John A. Ziegler Jr., president of the National Hockey League, recently was interviewed by editors and reporters at The Washington Post. Following are excerpts from that interview, as well as comments made in a follow-up telephone interview Friday.
Q: The subject of violence in hockey has surfaced again with the league's suspension of Los Angeles Coach Don Perry for ordering a player, Paul Mulvey, into a fight. Would you elaborate on your decision to suspend Perry for 15 days and fine him $5,000?
A: I issued a statement when that was announced, and I have to confine myself to that statement because a grievance has been filed in the case. In general, the league's effort with respect to bench-clearing situations has been going on for a number of years. It's been reduced substantially. It's part of the policy we established three or four years ago, which called for stiff penalties for players coming off the bench to join in fights. I don't consider it (the suspension of Perry) any new effort. The message has always been there, though we've never quite had that kind of situation with a coach before. We did penalize a coach, Pat Quinn of the Flyers, for not saying no. A fight was going on (in 1980), the players started to go out on the ice and some players looked back to see if it was all right and the coach nodded yes. There was some action taken on that (a three-game suspension and $1,000 fine for Quinn and a $5,000 fine for the Flyers). That's really all I can say about this case. I can't comment at all on what my intent was, again because of the grievance.
Q: What about Jimmy Mann of Winnipeg. He's been suspended for 10 games for punching Paul Gardner of Pittsburgh, and breaking his jaw. Gardner will be out 25 to 30 games and some people say Mann's penalty is not sufficient.
A: The penalty is consistent with our disciplinary procedures. There has been a direct precedent for that. We are obligated to be fair and to have integrity of our procedures, and we can't change what we're doing in the middle of the season without going to all the people involved. Our right to discipline comes by rights established in the league constitution, in our collective bargaining agreements with the players and the officials, and in individual player contracts. If you're going to change your practices, you just can't up and say the hell with existing contracts. In setting penalties, we look at the severity of intent, the malice involved and the precedent. There was a direct precedent in this situation for a 10-game suspension. We also haven't had that many incidents of that kind, despite the fact that it's being played up, that you read and read and read about it. We have 1,000 games a year. If we have one or two incidents, well, two are too many. But I do not think there is an epidemic of violence in the game . . . I don't think you will ever eliminate it. The history of mankind has shown no matter what the penalty may be--if emotion takes over it will produce a result even though it may mean forfeiture of your life. We could do the European way--if you fight, you are out of the game, plus you are out of the next. Playing those kind of rules, when I was with the London Lions (in England), the way you handled your frustrations, you would use a lot more stick work. One of the concerns I would have, if we ever got to the point of legislation, I would want to make sure every team understood that what you are introducing is a possibility of a tactic and that is to take your stars out of the game and send out someone to start a fight with them. If it is clear that he is out there and attempts to injure, he is out of the game. And is automatically suspended. That rule is right in there. I think in most any incident where there has been deliberate attempt or deliberate injury there have been additional suspensions.
Q: Why doesn't the league take a tougher stand on confrontation with officials?
A: First of all, the recent controversy (involving Paul Holmgren of the Flyers) as far as I am considered got blown way beyond the fact. Our history of dealing with confrontation with officials matches up with anybody. As a matter of fact, we never had a complaint from our officials until this year. The history is that in the Holmgren incident, the suspension, which was really six games, was the second-highest suspension that had been imposed on a player for an attack on an official since 1973. There was an eight-game suspension then when a fellow punched the official in the face and knocked him to the ice and bloodied his nose. Our privilege to discipline is based upon certain procedure. And that procedure is a review by me or my delegate, Brian O'Neill. Now, as I say, up until after the imposition of this penalty we had never had a criticism of our discipline from the officials or the officials' union. It was only after the lawyer for the union said this was outrageous and that he was going to strike or they would consider a strike that it suddenly became a cause celebre.
Q: How much did that cost the player?
A: Probably $12,000.
Q: What was the position of his management?
A: That he did not intend to injure, that it was totally out of frustration, that he felt he had been unjustly penalized because he had been attacked and he retaliated and he got kicked out of the game and no penalty was imposed on the other players. And when he learned it, that he lost his head. There is no justification regardless of that.
Q: What effect has Wayne Gretzky's great season had on the league?
