sticking that force the use of helmets the result of selective rules enforcement decreed by the owners?
Ziegler: Our policy is that a hook that interferes with the flow of the game is hooking and a trip that interferes with the flow of the game is tripping. But we don't want every bit of contract ruled a penalty if it does not affect the play. It was our feeling that the game was being over-officiated.
Q - Would European-size rinks provide more opportunity for passing and reduce the hooking, holding and boarding that detract from the game?
Ziegler: I think our record in attracting the public is better than the Europeans'. They're extremely envious of us. If we went to a European rink, we would lose fans. You can't check on the big rinks. You have to play a box just like being shorthanded...However, if the growth of the athlete continues, maybe in five or 10 years from now we will run our of room.
Q - What is the NHL feeling on geographic realignment, a schedule based more on divisional rivalries and closer competition?
Ziegler: Geographical realignment and a totally unbalanced shedule would save the rigors of travel, but not save significant money....As for disparity, there is still too large a gaop between the first-place team and the last-place team. Over the last two years the number of good teams has increased and the teams in the middle are closer competitively. But the teams at the bottom have not made the kind of improvement we'd like to see...Sam Pollock has a theory that any team out of the playoffs two years in a row should have extra help.
Q - The Soviet series was dreamed up to stir the interest of television, it didn't; what is the hope of TV exposure in the future?
Ziegler: The Soviet series was not designed exclusively for television. The moving force behind it was to have an international event that would be unique. It was also seen as a way to add prestige to our All-Star event. We didn't expect the networks to fall over themselves the first time around. I thought they would be more interested than they turned out to be. If the event is all we expect it to be, there should be plenty of interest next time. I don't see the major networks as an immediate source of substantial revenue, but the local packages are going to grow. One area where we are in a special situation is cable and pay TV. We actually televised more games last year than any sport except baseball. But major network involvement is like to come on a special-event basis rather than a weekly package.
A - A year ago, the NHL played 132 ties in 720 regular-season games; should not ties be resolved through overtime?
Ziegler: The disparity between lower teams and upper teams is still too great to have overtime. If you go into overtime, the percentages are that a stronger team will win that game. It would work to the disadvantage of lower-placed teams and those are the teams we're trying to help...As a fan, I enjoy the excitement of overtime.
Q - Is hockey's future clouded by the tremendous expense of the sport, a factor in the lower number of youngsters taking it up, while relatively inexpensive soccer is booming?
Ziegler: There is more university and college hockey and before, and it's particulary healthy in the United States. There was a great boom in the U.S. in 1967. What is required is some innovation in equipment and facility, like the plastic tubing that made rink construction cheaper in '67 so that the expense moves back to a more reasonable position with regard to the family budget.
Q - If the Dale McCourt case is decided in McCourt's favor, in order to save the NHL from a baseball-type lottery, will the league turn to football-style compensation, suggested by the players, with teams receiving draft choices based on the salaries paid to players going elsewhere?
Ziegler: That type of settlement was rejected in 1973. It was rejected because a team that loses a star or superstar cannot replace him with a draft choice immediately. For a low team that loses a star, a draft choice doesn't help that much. I don't believe our sport can afford a situation like the one in baseball. We do not have the benefit of having universal appeal throughtout the U.S and therefore we do not have the benefit of a large network contract or other extra-income source. We depend on gate receipts. If we moved into buying the best players with money the only determinant, the size of the pocket-book and market location would be the determining factors in your success. Ne York could complete best in that kind of atmosphere. The other thing we've seen come into sports is the conglomerate or major company as an owner. They would be in a superior position to complete in a free-agent market-place. Regardless of the outcome of the McCourt case. I hope we will have an equalization system reached through collective bargaining... If not we do not at this juncture have an identifiable avenue to settle problems.