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Original Issue


A row, a lawsuit, a strike—and no NHL president in sight

Calling John Ziegler. Has anyone out there seen Mr. Ziegler, the puppet president of the National Hockey League? When last spotted he was wearing a bright-yellow necktie and a dynamite suntan, and was speaking fluent legalese. He looked like the Mouseketeer Cubby, only older and not as funny. Paging the elusive Mr. Ziegler. We have an important message for you: Resign. Quit. Your sport is a leaderless joke.

The latest black mark against Ziegler came on Sunday after NHL executive vice-president Brian O'Neill suspended New Jersey Devils coach Jim Schoenfeld for that night's fourth game of the Stanley Cup semifinal series between the Devils and the Boston Bruins as a result of an incident involving Schoenfeld and referee Don Koharski after Game 3. The Devils responded by obtaining a temporary restraining order from a New Jersey Superior Court judge allowing Schoenfeld to coach. Then, minutes before the scheduled start of the game, referee Dave Newell and linesmen Ray Scapinello and Gord Broseker left the ice to protest Schoenfeld's appearance behind the bench.

So the NHL trotted out three amateur officials to call the game. The amateurs, all of whom had refereed at the collegiate level, did a fine job under the circumstances—certainly no worse than your standard NHL officiating. You would hardly have noticed them if the two linesmen had not taken the ice wearing comical yellow jerseys that hung down to their thighs or if John McCauley, the league's supervisor of officials, who was seated in the Boston penalty box, had not helped substitute referee Paul McInnis interpret the rules. It lent this critical playoff game the unassuming air of an exhibition. Which, in a way, it was—an exhibition of the depths to which this troubled league has sunk.

And where was Ziegler during this amusing little circus? No one seemed to know. The league said he couldn't be reached all day.

The NHL brought the incident on itself. Whether or not you believe that Schoenfeld should have been hit with a suspension for verbally abusing an official and blocking his exit from the ice—it's unclear on the videotape if Schoenfeld pushed Koharski, as Koharski claims—the fact is, such abuse of officials is routine in the NHL. Coaches, general managers and players confront and scream at refs off the ice all the time: through doorways, in hallways, outside the officials' dressing rooms. And they demean the refs to the press. To listen to the bellyaching, one would assume every defeat during the season is perpetrated by idiot zebras.

Sometimes coaches are fined for criticizing the referees too pointedly. But not often—certainly not often enough. And suspended? Until the Schoenfeld case, to be suspended by the NHL you had to actually slug a referee in the face, as Bruins coach Terry O'Reilly did when he was a player in 1982. The sluggee was Andy van Hellemond. What sort of suspension do you think Pete Rose would have gotten if he had closed his fist and smacked umpire Dave Pallone with a roundhouse right? My guess is a year. Perhaps even a lifetime. O'Reilly was suspended for 10 games.

So there's the first problem: The league does not respect, or protect, its own officials.

And here's the second problem: Some of the bellyaching is justified. The referees are uniformly awful.

Let's not hear about how hard it is to referee hockey. It's no harder than refereeing basketball or football. But while there are two referees on an NBA court, and seven officials on an NFL field, only one man whistles penalties in an NHL game. Naturally, he misses a lot. And much of what he sees, he lets go by. So what happens? The players try to get away with things. Sometimes the ref lets them, sometimes he doesn't, depending on the score, the period, the time of year and, often, pure whimsy. The result is mayhem. It certainly isn't hockey as the founders of the game intended.

Ziegler has no idea what the founders of the game intended. Ziegler is a lawyer, a numbers guy. He looks at the number of seats sold league-wide—upward of 85% of capacity this year—and says, If it ain't broke, don't fix it. But it is broke. And for every patron who buys a ticket to an NHL game, there are countless others who would not go to one on a bet, who would not watch a hockey game on television if it were up against reruns of a test pattern.

The league needs a change at the top. It needs someone with the gumption and clout to force the owners to address the incompetence of its on-ice officials and the conduct of its coaches, not to mention the brawling that has turned the sport into one big wrestling match. Ziegler, wherever he is, isn't the man. So he should leave the game and devote himself to something he's pretty darn good at—his suntan.