John Ziegler Jr, the fourth president of the National Hockey League, passed away this past Thursday at the age of 84 years old.
His fifteen-year tenure as president from 1977 to 1992 held some of the greatest shifts in the history of the NHL. Originally from Michigan, Ziegler was also a University of Michigan graduate, with both his undergraduate and graduate law degrees coming from the prestigious university. He was at one time an owner of the Detroit Red Wings and also served as a chairman of the NHL Board of Directors for one year.
Ziegler became the first American to serve as NHL President when he succeeded Clarence Campbell in 1977. Within his first year in the new position, Ziegler began brokering and arranged the merger of the NHL to the WHA, World Hockey Association. Two years late, the merger eventually brought in four new Canadian teams in their own division to the larger North American league of the NHL, including the remaining Edmonton Oilers and Winnipeg Jets.
His fifteen years could only be described as groundbreaking. After legendary fights and suspensions after a brawl between the Boston Bruins, New York Rangers, and fans at Madison Square Garden, Ziegler oversaw increased Plexiglas height in professional arenas, marking a shift in the league’s approach to the fan-player relationship. We’ll never again see a player beat a fan with his own shoe like the illustrious Mike Milbury did that night.
The NHL became the great international league we know it to be under his tenure. Despite his initial misgivings and public statements to the contrary, Ziegler put NHL players into the Olympics and brought Russians into the NHL near the end of the Cold War with the drafting of Pavel Bure in 1989 by the Vancouver Canucks. This has ultimately proven to his most lasting change. Upon his exit, the league had a higher number of European players, not just Russians, and the number continued to grow. The league we know today has grown beyond the American and Canadian league it started as and has become a global exchange of athleticism and sportsmanship. He oversaw the great Gretzky years, an influx of new players and fans, a number of labor and pension scandals, and much, much more. He eventually left his position after years of labor disputes and the 1991-1992 players strike.
Even with the drama that did occur in his time, Ziegler formed the league as we know it today. Without him, there would be no Alexander Ovechkin and Washington Capitals Stanley Cup. This past exciting season could not have occurred without the innovations he oversaw. He ushered in the global era of hockey that we all needed and for that, we will dearly miss him. The league celebrated him with the Lester Patrick Trophy in 1984 for his service to the league and he joined the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1987. The statement from the Chicago Blackhawks Chairman Rocky Wirtz says it best: “His positive imprint on the game of hockey cannot ever be overstated. While he will be missed, his legacy and contributions to our sport will carry on forever.” Rest in Peace, Mr. Ziegler. Hockey fans around the world thank you for the game we have today.
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