John Ziegler is an attorney, a slight man with an engaging smile. Frequently, however, Ziegler is confronted by hecklers shouting one word: "violence."

Ziegler is president of the National Hockey League, and critics of that organization tend to place stereotypes on its performers as individuals who follow the philosophy of "Carry a big stick and hit somebody with it."

Ziegler came to Washington yesterday to help publicize the NHL All-Star Game, to be played at Capital Centre on his birthday (Feb. 9), and the $150-a-plate formal dinner the night before at the Washington Hilton, for the benefit of the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation. Among the early questions thrown his way was one concerning his feelings about violence in hockey.

In recent weeks, the NHL has banned Philadelphia's Behn Wilson for four games for spearing New York Ranger Reijo Ruotsolainen in the face; suspended Montreal's Chris Nilan for three games for hitting Pittsburgh's Fred Baxter in the head with a thrown puck; fined Ken Linseman of Philadelphia $200 for trying to kick Montreal's Robert Picard, and fined Quebec's Dale Hunter $500 and Mark Hardy of Los Angeles $300 for attempting to decapitate each other with their sticks.

Some critics think these sentences are too light, so Ziegler sought to explain the difficulties of playing hockey without combat and enforcing penalties without judicial standing.

"My public relations people hate me when I say this, but I think our sport is a very violent sport," Ziegler said. "It is violent by nature, played in a confined area of 200 feet by 85 feet, with players skating at 20 to 25 miles per hour and shooting a puck at 100 miles per hour. It requires of them probably the highest intensity of competition in professional sports. Besides the speed, we also tell them they can run into each other.

"It's frustrating by nature. With respect to use of the stick as a weapon, we penalize it substantially. As for brawling, we continue to legislate against it. But as for somebody who drops his gloves, throwing him out doesn't help the game or hurt it. The alternative to letting off these frustrations is the use of the stick. European players are not permitted to fight. Our scouts tell us their bodies are covered with welts from the stick swinging."

Most European players in the NHL bear the same welts for the same reason, but that is another story, as is judicial standing.

"Sports are on a different plane from real life," Ziegler said. "We have to be concerned about due process and we will lose that privilege (of enforcement) if we are not fair. When a player is suspended without pay, considering our salaries, it costs him a considerable amount. In the case of Mr. Wilson, for example, it probably cost him $6,000 or $7,000.

"If the degree of severity is increased, the players will think they were under Khomeini or something. They give up rights as citizens for the privilege of playing in a public arena, but we must take care to weigh our decisions affecting them with care."

On other subjects, Ziegler said the collective bargaining agreement, due to expire Sept. 15, 1982, probably could be renewed without a strike; that attendance in October was 2.5 percent higher than in 1980, when it was at an all-time high; that he preferred sudden-death overtime but that its fate was tied to collective bargaining; that he would like to see a team in the Meadowlands if it could be done without harming existing franchises, and that the Washington Capitals "had the toughest road to hoe of all the expansion teams, coming in at the time they did."