Former NHL president John Ziegler Jr., the first American to oversee the league, dead at 84

John Ziegler Jr., the fourth president in NHL history and the first American to oversee the league, died this week at age 84, commissioner Gary Bettman announced Friday.

The NHL did not have a commissioner before Bettman joined the league in 1993, so in the mold of Canada’s National Hockey Association, the NHL began with a president as its top executive. From 1977 to 1992, Ziegler held that title, ushering in an expansive era of international hockey for the league.

“John oversaw the growth of the league from 18 to 24 teams, including the 1979 addition of four teams from the WHA (World Hockey Association),” Bettman said in a statement. “He was instrumental in the NHL’s transition to becoming a more international league — during his tenure, the share of European-born players in the NHL grew from 2 to 11 percent, players from the former Soviet Union first entered the league and games between NHL and European Clubs became a nearly annual tradition.”

Ziegler’s tenure as NHL president ended in controversy after a 10-day strike initiated by the NHL Players Association — a labor dispute that continued with the 1994-95 NHL lockout.

As Bettman noted, however, he also helped orchestrate some of the league’s biggest steps toward expansion. After work with Olympia Stadium and the Detroit Red Wings in the late 1950s, Ziegler became the Red Wings’ vice president and ultimately contributed to various NHL committees, serving as board chairman by 1976. In the 1980s, that board began an expansion plan that would grow the league from 21 teams to 30 within a decade. And he negotiated the deal to bring the four WHA teams — the Edmonton Oilers, Quebec Nordiques, Hartford Whalers and Winnipeg Jets — to the NHL.

Awarded the Lester Patrick Trophy in 1984 for his service to hockey in America, Ziegler was also an inspiration to Bettman, the current commissioner said.

“On a personal note, John provided invaluable counsel during my early days as commissioner and was always generous with his time,” Bettman said. “On behalf of the NHL’s Board of Governors, we extend our deepest sympathies to his entire family and many friends.”

An amateur hockey player himself from 1949 to 1969 out of Michigan, Ziegler worked at a Detroit law firm after leaving the NHL, the league said, although he also served as an alternate governor for the Chicago Blackhawks. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1987, just 10 years after taking over as the NHL president.

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