TORONTO – IIHF President René Fasel re-emphasized the importance of NHL Olympic participation in 2014 but nixed the idea of a Europe-based NHL division in Tuesday’s Q&A session at the Molson Canadian World Hockey Summit at the Air Canada Centre.
Interviewed by award-winning CBC broadcaster Jim Hughson, Fasel said: “This Summit here in Toronto is an important part of going to Sochi in 2014 and even looking forward to 2018. We do it for the fans, and they can see what happened in Vancouver. It was the best-ever tournament we had with the NHL and our federation.”
Fasel recalled watching the 1988 Olympics in Calgary and regretting the overall absence of NHL players there. He made it part of his mandate to bring them on board when he was first elected as IIHF President in 1994.
“I think the NHL has a great exposure,” Fasel said of the league’s participation in the Games in 1998, 2002, 2006, and 2010. “Everybody knows the NHL is at the Olympics, and it’s the best promotion for the league, the game, and the players.”
Fasel indicated that he doesn’t believe offering monetary compensation to the NHL for Olympic participation is the way to go. “I think the IOC doesn’t have enough money,” he said, noting the soaring costs of insurance to cover NHL contracts at international tournaments. The league generates about $2 billion a year, “so I don’t think it’s a money question. I don’t see the NHL trying to get the money from a non-profit organization.” Fasel, an IOC executive member, added that probably the most the NHL could expect to get would be $3 million or $4 million, a small sum at this level.
Fasel also made it crystal-clear that he does not believe putting NHL teams in Europe is realistic from a business standpoint, nor is it best for the world of hockey.
“Try to come,” he said rhetorically. “I will fight like hell and not let anybody come from abroad. I think we are strong enough to do something on our own, and then have the competition between Europe and North America. That makes the fans happy. It’s the old story, like the 1972 Summit Series with Canada versus the Soviet Union. That was Europe versus North America. I don’t think an NHL division in Europe would fly. As long as I’m sitting in this chair, I would not allow that.”
He did, though, propose an alternative: “Maybe a European league with European champions, who would then play the Stanley Cup winner. For the hockey fans, that would be music.”
Fasel offered a qualified endorsement of future World Cups of Hockey, noting that it’s important not to overtax the players with too many games. He also mentioned that he personally enjoys the smaller North American ice surface, particularly in light of the great competition at the Vancouver Olympics.
Yet at the same time, Fasel sounded a note of concern, pointing out that a profit-driven agenda cannot be allowed to jeopardize the health and traditions of the game in Europe.
One case in point: the importance of the annual IIHF World Championship, which attracts hundreds of thousands of spectators each year. “Here in North America, you don’t understand what the World Championship means,” Fasel said. “It’s a celebration of the game at the end of the season. It’s not a big money thing. The budget for the organizers is 20 million Euros. They can make some profit, but not much. Half the money goes back to the federations.” With 30-some tournaments each year that need to be subsidized, Fasel said, the World Championship is an essential part of growing the game in the 69 member countries of the IIHF.
It’s vital for European players not to be lured away too early from their homelands with dreams of NHL stardom, Fasel told his North American listeners. “We need this balance. It’s not just a product that you take, use and throw away. Try to help us produce stars and players. Give them the means. I try to tell my NHL friends all the time: it costs a lot of money to develop young players, especially in Eastern Europe, where the clubs pay for development.”
In the big picture, he said, his priority is strengthening club hockey in Europe, hopefully leading to a revival of the Champions Hockey League concept that was derailed prior to the 2009-10 campaign due to global economic turmoil.
A closing message from the IIHF President?
“My message is to North America: you’re not alone in the world. Europe exists on the other side of the ocean. We need to work together: the NHL, the leagues, the clubs, the federations. It’s not money that runs us [at the IIHF]. It’s passion.”