Imagine my surprise when NHL president John Ziegler dropped by my office last week to say he had had enough. No more jokes about his whereabouts during the Stanley Cup playoffs. No more gibes about his midwinter tan and his fluffy foulards. His days as president were over: He was retiring to open a health spa in the south of France.
He threw an item on my desk that he identified as the final straw, an Oct. 6 copy of the New York Daily News: ZIEGLER'S TALKING LIKE A GOON ran the headline. The writer referred to the prez as Ziggy Stardust and quoted from a televised interview that Ziegler gave to MSG network's Al Trautwig on the subject of fighting. "...If I wanted to get somebody out of a game," Ziegler had said, "I, in front of his home fans, would send out somebody that I could lose for the next 10 games and challenge him (an opposing player)...and say, 'You're a coward. You won't stand up to me.' I don't think many of us would turn away from that kind of situation...."
"Ziggy Stardust indeed," Ziegler said to me. "I'm going somewhere that I can command a little respect." His final act was to recommend me as his successor. But first I had to present a 10-point plan to the Board of Governors outlining my thoughts on how to improve the game. "O.K.," I said, "I'll do it. But I want to be called commissioner, not president." To me, a league president is just another toady of the owners, but a commissioner is an independent operative.
As commissioner, I will do the following:
1) Get an NHL Game of the Week on network television, even if it means the league's buying the airtime and selling the ads. Hockey must attract new fans, and there has never been a better time to do so than in the Gretzky-Lemieux-Soviets era. Use super-slo-mo cameras, isolation shots on key players, remote cameras from inside the goal net—anything that will help the casual viewer grasp the complexity of hockey.
2) Get NHL games away from SportsChannel America—which is available in only nine of the 12 U.S. cities that have NHL teams—and back on ESPN, which did a superb job of televising the league from 1985 through '88.
3) Rename the conferences and divisions. The Campbell Conference is a good name for a soup convention, and when the Campbell and Wales conferences go at it in the All-Star game, fights break out in bars over which team has Lemieux and which has Gretzky. As for Patrick Smythe and Adams Norris, why don't they start a law firm with Ziegler?
4) Eliminate all those ridiculous trophies. The Lady Byng Award, given for gentlemanly play, was surely a joke played on the league by Ms. Byng, who knew irony when she ran across it. Let us continue the fun by donating the fool thing to the Association of Tennis Professionals.
5) Abbreviate the playoffs by cutting out the first round, which means that only eight, rather than the current 16, teams will qualify for postseason play. To mollify owners howling about lost revenues, I'll rename the divisions and conferences according to the wishes of the highest corporate bidders. How about the Chrysler Conference, composed of a Dodge Division and a Plymouth Division? Sure, the fans and the press would call it commercialism in its vilest form, but they would be wrong. Pro football's Turns Neutralizer award is commercialism in its vilest form.
6) Institute a three-referee, no-linesmen system. As it stands, the referee calls virtually all penalties, but henceforth all three officials will work together to call penalties, off-sides and icings. They will be instructed to call every infraction.
7) Borrow the concept of team fouls from basketball. Each team will be allowed five minor infractions per period—hooking, holding, interference—before a player sits in the penalty box. If a player is fouled in the act of shooting, a penalty shot will be awarded. A player committing a violent foul—slashing, boarding, charging, roughing—will be sent to the penalty box, regardless of how many team fouls his side has.
8) Discourage, but not ban, fighting. Everyone knows hockey fights attract fans who might otherwise be watching Wrestlemania, and I, the commish, do not want to alienate loyal patrons. But fighting with skates on is dangerous. Those blades are as sharp as knives. So during my term any player who fights without first removing his skates will forfeit the use of his skates for the rest of the game.
9) Reduce the number of players a team can dress, from 18 skaters and two goalies to 16 and two. Fewer players will mean fewer goons trying to play after their skates have been confiscated.
10) Remove the Forever Tawny tanning machine that is sitting in the league's New York office. Mine will be a very different era from the prez's. I prefer to do my work from a hot tub.