Ex-Red Wings exec, NHL president John Ziegler dies at 84

Detroit News staff and wires
John Ziegler

John Ziegler Jr., the NHL president who oversaw the merger with the World Hockey Association and was eventually ousted following labor unrest and a players’ strike in 1992, has died. He was 84.

The NHL confirmed Ziegler’s death, although the cause was not immediately known. He was living in Florida.

Ziegler was a Grosse Pointe native and broke into the NHL with the Detroit Red Wings in 1960 as counsel to Olympia Stadium and the team. Ziegler, a University of Michigan law school graduate, remained with the Red Wings until 1977.

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“On behalf of Marian Ilitch and myself, we’d like to extend our sincere condolences to the Ziegler family,” Ilitch Holdings president and CEO Christopher Ilitch said in a statement. “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, and we are equally thankful for the 17 years he spent with the organization prior to that. John left an immeasurable mark on both the Red Wings organization and the sport of hockey worldwide, and he will be deeply missed.”

Ziegler was the NHL’s fourth president, succeeding Clarence Campbell in 1977 and serving 15 years. He was the first American to run the league and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1987.

Two years after he became president, the NHL merged with the WHA. It 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 Oilers quickly found success in the NHL, winning four Stanley Cups between 1984 and 1988 on a superstar-laden team led by Wayne Gretzky.

The Oilers posted a picture of Ziegler handing the Stanley Cup to a beaming Gretzky on the team’s Twitter feed.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement that Ziegler was “instrumental in the NHL’s transition to becoming a more international league” by increasing the number of European players and opening the door for Russians to compete in North America.

The commissioner noted that while Ziegler was president the league expanded from 18 to 24 teams, the share of European-born players in the NHL grew from 2 to 11 percent and games between NHL and European clubs became a nearly annual tradition.

“John provided invaluable counsel during my early days as commissioner and was always generous with his time,” Bettman said.

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.