Q & A with René Fasel

IIHF President talks about the reasons for re-opening the Player Transfer Agreement with the NHL.

17.12.2007
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Vancouver BC Canada

IIHF President René Fasel and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman have a new Player Transfer Agreement to sort out.

ZURICH, Switzerland – The IIHF and its member national associations and leagues gave notice to the NHL on Thursday about re-opening the Player Transfer Agreement. IIHF.com checked in with the IIHF President to understand the full picture and the implications of giving notice.  
Now that everybody knows that the agreement is subject to re-opening – what do the IIHF members want?

There are a few major objections that they have addressed. First, nobody likes the situation where a vast majority of the European players who sign NHL contracts don’t play in the NHL, but instead are demoted to various minor leagues. This is detrimental to player development and to the European leagues. If a player is not NHL-ready he should stay in his home environment and develop until he is ready.

Can you give some numbers that reflect this?

Just look at the signings prior to this season. There were 59 European players who signed NHL contracts for 2007-2008. Seven have been returned to their European clubs, 46 are in the North American minor leagues and only six play in the NHL. To have six players, you don’t need to sign 59.

There must be other concerns from the Europeans?

Yes, the associations and leagues feel that the signing deadline of June 15 should be set back. If you lose a couple of front-line players in the middle of June, it’s difficult to replace them adequately. Also, we are worried about the decline of the U.S. dollar. The top European leagues do their business in Euros, Swiss Francs or Swedish Crowns. Against all those currencies the dollar has dropped dramatically. So the value of the basic transfer sum per player, 200,000 U.S., has devalued significantly over the last two years. So we must find a mechanism that secures the value of the transfer money.

So very little is actually about the money?

Correct. It’s basically about player development, being able to plan your season and to secure the value of the transfer money.

Going back to the number of Europeans who sign NHL contracts but end up in the minors – is that really a bad thing?

Yes, it’s bad for everyone. There are four losers in any signing of a player who is not NHL-ready. 1. The player. Our studies show that a player is better off if he stays at home and develops in his environment. All the best Europeans in the NHL are those who stay at home until they are NHL-ready and they go straight to the NHL club. They don’t need “seasoning” in the minors. 2. His European club. For obvious reasons, the club loses a player who could stay another year or two or three and be a marquee player. 3. The NHL club. Instead of getting a good player who is ready to go, it brings him over too early, and very often the player does not reach his potential after a long period in the minors. 4. The North American system. For every European who takes up a spot on a farm team, that developmental position could have been offered to a player from the Canadian junior league or U.S. college.

This means that you are critical of the NHL clubs scouting and signing policy?

To a certain extent, yes. There are many players about whom we immediately know that there is no chance that they can play in the NHL. If a player is struggling to keep a fourth-line position on his European club, or if the player doesn’t even play in his country’s top league, how can he possibly be good for the NHL? Behind some signings there is no logic at all. But all is not the clubs’ fault.

So what is?

When the NHL and the NHLPA signed the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, they included a new clause that brings in line European juniors with North American. That is, a European player must be signed within two years after being drafted, otherwise the club loses his rights. This clause has proved to be extremely counterproductive as it is not compatible with reality. Reality shows that a European player extremely seldom is ready for the NHL two years after he was drafted (i.e., by the time he is 20 years old). Player development is not something that can be stipulated in a bargaining agreement. Development is a very complicated and individual thing. Look at the Sedin brothers in Vancouver. Only after seven seasons, the Canucks feel that they have finally arrived. Look at Nik Antropov in Toronto. It took him eight seasons to become a solid contributor.

Do you have support for this?

Yes, and from unexpected sources. One very well known NHL scout, who was one of the European pioneers in the NHL, said that many players who otherwise would not have been given an NHL contract were in fact given one because of the two-year rule and not because they were good. He described the rule as short-sighted. It’s not how fast you get the player to the NHL, it’s how good he will be once he gets there.

What can you do about a rule that is part of the CBA?

On behalf of our members, we must meet the NHL and the NHLPA and explain the situation to them. Hopefully we can have this regulation changed. It would benefit everyone. Everyone involved wants more-skilled players.

In response to any IIHF or European desire to see players spend more early years back home, one could say that the Europeans are acting like spoiled brats—“I want to play in the NHL or not at all”. Many North Americans spend anywhere from one to several years in the AHL, why shouldn’t European players be expected to be treated the same way?

The years that the North Americans spend in the American Hockey League should correspond to the years the Europeans spend in the European leagues. The North Americans develop there and the European here. It doesn’t bare any logic that a player who has been playing the Swedish or Russian top league for four or five years and has received world class hockey education there, should be sent to the AHL for the purpose of further education. A well educated player doesn’t need any “adjustment to the North American game”. That’s one of the myths that we want to dispel. If you can skate, puckhandle, pass, shoot and know where to go on the ice, you can play.

If you look at the top European leagues today, can you say that the quality of play has diminished in the last decade due to the vast migration of players to North America?

I am listening to our members, and many are suffering. Just look at the hit that the Czech and Slovak development program is taking. The Slovak U20 team at last year’s World Juniors won one game. The Czech U18 team was relegated from the top division. And these results are not due to a poor power-play or bad coaching decisions. Here we have fundamental problems that must be addressed. And if the European systems suffer, this will eventually affect the NHL, since almost 30 percent of the league’s players are from Europe. Once the well is dry, it’s dry.

Considering a new transfer agreement was just signed and now it’s re-opened – how worried should hockey fans be and what is the potential fallout if a new PTA is not re-negotiated?

Of all the six nations who participated in the meeting, where the re-opening was unanimously decided, none expressed an unwillingness to have an agreement. They all want an agreement, but an improved one. As the NHL also gave notice from their end, let’s hope that we will be able to address each other’s concerns and sign a new one before this season is over.

Yes, but happens if you don’t succeed?

It wouldn’t be a good situation for hockey. The transfers to and from the NHL would not be regulated. This means that the NHL could offer contracts to European players basically all year and try to lure them in January or February which with the agreement is not possible. The European club would not be compensated. It could potentially create a transfer chaos where nobody would be a winner, with the exception of maybe agents and lawyers.

Do countries outside the top six or seven in Europe also get compensated for players who sign NHL contracts?

Yes. Although those countries have not signed the agreement, they also benefit from it and get duly compensated. This is also very important in terms of solidarity. If the top six nations and the NHL can’t find a solution, it affects associations like Denmark, Slovenia, Latvia and others. So far, the NHL has signed players from 19 countries apart from Canada and the USA. In this current season alone, eleven nations have received compensation money from the agreement, including Italy, Austria, Belarus, and Slovenia.

What will happen next?

We will try to meet the NHL and the NHLPA together with the major European members very soon to find common ground and sort this out.

By the way, is Russia still out?

Yes, they have not showed any interest to rejoin the discussions as they feel that the PTA is not in the best interests of Russian ice hockey.

Compiled by IIHF staff.

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