APRIL 2000


An inside look at the Big Business of the National Hockey League

Gil Stein (1997 Birch Lane Press).

Gil Stein was the NHL's first vice president and general counsel and later the president and CEO of the National Hockey League. Prior to that, he had been general counsel for the Philadelphia Flyers. He remains a consultant to the NHL.

Having last month reviewed a book which chronicled decades of abuse by NHL ownership and league hiearchy toward its players (Net Worth), I was hoping that Power Plays would present the story from the ownership and league side, to perhaps shed some light on the horrible stories raised in Net Worth, or even to somehow attempt to defend these actions, or demonstrate how the league may be improving on this situation.

Powerplays does indeed take the reader behind the scenes of the business aspect of the NHL. Stein illuminates how former NHL president John Ziegler capitalized on the power struggle between the "Old Guard" of NHL governors in the 1970s, led by Bill Wirtz of the Blackhawks and Bruce Norris of the Red Wings, and the "Young Turks" led by Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider, to seize the NHL presidency.

Stein is quite generous to Ziegler, saying how much the NHL improved under his tenure. He cites his ending the war between the NHL and the upstart World Hockey Association, whereby the NHL absorbed four teams (Edmonton, Hartford, Quebec and Winnipeg). Stein also credits Ziegler with having increased television revenues, brought about further expansion, ending the players strike of 1992 and even credits Ziegler with helping to bring about "the best pension plan in sports" for the players.

Sadly, however, the author then inadvertently discredits much of what he praises Ziegler for bringing about. The absorption of the WHA teams was brought about more by a handful of NHL owners, who lobbied hard to change a crucial vote of one of their number, than of anything else Ziegler did. There have been several books over the past few years - notably Net Worth - which has taken Ziegler to task for the poor television coverage of the league during his tenure.

Stein would have the reader believe Ziegler had successfully ended the players strike, but he glosses over the fact that the NHL president instead badly handled the situation, including his statements where he claimed the league was barely making any money. This was disproved in the press and in books like Net Worth. Finally, Powerplays claim that the players had the best pension plan in pro sports is ludicrous, in the light of a recent trial whereby the NHL had to pay his pensioned players millions of dollars in surplus money that was kept hidden from them.

Powerplays devotes an entire chapter to the most embarassing moment in Ziegler's tenure, that of his three day disappearence during the 1988 playoff series between the Boston Bruins and New Jersey Devils. It was during a game in that series where then-Devils coach Jim Schoenfeld verbally attacked referee Don Koharski, which resulted in the referees refusing to work the next game in the series until Schoenfeld was properly disciplined. The result was the embarrassing sight of three off-ice, middle-aged officials pressed into service as temporary referee and linemen. Ziegler never explained his actions when he finally turned up. For his part as NHL vice-president, Stein never bothered to question or explain Ziegler actions. The way the league bungled the handling of the situation in the president's absence is unintentionally hilarious.

Stein also seems to have a personal vendetta against current NHLPA president Bob Goodenow. Throughout a chapter describing negotiations between the league and the players association, Stein derisively refers to Goodenow as "Jinglenuts", which was the nickname former NHLPA president Alan Eagleson tagged him with. It's this type of petty namecalling which hurts his claims that Goodenow has done more harm for the players than good in recent negotiations, in which he paints Goodenow as a humourless, inflexible maverick intent on making a name for himself at the players expense. At the end of the chapter, Stein further weakens his stance by claiming the players were better off with Eagleson running the NHLPA than Goodenow! Given Eagleson's indictment and sentencing to prison on various counts related to defrauding NHL players, as well as how much player salaries have soared during Goodenow's tenure, Stein's arguments are ludicrous.

However, the entire book is not written in this manner. Powerplays examines the role of the governors in league matters, listing the "have" and "have-more" owners, correctly stating that no NHL owner is poor. The manner in which expansion is pursued by the NHL, where the governors are more interested in whatever quick buck they can make, rather than finding a good location for expansion or helping those young clubs along, cast the owners in a less than flattering light. Tales of pettiness, jealousy and greed abound throughout the book.

There is also an interesting and enlightening chapter on why the NHL didn't allow the sale of the St. Louis Blues to a group of owners from Saskatoon, headed by Bill Hunter, in 1983 to occur. While many have decried this as more greed by NHL ownership, as well as a shining example of the NHL not wishing to expand into legitimate hockey markets, Stein makes a very good case as to how such a venture would've been doomed to fail, from lack of sufficient funds by the aspiring ownership to lack of a strong fan base to support the club.

The author reviews his short tenure as NHL president near the end of the book, attempting to offer what he calls "the true story" behind his election to the Hockey Hall of Fame, and the reasoning why he rescinded his election. Allowing his nomination and election to take place, after taking, in his own words, two high-placed NHL executives "to the woodshed" for supposedly trying to use their influence to get themselves elected into the Hall, was very bad judgement on Stein's part, which he now readily admits, but seemed blind to see at the time. Stein blames the media, particularly that in Canada, for blowing the situation out of proportion, as well as the NHL's "independent" arbitrator in the matter, and several governors for not coming to his defence. Ultimately, however, one comes away from reading that particular chapter with the feeling that Stein had brought it on himself.

Stein contends throughout the book that the majority of NHL teams lose money, and have constantly lost money for decades. He appears to suggest that player salaries are the chief culprit. While no one will deny in today's NHL that salaries have reached a point where the players must take some real action with ownership to bringing them under some form of control, Stein neglects to point out that it's these very owners who plead about losses who continue to fork out money for these high salaries.

Furthermore, if the majority of teams lost money annually, as Stein claims, why would any owner, regardless of wealth and background, want to own an NHL franchise? What would be the point of owning something that consistently lost money? These are questions that go unanswered in this book.

Powerplays does make for some interesting reading, particularly the more "gossipy" stories involving NHL owners, revealing them to be all too human. However, the book ultimately disappoints as one that gives "an inside look" at the NHL hiearchy. Stein appears more of an apologist for the actions of his cronies and former bosses, which subsequently presents a biased viewpoint that one has a difficult time taking seriously.

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