A: You can always use things that help your business. Gretzky has added a dimension which we had not quite had since Bobby Orr's unfortunate early retirement. That is a significant superstar whose recognition moves beyond the hockey public and moves even beyond perhaps the sports public. Gretzky's performance, and the kind of young man that he is, has brought about an awareness to help people in your business--both television and print. He is now beginning to attract people to the game who perhaps have not been going, because of his star presence and his reputation. From the business standpoint, I am continually concerned with how many are attending our games. We have been on an upward trend for the last three years. Since he only plays 40 games away and his games at home have been sold out since that team came in, you're talking about an impact on 40 games out of approximately an 840-game schedule.
Q: What about a national television contract for the National Hockey League?
A: About three years ago, I came to the recognition that our particular business and the business of the major networks really don't fit. They are in the business of selling advertising. To do that you have to deliver the numbers and ratings and that as you know is judged on 230 million people--or 80 million televisions at home and the percentage you get of that. Our sport is located and played and identified in an area which --whether we were filling our building every night--we still would have trouble getting people in the South and Southwest and their stations to cover. We then decided instead of thinking in terms of trying to be national, what we will do is try and concentrate on our local clubs and their local and regional opportunities in this new field (cable television). We have not pursued a national television contact for three years. With respect to our special events, either our international contests, our finals of our Stanley Cup, we continue to pursue and continue to try to persuade them that we think they are missing a bet.
Q: Recently, there have been stories on the possibility of Colorado perhaps merging with the Washington Capitals. Where does that stand?
A: We set up a committee to assist (Rockies owner) Peter Gilbert, who says, 'I'm losing money at a much faster rate than I ever anticipated and it is at a rate that I don't wish to afford and I would like some help.' And that is either by sale or by partnership or some relief. The only option I'll give priority is the first, which is to find either new ownership that would take it over and operate it in Colorado or a partnership that would assist him absorbing the losses. After that there are all kind of options. There was the precedent of what we did with Cleveland with a form of a merger of the two teams (the other being the present Minnesota franchise). That is an extremely difficult thing to bring about. Even if you put aside the financial aspects, which are substantial, there are the matters accommodating the player movement into one team and drafting from other teams, and so on. The Minnesota and Cleveland merger took a helluva lot of work. And it's something you would really not get into until you were certain that both teams were no longer playing against each other in the regular season. Because you could not be engaged in something that might affect integrity of the contest. The committee is out looking for interested investors. We are looking for money for Colorado. Until you come up with something else, everything is a possibility. There are all kinds of options. Peter could elect to stay--he could change his mind. You could find a buyer for Colorado, you could find a partner for Colorado.
Q: Abe Pollin was quoted recently as saying the biggest disappointment of his professional career so far was the Washington Capitals. What's your view on this franchise?
A: I don't think there is anybody who probably wanted success more than Abe Pollin and Peter (O'Malley). They studied what other people did, asked questions as to how they operated--whether it was Montreal or whoever--and who gave to their management people and operation people the kind of authority that successful ownerships have given. The nucleus of players on the Capitals I think can stack up with the nucleus on any team. When you start getting to the ninth, 10th, 11th players, maybe the discrepancy widens a bit and the really good team is when you get to the 18th, 19th, 20th player and their 20 can interchange with their 15 and you won't miss much.
Q: Was there ever any thought to help Washington and Colorado (then Kansas City) after that first expansion draft, even to this day since both franchises are floundering?
A: There wasn't that belief at the beginning that there was that lack of talent. We were into almost a survival situation where everybody had to fend for themselves. We were trying for survival as a league in this war with the World Hockey Association. We were spending a million or more dollars with this litigation, lawyers' fees, our labor costs were escalating at rates of 100 to 200 percent a year. Everything was totally out of control. People were losing millions of dollars, it wasn't just Washington, it was Detroit, Chicago, Colorado. The weaker teams had to just hang in there. Whether that should have been the way that we conducted ourselves, I don't know. It is just a fact--that's the way we were--and that's what we were trying to do.
Q: Has there been any talk about getting Soviet players for the National Hockey League?
A: I personally have had that kind of discussion with various people in the Soviet Union almost yearly. There are numbers of problems from their standpoint in accommodating that. Assuming that they would want to. Their hockey program is designed to create one elite team--that represents the Soviet Union. They take 700,000 registered hockey players in the system to build one elite team. They also have said they would not want to have someone who was not an outstanding hockey player or players come and play in the league because if they would play poorly that would reflect upon the Soviet Union. They also are concerned that there is a certain cultural shock with the different standards of living and so on that might affect the young man. They have to be concerned for his welfare, his coming back and the adjustments he would have to make.