Old NHL boss John Ziegler, granted new franchises to Phil Esposito (TB) and Bruce Firestone (OTT)

My sleep schedule has been messed up over the last week or so due to various hockey tournaments on the other side of the world. Anytime I read anything longer than a blog post, I basically crash, but I had time enough to read this passage out of Money Players from Bruce Dowbiggin, which really is essential lockout reading.

This passage is from the chapter called Hired Gun, and Bob Goodenow’s leadership during the 10-day 1992 player strike, which set the stage for the 1994 lockout.

In Minnesota, GM Bobby Clarke—a former president of the NHLPA—summed up the quandary facing ownership. “It won’t be the poor owners who decide to give up,” Clarke told the staff of the North Stars. “It’ll be the richer owners who want to get back to playing. They can still make money. The poor owners can stay out forever, because they have nothing to lose.” The schism between rich and poor owners threatened the solidarity of the Board of Governors and required [John] Ziegler to do some of his best behind-the-scenes work to conceal the split from players and fans.

In public, Ziegler—coached by his spin doctor, former broadcaster Fraser Kelly—mounted press conferences that portrayed the NHL as a business on the verge of insolvency due to rising player costs. Gone were the boastful days when he told a crowd, “Now if it sounds like I’m a little proud [of selling 87 per cent of our seats], you bet your bippy I’m proud.” Using graphs, pie charts, and occasional tears, Ziegler said that player demands would land the league $150 million in debt within two years. He claimed playoff revenues represented only 8 per cent—$8.8 million—of total revenues. He said the average salary was $379,000 (it was actually $239,000). In one memorable press performance, the dapper, fussy president was reduced to tears at the prospect of an end to Hockey Night in Canada‘s playoff tradition. “I don’t know if our fans will ever forgive us,” he sniffled. “I have difficulty understanding why players want to ruin or irrevocably scar this great season.” What was never explained was how the $450-million business that Ziegler had extolled in glowing terms to expansion applicants in 1990 was now on the brink of insolvency. Or where the $150 million in expansion fees had gone.

The faces and numbers have changed, but I found it amusing that the same themes that run in 2012, are similar to the ones faced in 1992. I’m surprised that the schism between rich and poor owners isn’t being discussed a little bit more. The lockout would need to find some way to benefit owners in Vancouver, Montreal, and the new ones in Toronto who paid $1.3-billion in the spring for Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, where the Maple Leafs are the flagship property.

The second paragraph is pretty fun as well. Former NHL president John Ziegler seems a lot more folksy that Gary Bettman, as I don’t think Gary would use a word like “bippy” ever in a press conference, but Ziegler uses misinformation, covers up revenue streams from fans, and attempts to use the greedy players as a negotiating chip with the public.

What Money Players is really about is how Bob Goodenow modernized the NHLPA. He replaced former executive director Alan Eagleson whose sole purpose was to preserve his monopoly over the agencies. By the time Goodenow got around, he found that the average NHL player was scared to ask about information, worried about the prospect of salary disclosure, and uneasy about getting his fair slice of the pie. The Ziegler expansion of the early 1990s, which resulted in teams going to San Jose, Ottawa, Tampa Bay, Florida, and Anaheim, were a cash-grab by the NHL, but Goodenow’s negotiation of free agency rights saw much of that money diverted back to the players.

Ziegler being reduced to bare emotions in press conferences is something we’ve seen out of Gary, who has talked about the fiscal insolvency of the league since about the spring of 2004. In 1992, the major issues the NHL faced were a split between rich and poor owners, a small national TV deal since American fans mostly had a regional interest, and they were the fourth most popular sport, well behind basketball.

In 2012, the issues remain the same. Without the big national TV deal, revenue sharing is still a joke. There’s an even wider divide between rich teams and poor teams. Basketball came out of its lockout last years and put together one of its most memorable seasons in history with an outstanding playoffs, drawing much more substantial ratings than the NHL playoffs.

As much as the NHL has been modernized, it simply faces the same issues as it did during the 1992 strike. This next collective agreement is a legacy one more than anything. Unless he solves the financial parity issue, history probably won’t look back on him kindly.