Hockey Violence Puts Eisner in the Hot Seat : O.C. sports: Disney chief gets a reality check at Ducks games. How does fighting fit in with corporate image?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Eyes fell on Michael Eisner as quickly as the first gloves had dropped. A fight flared early in the Mighty Ducks' first exhibition game against tough guy Marty McSorley and the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the Walt Disney Co. chairman came under immediate scrutiny--in his own luxury suite.

"My children just looked at me and said, 'Daa-ad. . . .' " said Eisner, who has thrown the family entertainment giant into the brawling and balletic world of the National Hockey League. "I said, 'What am I going to do? Am I going to go out there and tell Marty McSorley to go back to his dressing room?' "

Eisner is no fan of fighting--and oddly naive enough to wonder why anyone really would be--but he knows that even a king of the corporate world cannot transform the NHL with a decree. He might watch uncomfortably at first, but he also wants a team that is strong enough to defend itself, bold enough to intimidate.

"You can't be a wimp," Eisner said. "You can't be run over."

The amiable, gravel-voiced CEO has stretched the boundaries of the Disney empire during his nine years at its helm, and now he has launched control-conscious Disney into the peculiarly uncontrollable world of professional sports. And he has chosen hockey--a game in which pugilism has its place--to bear the Disney name. It has raised eyebrows, as a laughing McSorley noted when asked about the Ducks' demeanor: "You mean, was that a family game?"

McSorley doesn't work for Eisner, but Todd Ewen and Stu Grimson do, and they have made their names in the NHL largely by fighting. Two games into the exhibition season, Disney's Ducks have been penalized for fighting seven times, emerging as a team willing to speak with its fists. Short on skill, the expansion team will try to make its way in the NHL with physical play and intimidation. In the stands, Eisner is left to grapple with the idea of a Disney team that fights.

"I think that if it turns into professional wrestling, our company will be very disappointed and will not, probably, support this kind of endeavor," Eisner said. "I didn't say I didn't like fighting. I said I didn't like it if it turns into professional wrestling, because that stops the game, it slows the game down, it's gratuitous, it is silly, it's sophomoric, it's immature and it's ridiculous. But a fight that evolves out of a normal conflict as would happen in possibly a basketball game or even in a football game or a baseball game--if the rules are sufficient to make it hurt your team if you engage in it--then I think it's appropriate."

Though he claims not to know all the rules of the game, Eisner, 51, is not a complete hockey neophyte. He grew up on New York's Upper East Side, rooting for the Rangers. In Los Angeles, he has been a regular at Kings games, often as owner Bruce McNall's guest.

But it is through his sons' participation in youth hockey that he has become a major patron of the game. Eisner is overseeing what he says will be a major regional promotion of youth hockey, lauding it as a contact sport that builds teamwork, self-sacrifice and discipline and helps teen-agers constructively blow off a little steam.

"I think the things that we'll be doing in the community with our team, youth hockey, the whole sense of making hockey affordable to a larger number of people, bringing people off the streets, is going to be very pro-social," he said. "The few fights that are on the ice in an environment of referees and rules is a lot healthier than the millions of fights that are in the alleys, with no referees and no rules, gun-control or otherwise. . . . I wish they would write as much about real fighting as this kind of fighting."

The question right now, though, is how Eisner feels about how much steam the Ducks are blowing off--and how long it will take for him to get used to it.

At Wednesday's exhibition against the Kings, Eisner sat with McNall, the man who first suggested that Disney put a team in the empty arena around the corner from Disneyland. Less than a year later, with the Ducks a marketing success off the ice and a bruising reality on it, it was up to McNall to explain the particulars of what he has gotten Eisner into.

With each skirmish, Eisner and McNall stood up near their seats in one of Disney's luxury boxes in Anaheim Arena. With each confrontation, Eisner looked a little less comfortable, raising his upturned palm toward McNall in a "Why?" gesture, getting a shrug and a "because" in return. By the end of the game, Eisner seemed slack-shouldered and tired, and those who know him well knew he was unsettled.

"It bothers him some," McNall said after watching Eisner's growing discomfort when the linesmen did not step in quickly to end a fight. "He said, 'Why didn't they stop it earlier?' I said, 'They're afraid. . . .' I told him, 'At the moment it's part of the game.' If he wants to change it, he'll have to take it to the Board of Governors."

Eisner said he thinks "the league is coming to that," and he essentially dismisses the sentiments of fight fans, including those who clamor after items such as two-hour videotapes of nothing but fights.

"Well, they sell two-hour tapes of pornography too," he said. "I mean, you can't go to the fringe few that like things for the wrong reasons. I mean, that's ridiculous."

As for his own team, Eisner says he is leaving the hockey operations to the hockey people, and they say they have not been given any missives about fighting.

"They hired me to put the best team I can on the ice and get the players we need to win," General Manager Jack Ferreira said. "We certainly aren't putting a goon show out here."

"He hasn't mentioned anything about it," said Coach Ron Wilson, who, coincidentally, is much of the same pacifist mind-set as Eisner. "I'm not a proponent of fighting myself, and at times I think it's the silliest thing in the world to see two grown mean beating each other up."

Nonetheless, Wilson is encouraging toughness while urging his "fighters" to develop offensive skills to help the thin expansion team. Eisner might not have mentioned it to Wilson, but this is a point on which he insists.

"If you talk to Jack Ferreira" or Assistant General Manager Pierre Gauthier, "we're not going to have those kinds of 'role players,' " Eisner said. "The fighters we have, if you're categorizing them as fighters--and I can imagine who you're referring to--are also going to be hockey players. If they're not hockey players, they can go fight elsewhere."

Eisner knows that if he had never left Paramount or ABC, he wouldn't be answering questions about hockey fights, even if he became the head of a corporation that owned a team. But this is Disney, and the image dominates discourse.

"I think what the team probably felt they were doing was saying, 'Don't assume that because we are owned by the Walt Disney Co. that we're a bunch of wimps, and you're going to push us around," he said, offering a theory on the Ducks' aggressive first outings.

But while others stand and gape at a team that seems to them remarkably un-Disneylike, Eisner can also nod in approval.

After all, his company is the mouse that roared--a behemoth with a tender exterior that belies the cutthroat negotiators guarding the bottom line of a $7.5-billion company.

"If Disney's other businesses became kind of nonaggressive and soft," Eisner said, "we would never be able to maintain our quality. We would never get 75,000 cast members to bend over and pick up paper. We don't whip them to bend over and pick up paper, but we have strong rules that require that they do. We require they're trained in the Disney way, and we require that we work hard for profits because we don't want to be taken over, and we don't want the company to be broken apart like was going to happen in 1983. And therefore, dignity, quality excellence does not negate the fact that you also have to have strength.

"And in the game of hockey, part of strength is not being intimidated, and there's a line between intimidation and a free-for-all, and we're going to find that line."

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