The Gloves Are Off : After 15 Years as Legal Goalie for the NHL, Stein Is Working Hard on His Offense

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gil Stein had realized for the last 15 years that his place in the NHL was not front and center.

It was, for better or worse, in and out of the courtroom as the league's legal counsel. Or, it was on the grassy lawns at the Board of Governors' meetings in West Palm Beach, Fla., where he joined the owners for their annual croquet game.

He knew what he was. More important, he understood what he wasn't.

"(The owners) don't want to hear from lawyers about creative ideas and marketing," he said. "They say, 'You're our goalie. Put on this mask. Nobody has to see you. Put on the gloves. Take the stick. When the shots come in, deflect them. Do a good job protecting the goal and that's your job.'

"That was my job. Now I don't have that job. Now, I have the opportunity to get things done."

So after 15 years, Stein has pulled off the mask and tossed it away.

Last month in Montreal, he became interim league president, replacing John Ziegler, who resigned June 12. Stein immediately inherited all of Ziegler's executive powers and will become the permanent president on Sept. 30.

In his first appearance before reporters in Montreal, Stein left little doubt he doesn't want to be an interim anything. He virtually upstaged King owner Bruce McNall, who had been elected the league's new chairman of the board, by being frank about the league's problems.

"This was a historic day," Stein said. "This was the day we eliminated fighting--in the NHL board room."

That day, Stein, 64, hinted that he would be a candidate for commissioner when the board's four-man search committee began its interview process. Which is one of the reasons Stein has launched a tour to all 24 NHL cities this summer.

It is as much a Gil For Commissioner crusade as it is an effort to boost the league's shaky image. He arrived in Los Angeles last week, having already been to more than half of the NHL cities. Stein held two meetings with journalists in Los Angeles, one at the Forum and another at The Times.

Like any politician running for office, he has tailored his message to different audiences, creating a new story for each market.

In Winnipeg, Stein spoke about the difficulties of a small-market team succeeding in the age of rising salaries.

In Vancouver, he announced that a trade hotline will be installed at the NHL offices in New York so the league will prevent another debacle like the Eric Lindros case, when Quebec apparently traded him to two teams within an hour.

In Toronto, Stein said that the league is in the process of preparing a videotape for every player at training camp, warning players and coaches of an impending crackdown on restraining penalties--holding, hooking and interference. He also plans to show the tape to the league's referees.

But Stein's favorite theme has been the Olympics. In Toronto, he began talking about shutting down the NHL for three weeks during the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, so that league stars such as Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Brett Hull could compete for gold medals.

"There are little things that can help stimulate (growth)," Stein said. "One of them is that wonderful window presented by the Olympics. When so many fans--general sports fans--will watch whatever is on the Olympics. That's the only time a lot of these people will watch hockey.

"What have they seen? What have we showed them? We haven't showed them our best. We've kept from the Olympics the best, most artistic stars that play this game. These are the stars you'd want to be selling your product in the marketplace.

"Here's a beautiful window of opportunity and we've never taken advantage of that opportunity."

McNall supports the idea of the NHL's best playing in the Olympics. Baaron Pittenger, USA Hockey's executive director, noted that some members of his organization might be opposed, but said: "We certainly haven't had discussions about it as an organization. But if that were to happen, if the NHL decided it really wanted to close down its season during the Olympics, I feel we probably would welcome their very best players."

Said Stein: "I spoke to a pretty high-ranking sports executive at CBS in the last couple of weeks and suggested to him this is the way we might want to go. His reaction was, 'That's a very radical idea.' It's not like we were the only ones that maybe weren't seeing what was there.

"Maybe the NBA's experience with the Dream Team was the catalyst needed to help a lot of other people see the tremendous marketing potential. We have the potential not only to have the Dream Team scenario in two countries (the United States and Canada), but to have a very spirited competition. It won't be a foregone conclusion as to who's going to win the gold medal."

The NHL's goal would be to obtain a lucrative television contract.

"We have to make the coverage of hockey something that works for the networks," he said. "Right now, it doesn't work for them. Once the numbers are there for the networks, they will realize and we will realize we have a product that's worthy of earning its own way on a network feed. The affiliates won't be turning it down once we are into enough market areas. . . . In the United States, we're still relatively young. Twenty-five years is not that long for a sport to admit itself into a culture."

Before 1967, the league was in four U.S. cities--Detroit, New York, Chicago and Boston. Stein says his interest in hockey didn't begin until the NHL expanded to Philadelphia. Stein was a city officer in government and got to know Flyer owner Ed Snider.

Within a month, Stein was hooked on hockey; basketball began to bore him. He believes that his experience will help him win new fans.

"They're exactly where I was at that time. They don't know hockey. They have no interest. Now, I try to call upon my own experience. How did I get to that point?

"The game is a great game. The key, I believe, is exposure. . . . By the end of this century, we may be the premier sport for TV coverage in the United States. It may sound crazy, but we may be there."

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