TORONTO – An emotional debate developed on stage during a follow-up session to Ralph Krueger’s proposal for a unified global hockey agenda, with several parties expressing opinions contradictory to others’ on stage and creating a charged atmosphere that gave the attendees a sense of what might a real negotiation sound like behind closed doors.
At the crux of the discussion was Olympic participation, which segued quickly from Krueger’s big-picture plan to the laying bare of emotions of an issue which is clearly the most contentious in the hockey world these days.
“From the NHL’s perspective,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly began, “we’re on board with a lot of what Ralph suggests. We have to make sense of a very cluttered, disconnected international world. The four-year cycle makes very good sense. But Olympics every four years, World Cup every four years, and World Championship participation every year, is too much. That has to be taken into account.”
As for Krueger’s bold suggestion to eliminate the World Championships in an Olympic year and replace it with, ostensibly, a sort of senior-junior event, Daly remarked: “The U23 is a great concept and one we’ve talked about in the past. Club competition is also important, and there’s a lot of enthusiasm for this kind of event, whether it’s exhibition or playing for a trophy.”
Brian Burke’s opening remarks were straightforward if not entirely illuminating. “I do believe that players should participate in the Olympics, but there’s a big “if.” If and only if some of the concerns that this participation poses for NHL teams are addressed. If you look at Anaheim, they lost momentum because of shutting down for the Olympics and missed the playoffs. The Olympics will still happen if NHL doesn’t go.”
While Burke endorses the Olympics, he also is fully supportive of resurrecting the NHL-run World Cup of Hockey. “In terms of international hockey, the World Cup is excellent,” he opined. “The best hockey I ever saw was the 1987 Canada Cup. If you have a World Cup before the season starts, you arrive early, have practice and a full training camp, work on special teams. The key is best on best. That is essential.”
Anders Hedberg, the universal, international Swede, promoted top-level hockey in all its variegated forms. “Best on best? Absolutely. I believe the players will decide on the Olympics, regardless on what the NHL or owners or the board of governors say. The will of the players is – I want to go! It matters more than the NHL or the KHL or anything. The Olympics matter,” he said, emphasizing the last word.
The ever-opinionated Healy, a former NHL goalie turned broadcaster, spoke with racing emotion that was easy to admire for its honesty and integrity.
“Our best players are also our younger players,” he started. “Guys like Toews and Crosby and maybe the best player in the world, Ovechkin. We have a great opportunity to grow the game globally now. But we have to see the business of the game is changing. We had 142 players at the Olympics but we couldn’t have NHL.com interviewing its players. Doctors couldn’t see the players. These things have to change. Hockey generated 30% of all ticket sales in Vancouver and allowed players with $2.1 billion in contracts to play, and yet the players and league got not a penny.
Like the others, he also favoured a return of the World Cup. “I love the World Cup, but I say make it in February. The Olympics are in February. Let’s make February our month. Let’s see where we can go in ten years and grow this game together.”
Mike Ouellet, representing the players, shed light on a number of players-only matters. First, he revealed some numbers from an internal survey of 650 NHLers conducted by the PA two years ago. “Some 98 per cent favoured continued participation in the Olympics and 91 per cent wanted the World Cup as well. Fifty-three per cent wanted to play the World Championship, even in an Olympic year or a year with the World Cup. Only 40 per cent wanted an event like the Victoria Cup."
Ouellet also suggested moving the World Cup to February, so that every other year February would see a two and a half week break for that event and the Olympics. The suggestion, however, was immediately rejected by Burke who didn’t see the concept being accepted by the board of governors.
As well, Ouellet said the PA was looking to create a round-robin tournament with NHL teams, in Europe. As for when the World Cup of Hockey would next be played, he intimated it wouldn’t be until 2016 because “2012 is a very aggressive timeframe.” On the assumption that it would be played every four years, two years after the Olympics, 2016 would mark the first possible, realistic date.
Paul Romanuk suggested the NHL abandon its All-Star Game weekend in favour of a Global Hockey Week festival, but most of the fireworks came during further questioning about the Olympics. Clearly the men on stage had strong opinions, but the general consensus was Olympic participation is a great idea – if problems can be worked out. The World Cup seems certain to make a comeback, in due course. But nothing is going to be decided any time soon.
As Daly said, the NHL needs to give national federations about a year out of the Olympics to decide (i.e., early 2013), and Ouellet hoped it would be part of the 2012 CBA negotiations. In the end, it might well be two years before fans know for sure whether NHLers will go to Sochi.