John Ziegler Jr.’s tumultuous 15 years as NHL president began with the league ushering in the Wayne Gretzky era and ended with labor unrest and a players strike in 1992.
The NHL today confirmed Ziegler’s death, although the cause was not immediately known. He was 84 and living in Florida.
“His positive imprint on the game of hockey cannot ever be overstated,” Chicago Blackhawks chairman Rocky Wirtz said. “While he will be missed, his legacy and contributions to our sport will carry on forever.”
Ziegler was the first American to run the league and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1987.
He was credited for helping the NHL become an international league by increasing the number of European players and opening the door for Russians to compete in North America.
Ziegler was the NHL’s fourth president, succeeding Clarence Campbell in 1977. Two years later, he played a key role in brokering a merger with the World Hockey Association in which the NHL added four teams from the upstart league — the Edmonton Oilers, Winnipeg Jets, Quebec Nordiques and Hartford Whalers.
While the Jets, Nordiques and Whalers eventually relocated, the Gretzky-led Oilers quickly succeeded, winning four Stanley Cups between 1984 and 1988. The Oilers posted a picture of Ziegler handing the Stanley Cup to a beaming Gretzky on the team’s Twitter feed.
The NHL eventually grew to 24 teams under Ziegler by expanding into San Jose in 1991. In 1978, the NHL had dropped to 17 franchises when the Cleveland Barons ceased operations after merging with the Minnesota North Stars.
Just as important, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman credited Ziegler for attracting talent from across the Atlantic. The share of NHL players not born in North America grew from 2 percent to 11 percent on Ziegler’s watch, Bettman said.
It was a period that introduced the NHL to its first wave of Russian-born stars such as Viacheslav Fetisov, Igor Larionov, Alexander Mogilny and Pavel Bure.
Contentious labor talks between the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association over playoff bonuses, free agency and pension funds led to the players voting to strike in the final weeks of the 1991-92 season. The strike lasted 10 days.
League owners unhappy with the labor agreement ousted Ziegler two months later. He was replaced on an interim basis by Gil Stein. The NHL hired Bettman the following year and appointed him the league’s first commissioner.
“John provided invaluable counsel during my early days as commissioner and was always generous with his time,” Bettman said.
Ziegler was from Grosse Pointe, Michigan, and broke into the NHL serving as legal counsel for the Red Wings and their arena Olympia Stadium in 1960. He worked his way up the ranks to eventually represent the Red Wings on the NHL’s board of governors.
During Ziegler’s time as league president the Red Wings were sold to the late Mike Ilitch, whose family still owns the team.
“We are extremely grateful for the guidance and support John provided as president of the NHL when our family purchased the Red Wings in 1982,” Red Wings governor Christopher Ilitch said. “John left an immeasurable mark on both the Red Wings organization and the sport of hockey worldwide.”
After leaving the NHL, Ziegler worked at a Detroit law firm and served as an alternate governor for the Chicago Blackhawks.