New Jersey Devils: John Ziegler’s Death Leaves A Mystery Unsolved

NHL President John Ziegler addresses the media. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
NHL President John Ziegler addresses the media. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images) /

Former NHL president John Ziegler died on October 25th. He was one of the most consequential men in league history, overseeing the WHA merger and an increase in European players. He is also at the center of one of the biggest mysteries in New Jersey Devils history: the case of the missing president.

Ziegler’s involvement with the New Jersey Devils traces to the 1988 “have another donut” incident. Even though the Prince of Wales Conference Finals between the Devils and Boston Bruins was a notable chapter in Devils history by itself, this remains the most famous part.

The story in a nutshell, for those uninitiated: On May 6th, 1988, Devils coach Jim Schoenfeld chased referee Don Koharski down after a Game 3 loss. Koharski fell and blamed Schoenfeld for pushing him, resulting in the now infamous “you fell, you fat pig! Have another donut!” from Schoenfeld. The league banned Schoenfeld from Game 4 – scheduled for May 8th – but the Devils got an injunction from the New Jersey Superior Court to keep him behind the bench. The officials walked out in protest and one of the most embarrassing games in NHL history was played with weird replacement refs.

The story is recapped here:

One of the biggest questions raised by this incident – why the did Devils need to go to court – raised a bigger question:

Where in the world was league president John Ziegler?

On May 9th, the Saturday between games 3 and 4, then-New Jersey Devils GM Lou Lamoriello spent four hours trying to track Ziegler down to no avail. Not one person in the league would tell Lamoriello of Ziegler’s whereabouts, and he realized he wasn’t going to get anywhere.

Chicago Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz, as chairman of the Board of Governors, claimed Ziegler called him and put him in charge. Lamorello spent some time arguing with Wirtz about the suspension before going off to get the injunction.

Ziegler was still missing come gametime on May 8th, and thus the wildcat strike occurred.

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Rumors began swirling as to Ziegler’s location. Sports Illustrated cited rumors that he was “in Bermuda, Detroit, London and Moscow – or aboard a Concorde.” Other rumors suggested he was vacationing in the French Riviera. Perhaps the most infamous report was the Toronto Star claiming that he’d flown into New York to help his son “caught up in the tentacles of a cult.” Years later, the consensus was that he may have been in England, but there’s still uncertainty.

By May 9th, Ziegler was back in communication with the league, joining conference calls from an undisclosed location.

Ziegler returned by May 10th, and held a game day hearing in a Boston hotel room that saw Schoenfeld suspended for one game.

Ziegler didn’t speak to the media until May 12th, almost a full week after his disappearance. He refused to comment on the claim about his son, but did state the source got a couple facts wrong about his family. He stated “that wasn’t the first time I had personal reasons to go away on a weekend and not be available.”

While that may be true, it doesn’t change the fact that the league president couldn’t be reached during the conference finals.

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In 2009, Lamoriello claimed that he still had no idea where Ziegler was that day. With news of his passing, it’s likely that fact will never truly come out.