ZURICH – The newly-formed IIHF committees got to work this week, with many current and former athletes joining the discussions.
This week’s meetings in Zurich mark the start of a new era in the committee structure, one that was initiated by the newly-elected IIHF Council whose members also serve as chairmen in the various committees.
“One of our most important challenges is safety. Our game has changed dramatically in the last fifteen years,” IIHF President René Fasel said during the opening of the kick-off meeting. “Everybody has to be looking for ways how we can better control the situation with escalating concussions.”
“The pressure is on the athletes committee. It’s the most important committee because we’re here for the players,” IIHF Vice President Bob Nicholson pointed out. “To develop our game, it must be safe. We must make sure we get more participants in the game all over the world.”
To achieve these goals people from various fields have been asked to come together in these committees to try and find solutions. This includes current and former players, coaches, medical experts, and game officials. One of the more visible differences compared to previous committees was the inclusion of former athletes in the creation of two new committees, the Athletes Committee and the Player Safety Consulting Group.
The Athletes Committee is headed by the arguably most successful goalkeeper ever, Vladislav Tretiak, who brings with him experience both at the highest level of play and in leadership as a long-time President of the Ice Hockey Federation of Russia.
Former players Philippe Bozon (France), Sean Burke (Canada), Sergei Fyodorov (Russia) and Jaroslav Spacek (Czech Republic) also have played for many years at the top international level and in the NHL and European leagues while Saku Koivu (Finland) is still playing in Anaheim.
Angela Ruggiero (USA) joins in not only after a long international women’s hockey career but also bringing in experience from the same role she assumes in the International Olympic Committee’s Athletes Commission. Also the committee’s Secretary, IIHF Marketing Director Christian Hofstetter, is a former athlete having played in the Swiss National League A for many years.
“I’m a little nervous. I haven’t seen so many people from the IIHF before,” recently retired Spacek said after coming to Zurich for the first meeting. “It was something special when the President of the Czech Ice Hockey Association called me and asked whether I could imagine being on this committee and I said ‘Yes, why not?’ I was at the end of my career and I can see the hockey from the other side. That’s a good experience for me.”
Spacek spent 13 seasons in the NHL and calls the Olympic gold in Nagano 1998 and three World Championships his career highlights.
“What everybody reminds me on is the Stanley Cup,” he added. “I was just one win away. That’s always something I wanted to win but I can’t change it anymore. But my two boys [David, 10, and Jacob, 5] are doing pretty well in hockey, so I hope they will finish my dream.”
The 39-year-old former defenceman is first and foremost a hockey dad now and enjoys spending time with his kids. Becoming a coach or a GM is something he isn’t considering right now.
“I didn’t see the world behind the doors. That’s why I’m happy so far to have more time with the kids and be an adviser,” he said.
Being back in Plzen with his family, he also noticed problems in hockey back home.
“I can see that in my country fewer and fewer kids come to the rinks. I’d like to help the Czech association and the IIHF to get more kids for the game,” Spacek said. “I’ve been for 20 years in professional hockey and it’s good to share different ideas between different people and countries and how they do it and how we can do it.”
In his home country he sees the issue of player development as a big problem. When he grew up in then-Czechoslovakia and a socialist system, he went to school in a hockey class with other players.
“Today money is missing for something like this, to have a hockey class or a football class,” he said. “We also used to get hockey equipment for free. Nowadays and with all economies going down it’s hard to pay for equipment. We should work on making it free for kids at least in the beginning. Bringing the kids to the rink is the most important thing for all of us.”
Player safety is another issue. During his career he witnessed many concussions.
“20 years ago there was holding and hooking and stuff like that and the redline offside. That kind of slowed down the speed in the game. The hits were not as hard as today,” Spacek said about the development of the game.
“Now with no touching and the speed, it sometimes feels like players are going out to ‘kill the guy’. In many arenas there’s also hard glass and hard boards where we could change to other material like they did in some places, also in the NHL. I also think the stricter rules concerning hits to the heads and the suspensions help.”
And that’s the point the Player Safety Consulting Group steps in. Chaired by Swedish IIHF Council Member Christer Englund with IIHF Communications Manager Adam Steiss as Secretary, it involves experts from various fields. Best known among hockey fans might be former players Mattias Norström and Mathieu Schneider, who both played in the NHL and represented Sweden and the USA respectively in international competition.
Jarmo Jalarvo is a former top referee and works in the Finnish Ice Hockey Association’s officiating management and as an IIHF Referee Supervisor in international events, while Mikael Peterson is the Swedish Ice Hockey Association’s General Secretary.
