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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?

September 26, 1993|ROBYN NORWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ANAHEIM — 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."

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