Say this for Gil Stein: The man has got chutzpah. If there were a Hall of Fame for brass, he would be elected on the first ballot. Election to the Hockey Hall of Fame, now, that's a different matter. The 64-year-old Stein, who succeeded John Ziegler as president of the NHL last June, apparently was not convinced that he would be elected to that shrine on the first, 40th or even 400th ballot. Can't imagine why. A shameless self-promoter, Stein puts his own interests ahead of the game's whenever possible. His most significant accomplishment after taking over for Ziegler came last December when he withdrew his name from consideration for the new commissioner's post.
Among the more ludicrous rule changes Stein enacted was his concept of suspending players for practices—instead of having them sit out games—as penalty for violent actions on the ice. And his arrogance made him disliked, even loathed, by an intriguing cross-section of executives around the NHL. Made for a pretty tough platform to run on.
So Stein, who served as the league's general counsel for 15 years before assuming what was then the NHL's top job, did what any self-respecting president of a banana republic would have done under the circumstances: He pulled a Noriega and rigged the election. And, surprise, surprise, when the NHL opens its spanking new $25 million Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto in June, guess who'll be en-Steined?
Here's how he did it. There are 12 board members who vote on admission to the Hall of Fame. Two weeks before their March 30 meeting to vote on nominees, Stein summarily replaced three members of the existing board: longtime Chicago Blackhawk executive Tommy Ivan, former head of the NHL Players' Association Alan Eagleson and former NHL executive vice-president Brian O'Neill. Ivan, who's 82, was never given an explanation for his dismissal. Eagleson is under FBI investigation for misappropriation of union funds and should have been replaced. And O'Neill—who was nominated for the Hall himself but not elected—had been removed from his former NHL position by Stein in June 1992. The two cannot be described as friendly.
A fourth board member, broadcaster Danny Gallivan, died last month. So suddenly Stein had four vacancies at his disposal. Since his wife, Barbara, and three children were otherwise engaged, Stein selected Boston businessman Leslie Kaplan; Washington, D.C., lawyer Lawrence Meyer; former Canadian prime minister John Turner; and Toronto-based attorney Larry Bertuzzi, who does arbitration work for the NHL and as such is a contract employee of Stein's. Not exactly names that roll off the tongue of your everyday hockey fan. Or even longtime hockey cognoscenti. Boston Bruin general manager Harry Sinden—exactly the sort of person who should be sitting on the board—had never heard of Kaplan. And Lawrence Meyer? Calling Lawrence Meyer. Who are you and why are you qualified to vote on anyone's, even the custodian's, admittance to the Hall of Fame?
Three other Hall of Fame board members are NHL employees and therefore report to Stein. They are Jim Gregory, the NHL's vice-president of hockey operations, and Scotty Morrison and David Taylor, the chairman and president, respectively, of the Hall. Seven of the 12 voters were beholden to Stein. Problem was, 75% of the board members had to vote for a nominee in order for that person to get into the Hall, and the voting was by secret ballot. What to do? Change the rules.
The new Hall of Fame board, without consulting the NHL board of governors or newly installed commissioner Gary Bettman, who assumed office Feb. 1, decided to change the voting procedures. Nominees now needed only a simple majority to get elected, and the vote would not be by secret ballot but by a show of hands. "The decision was made by Gil Stein and Gil Stein only," Blackhawk owner Bill Wirtz decried. "It's a sad day for the Hall of Fame when changes are made without conferring with the member clubs."
When news of Stein's subsequent election to the Hall was announced on April 2, the outcry in Canada was deafening. Gordie Howe denounced it. Murray Costello, head of the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association and one of the 12 voting members of the Hall of Fame board, resigned in protest of the procedures—after voting for Stein. One NHL governor suggested the entire board should resign and called the proceedings "a disgrace." Bruce McNall, head of the NHL board of governors, who wrote a long letter recommending Stein's nomination to the Hall, was accused of orchestrating the whole arrangement as part of a severance package for Stein, in gratitude for his cooperation in stepping aside in favor of Bettman. McNall denies that any such deal was made.
Bettman, blindsided by the maelstrom, is known to be furious at Stein for putting the league in such a terrible light just as headway was being made on the public relations front. Divisional realignment, the renaming of the conferences and divisions, and a new playoff format—all of which will be in place by next season—have been favorably received. Then this. Word has it that Bettman suggested Stein renounce his election to the Hall of Fame to eliminate the appearance of impropriety. Stein, sources say, refused. Too bad. Stein clearly should turn down the tainted honor. Let him try to save face by blaming the media for creating a tempest in a teapot. We know this much: He has the brass.