While Norström turned to youth coaching, Schneider became involved with the National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA).
“I didn’t really think I wanted to go into coaching; I didn’t want to be a scout. I enjoy coaching my two sons that are playing in Toronto but the Players’ Association was a real natural fit for me,” Schneider said about his post-hockey career. “Don Fehr came in at the same time. He’s just a brilliant man and a brilliant leader and it was just a tremendous opportunity for me to learn from him and to work for him.”
The New York native had his most memorable success when he won the Stanley Cup with the Montreal Canadiens in 1993.
“It was pretty amazing having won it in Canada, in Montreal made it more special. Unfortunately it was the only time I won it,” he said. “The World Cup in 1996 was an amazing experience. We won it in Montreal as well in the final game against Canada. It was such a great tournament. This and the Olympics in Nagano and Turin has been the best hockey I’ve been involved throughout the career.”
Now he’s back on the international stage also in his new career off the ice. He was very excited when Englund called him back in autumn about the prospect of joining this new committee, since going through safety issues and rule change proposals is part of his job in the NHLPA’s Competition Committee.
“I really wasn’t sure what to expect and how big the room would be but I’m excited to see the enthusiasm to grow the game worldwide,” he said after meeting members of his and other IIHF committees this week.
Feeling the pressure with player safety becoming a bigger issue is nothing new for him since efforts to make the game safer have also been taken in the NHL environment, with Schneider being part of this process.
“Player safety certainly became the focal point of the NHL Players’ Association, mainly because of concussions,” Schneider said. “Broken bones heal, muscles heal, you can still function if you lose a tooth. But after what we’ve learned about brain injuries, it becomes so important to protect the players not only for their playing careers but also for their post-careers. We also want the game to be safe for young kids and to attract more kids.”
“If you look at the National Football League now, I don’t know too many people who really want to put their kids in football where they’re constantly hitting the head. It’s become one of the travesties of our time that we have so many athletes in contact sports that really don’t function well in society and that’s because of what we didn’t know but now we do know. It’s important for us to be proactive in that.”
Schneider enjoys working with people from different areas – now on both sides of the big pond. For him it needs both players with experience on the ice as well as objective experts from other fields like from the medical side or officiating to understand and face the dangers.
“The game has got so much faster in the last decade because the athletes are so much stronger, bigger, in better condition,” Schneider said. “Obviously hockey is a physical game and we don’t want to take that out. That’s part of the excitement. But at the same time we want to attract the six- and seven-year old kids. We want the parents to think hockey is a great sport for their kids to learn. They can be part of a team, travel the world and do so many things.”
In the NHLPA there are two big discussions for Schneider. Fighting is one that is less of an issue in the international game. The other is hits to the head and hits from behind around the boards.
As a former defenceman he noticed how players in his position got more vulnerable when changes were made after the 2004/2005 season that was wiped out due to the labour conflict. Same as in international hockey, the rule interpretation became stricter.
“When no interference was allowed it created a lot more big collisions. The game just got so much faster,” he said. “Maybe it was too much interference before, but maybe somewhere in the middle we can find a way which is right.”
A topic the American likes to point out is the materials used for equipment and for the rink.
“We were talking about the glass and how much flexibility is in the glass,” Schneider said. “At the area around the team benches where you have the stanchions we had big concerns with hits taking place there and the league designed really neat solutions for that.”
Changes also happened with the equipment that was examined with the NHL and manufacturers. What was noticed is that bigger equipment leads to a false sense of security for the players.
“The size of the equipment makes the players feel invincible that they can skate into the boards as fast as they can and not worry about being hit and that they can try to hit an opponent on centre ice and not going to feel the hit,” Schneider explained.
“If you have a sense that you’re a little vulnerable you are going to be more cautious going into the situation. The equipment companies have done a tremendous job in making the equipment like shoulder pads and elbow pads smaller and more form-fitting. It protects the players wearing the equipment and the players hit as well. I think that’s going to make a difference as well.”
A newer issue he wants to work on is the development of cut-resistant and cut-proof gear to diminish the risk of getting hurt by blades, an issue that came up recently after Swedish defenceman Erik Karlsson’s Achilles tendon was cut by a blade during an NHL game between Ottawa and Pittsburgh.
Schneider and Spacek are just two of the members who started their work in the two new committees where all focus is on the players. With new ideas coming in from current and former athletes and from other fields in the hockey business, there will be many components to make the game better, safer and popular among kids.