Summit call – start making sense

Speeches set the stage for the big players to make big decisions

26.08.2010
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The opening night Hot Stove sessions was the first of many frank and direct exchange of opinions.

TORONTO – Anyone who might have been cynical at the start of the week as to what the Molson Canadian World Hockey Summit might or might not accomplish certainly would have left the Sheraton Hotel with tail between legs after four days of productive speeches and contentious discussions.

Did the NHL step up to the podium on day one and announce its players were going to Sochi? No. But did that happen six months after Lillehammer in 1994? Did that happen six months after Canada won double gold in Salt Lake City in 2002? No. To have expected such an announcement was ridiculous. It would have been wonderful, of course, following the unprecedented success of Vancouver 2010, but realistically, this will be an announcement that will be made two years from now in conjunction with a new CBA.

What was overlooked in all the Olympic hoopla during Wednesday’s global agenda session was that everyone, absolutely everyone, agreed that international hockey must be considered in four-year cycles. As Brian Burke said, the Olympics aren’t going anywhere. The Olympics are the lynchpin of the international sporting world. So, now we can say with certainty that a four-year cycle is the natural calendar to develop a program of best-on-best events. We could not have made such a claim this past Monday morning.

Of course, various leagues and organizations were in disagreement as to what bits and pieces will go into that cycle, and that is where the work still has to be done, but we know that in order to make sense of the hockey world, we have an agenda. The World Cup will certainly come back. The World Championship isn’t going anywhere, but maybe it will change structure. Everyone rightfully used the World Junior (U20) Championship as a model of understanding. Once a small-town, small-time tournament, it has established itself as a major hockey event over Christmas and New Year’s, thanks to cooperation within the CHL, brilliant foresight by Hockey Canada, and incomparable broadcast development with TSN.

Women’s hockey was dealt a seeming death-blow by IOC president Jacques Rogge in Vancouver, but Hayley Wickenheiser’s speech on Thursday morning was inspiring, challenging, and brilliant. Minutes after she finished, the IIHF’s Murray Costello announced $2 million in additional funding. But he did so with a major caveat – money is nice, but it is up to individual federations to step up and develop programs to compete with Canada and the United States leading to Sochi. Those federations – i.e., Germany, China, Switzerland, and, of course, Sweden and Finland – must roll up their sleeves and get to work. Now.

We had two outstanding speeches from doctors on Tuesday morning, Dr. Steve Norris and Dr. Mark Aubry combining to prove how important early development is to a young person’s athletic life and how closely connected hitting is to injuries. Augmented by anecdotes from Brendan Shanahan and Peter Laviolette, can there be any doubt that body checking should be introduced later in a child’s hockey life?

Slavomir Lener’s sobering research shows just how depleted the stocks of European juniors has become, not for the first time, to be sure, and likely not for the last. His speech made for compelling contrast to the junior programs in North America, expertly explained by Tom Anastos (representing NCAA hockey) and Kelly McCrimmon (CHL).

Most important, the breadth of presenters and subject matter exposed hockey’s greatest challenge, the challenge of understanding and connecting grassroots hockey to development hockey for kids, to serious junior hockey intended for NHL preparation, to the most serious hockey of all, the NHL and international hockey. You can’t have the highest form of the game without the lowest. It’s all connected, and it all has to make sense.

At the grassroots level, as Arto Sieppi from Finland said, you must offer parents two things for their children – a game that is safe, and a game that is fun. No parent in any city in any country in any language would enroll a child in a sport that didn’t offer these two fundamentals of childhood.

By the time you get to the professional ranks, life is at its most complex. Thirty years ago or more, there was something called an NHL player and something called a European player. There was a professional and an amateur. Now, they are all the same. The players who compete in the NHL and the Olympics, the U20 and the World Championship and World Cup are the same! They cannot be over-extended. As the saying goes, something’s gotta give. How many “world champion”-type tournaments do fans and players need?

The Summit was an unqualified success merely for getting all of the most powerful people in the game in one place at one time. It is an event that is so necessary to the game’s continued quality and integrity that hopefully it will be held every four years as part of the cycle of international events. But now, after one more beer and some farewell handshakes, the big boys (and girls) have to head home, get down to business, and sort things out. To end by stealing the sentiments of John Furlong, they owe it to the fans to do so.

ANDREW PODNIEKS

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