BARCELONA – Balancing club and league games with national team games during international breaks is a delicate balance, one that is in need of restructuring and consolidation. Players can only play so many games; fans can watch only so much hockey; and, maintaining a sensible schedule of events must dominate all hockey decisions. These are some of the messages from the final day of meetings at the Hockey Forum.
Marc Furrer of the Swiss League led off the morning session with an articulate explanation of how two years ago he initiated a unification of the Swiss professional leagues, the amateur leagues, and the national association to what is now called the Swiss Ice Hockey Federation. His justification came from the in-fighting between the three groups, but it produced a coherent whole so that the top leagues, and junior leagues and grassroots development all work towards the national team as a main goal.
The Swiss general assembly, therefore, includes representatives from the national league and the regional leagues who each have 50 per cent in voting power. Like many of the speakers here in Barcelona, he explained the governance of the federation which oversees everything to do with Swiss hockey. There must be representation of every group at every level to ensure all voices and opinions are heard and accounted for.
“For professional clubs it’s important what happens with the youth development and the national team. If there are less upcoming players, it will hit them and the product in general,” Furrer said about the wish from the professional clubs to get more involved as an initiator of the merger.
“Before there were complaints against each other, now everybody cares also about the other group while focusing on its core duties.”
As a result, the one body that deals with everything is both responsible for success and able to analyze the failure as a group. Teams, players, referees, marketing, advertising, the planning of a national ice hockey centre and all aspects of developing players and running championships are dealt with by the Swiss federation using synergies and saving money. And, of course, the economics of the structure is favourable because there is one group, not three, dealing with every issue.
However, Furrer also added that it’s not solely about the structure, it’s also about persons harmonizing together. You need to have a team with great personalities and no elbowing.
On a similar but different tack, Dmitri Kurbatov, Chief of Sports of the Kontinental Hockey League, explained his country’s ideology about how the national team and domestic league work together. Of course, the key to this relationship is that when a league player wears his national team sweater, he takes on a greater role. A gold medal at an international event has more importance and a greater impact than a team winning a national championship. World Championship games have higher TV ratings nationwide than league games. But the player needs to develop and learn at the league level. He can’t just play national-team games.
The two levels are completely different, Kurbatov points out. The league is an eight-month business while the national team is about pride and heart. League teams don’t always care where the players come from so long as they help the team win. Club owners don’t necessarily care about the development of its own country’s players while the national team cares primarily about that. The national team chooses players only from the country regardless where they play. While clubs like their players see develop on the international stage, they also fear injuries while their star players appear on national teams.
Kurbatov recommends a Union of Leagues under the roof of the IIHF to discuss issues. He believes international team breaks disturb the flow of the league season.
What he proposes is an annual break every February. His proposal of a four-year cycle is not unlike what Donald Fehr discussed casually of his own opinion with differences when it comes to NHL participation.
Kurbatov believes February should always be the break for Olympic Winter Games and also for World Championships that should only be held in non-Olympic years. But to make this successful from the sporting view it would need an NHL break every year.
“We know the National Hockey League has been willing to take a break in February for the Olympics in the past,” he said, “and we hope that they would be ready take the next step and take a break every year for all these events. It’s possible to discuss with the NHL to have an annual break in February in future.”
“It’s an interesting proposal, but we also have to look at the reality,” said Christoph Mauer of Infront Sports & Media when it comes to selling the event to sponsors and broadcasters. “Almost all winter sports like ski, curling, biathlon, bobsleigh have their world championships in winter also due to weather issues that we don’t have. It would be tough when it comes to production and transmission. We also don’t think that the NHL would have a break every year in February, it’s already tough to have it in the Olympic year.”
Maurer added that during the May dates TV coverage grew from 800 hours in 1997 to 4000 hours in 2012.
“We also don’t agree that a World Championship in an Olympic year is unnecessary,” Mauer said. “We had the 2010 IIHF World Championship in Germany between the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup. We had an attendance record at the venues and the TV audience grew by 20 per cent compared to the year before.”
The floor was opened for people from the other side. Martin Urban, General Secretary of the Czech Ice Hockey Association, presented the status quo with the international calendar and all the events taking place during the international breaks.
For Urban, these events are essential not only to develop players and the national team, but also as a major source of income for national ice hockey associations to fund their development programs.
Franz Reindl, General Secretary of the German Ice Hockey Association, agreed with him.
“The national team is the main source of income for a national association,” Reindl said. “It must generate income from games, sponsorships and TV contracts, but everything comes from games.”
Reindl gave some inputs about how the international calendar could be designed more attractively. Should the current events be improved? Should they even be transformed into a European Championship?
Reindl also brought the example of February as the month for the main international events. He believes the four-year schedule could include the Olympic Winter Games in year one, a World Championship in year two, a World Cup of Hockey in year three, and again a World Championship in year four. These tournaments would always be held in February and the NHL would participate every two years. Like that European leagues would have an open end when it comes to scheduling their seasons.
“But of course it depends on whether the NHL is willing to participate,” Reindl said before adding that such a structure could have financial consequences for the IIHF and its programs by not having an annual World Championship, for national associations with less national team games especially in April and also losing the attractive TV and marketing time frame in May.
“We will have a lot to do. To find a solution is very tough,” Reindl concluded.
A Q&A session followed with Reindl, Urban, long-time Swiss national team coach and current Edmonton Oilers associate coach Ralph Krueger, and Slavomir Lener, the Czech Director of National Teams.
One key question was how many games a player can play in a year. Some top players in Europe had up to 105 games including national teams while Stanley Cup-winning players had also up to 105 players including exhibition games, regular season and play-offs.
“I think 105 games is the maximum,” Lener said.
“Having many games is not a painful process, it’s having a great time,” Krueger replied. “Hockey players want to play, they don’t like to have too many practices.”
This seems to be true especially with young players. Håkan Loob of Swedish club Färjestad Karlstad replied to the example of his 18-year-old player Jonas Brodin, who played 105 games – junior and senior, national and international. “As long as you see development, we’re always happy,” Loob said, not fearing the risk of injury too much.
Tyler Currie of the NHLPA stressed that the joy of playing many games is different from player to player, depending on their age, but also whether it’s a stay-at-home defenceman or a more exposed grinding winger as the other extreme.
The session concluded early afternoon with a panel discussion involving club, league and national association representatives.
A story on the conclusions of the Hockey Forum will be published on Friday.