ZURICH Ė The last IIHF Congress approved the enforcement of the Minimum Participation Standards for national teams for the following season.
The rules have already been in the IIHFís Statutes & Bylaws for some years, but with a moratorium for participants that had already been in the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship program.
As of next season, IIHF Member National Associations who wish to send national teams to competitions have to fulfil a set of rules. They will have to show that they fulfil certain criteria to make sure they have a sufficient number of players, competitions and venues to be able to form national teams in the various categories. Among the main criteria is to have at least one operational, international-size indoor ice rink in the country that is used for national competitions, an operational national league and a certain amount of active players in the respective category.
The national ice hockey bodies, of whom the Congress consists, have until 15th April to submit evidence of fulfilling these criteria and registering national teams for the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Program. The final list of participants, the seeding and host nations of the tournaments in all the categories and divisions will become known during the 2013 IIHF Annual Congress in Stockholm, 16-19 May 2013.
IIHF.com asked IIHF Vice President Bob Nicholson about the Minimum Participation Standards and how to assist upcoming nations in improving their level of hockey. Nicholson, who is also the President and CEO of Hockey Canada, is actively involved in these issues as an IIHF Council member and as the Chairman of the Competition & Inline Committee and of the Development & Coaching Committee.
The Minimum Participation Standards for the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Program will be enforced soon. What is it all about?
First of all Minimum Standards should be seen as a positive term to improve hockey worldwide and especially with newer, upcoming countries. The Minimum Participation Standards are used to assist in improving leagues, coaches and more importantly players within the countries. Using the IIHF National Association Audit Program, the development and coaching committees are going to take a positive approach to help improve all nations that are willing to work within the International Ice Hockey Federation.
What are the main criteria to send a National Team to the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Program?
There are a lot of elements within the Minimum Standards, but this yearís focus will be placed on three main areas. They are to have a permanent operational indoor ice rink with an ice sheet meeting the standards within the IIHF Rule Book, to have at least 60 players in the respective category (45 for U18, women, womenís U18) and to have operational leagues with statistics. If the countries have other areas they have to work on within the minimum standards, Renť Fasel and the IIHF Council along with the committees are going to look at positive ways to make sure everyone else is able to play this year and that we improve Ė as long as the countries are willing to work with us to improve Ė their player development.
Why did the IIHF set up these rules for national teams?
Itís very important for the IIHF to take a lead role in Minimum Standards firstly to improve hockey at all levels and to make sure there is a base within the countries. It's important that there are a base number of players, one arena and a league so they have a foundation not just to go to a World Championship but to grow the game, get more players involved and improve their chances once they go to a World Championship.
Which criteria do nations at the edge struggle the most with and what can be done to improve the situation?
I really think it starts with making sure we find the right ways to introduce players to the game of hockey. We need an ice rink to do that. We need to make sure the young boys and girls get sticks and skates and if we introduce kids to the game of hockey, the national team program will start to flourish from that point on.
What should national ice hockey associations do if they donít meet all the criteria?
I really feel that the key for countries is to make sure they have a minimum of 60 players and an ice arena, and start to play games on a regular base. They have to put all of their effort to those areas to be competitive at a world stage. We will help them to try to meet those standards, but these standards have to be met before they can go to a World Championship.
Do you think that having these Minimum Participation Standards will motivate these nations to improve?
I really think that this is going to be a key. The IIHF Council will meet with countries to look at how they can meet all the Minimum Standards and we have to develop plans to make sure whether itís building an ice rink or getting more kids that we have a plan. The Audit Program we have in place right now should be seen as a great tool to help each and every member national association. I donít think that people should see the audit as a negative, but as a positive resource to help provide direction and assistance in improving each nationís unique set of challenges.
IIHF Vice President Bob Nicholson. Photo: Matthew Manor / HHOF-IIHF Images
Are there examples of nations that improved their hockey program in the last few years with the aim of meeting the criteria?
There are some. For example in 2010 the Hungarian association was short of the necessary amount of registered girls under 18 to participate in the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Program. After focusing on recruitment, and developing the womenís league, they were able to not only win the Division I Qualification in 2012 but also the following U18 Womenís World Championship Division I itself, promoting them to the Top Division this year, in which they reached 6th place overall.
The United Arab Emirates are a good example of utilizing the IIHF Audit Program as a tool to help focus their efforts on youth development and growing the game, of which has brought in hundreds of local players, helping to establish a foundation of young players for the future.
Other nations have grown their leagues in the last few years to meet the minimum standards, like Iceland from three to six teams, or some like Mexico have established leagues with more games.
There are other nations working hard to establish permanent ice rinks. These are all important steps, not only to become able to meet the required criteria, but to grow the game and improve the overall quality of play.
How can the IIHF help nations that donít meet these criteria?
By meeting with them, to agree on a plan short-term and long-term to meet the criteria. Itís the IIHFís responsibility to show leadership but itís on the countries to work on a plan. At the next IIHF Hockey Development Camp we will work on changes and tailor-made programs for each member national association to assist them in establishing the programming foundation they need. We are looking to organize one-on-one meetings with countries, and working together with the Development Committee so we can identify the needs of each country, and together find workable solutions. If we do this well, Minimum Standards and the Audit Program will become one of the great resources and tools as we look back in five years.
One big issue is that some member nations donít have indoor rinks with an international-size ice sheet. What can be done to have more ice rinks built?
Ice rinks are a big issue. It costs money to build them. Our Member National Associations have to work within their countries, with the Olympic committees, governments and sponsors to bring the necessary resources forward and see what are the best companies to build arenas within a country. All of those must work together in these countries to make it an affordable situation for hockey to grow.
Does it create a huge difference in the level of play if players cannot compete at rinks meeting the criteria but only on small ice sheets or outdoor?
To have an indoor standard-size arena certainly helps the players. But first and foremost you have to get them on the ice and get a puck and stick in their hand. And once they do that, they can hopefully build the momentum and create resources to build an indoor regulation-size arena.
What do you think about regional tournaments outside of the World Championship program that also include teams not meeting the Minimum Standards for the World Championship program, such as the Challenge Cup of Asia, or competitions that are being initiated by IIHF Member National Associations in Latin America?
First and foremost the focus should be placed on developing a national competition, as this leads in to showcasing your national development within regional and international participation. Iím a big fan of regional championships and the reason is you spend more on playing the game and bringing the teams together than on travelling. You can play competitive games in the World Championship program too but if you have to spend all the money on travel itís not the best way to develop national teams or the game itself.