TORONTO – John Furlong, the CEO of VANOC, was one of several speakers to discuss the effects of Vancouver 2010 on hockey moving forward to kick off the third day of the Molson Canadian World Hockey Summit. His passionate anecdotes got the morning session off on the right note, and although many fine men discussed the merits of NHLers going to Sochi, it was Furlong later in the talk who summed things up perfectly.
Addressing the pros and cons of participation, he said: “If you don’t find a solution [to the problems], the fans will never forgive you.”
Other people on the panel included IIHF president René Fasel, Ken Holland, GM of the Detroit Red Wings and a member of Canada’s executive for Vancouver, two participants from 2010, Daniel Alfredsson and Jamie Langenbrunner, Timo Lumme, IOC marketing, Brian Cooper, and Igor Kuperman.
Fasel, president of the IIHF and a member of the executive board of the IOC, introduced the morning session with the simplest message: “Hockey cannot get a bigger and more important stage than the Olympic Games. There is no question that Vancouver 2010 has left a permanent mark on the game, the fans, the players, and the coaches.”
“I was impressed,” Fasel continued, “by what coach Ron Wilson said after the gold-medal game: “More than anything, hockey in general was the winner.”
Getting down to brass tacks, Fasel noted five key points that came out in Vancouver 2010 which will continue to be the basis of conversation moving towards Sochi in 2014 and on. The first point was the relationship between the IIHF and NHL. “The NHL would like to have more of a role, and this I believe is a fair request,” Fasel noted.
Second, the effects of long-term contracts on the costs of player insurance became a major factor in staging the games. The IIHF and member federations of participating nations had to pay upwards of $10 million to insure players for Vancouver.
Of course, the quality of play demanded a consideration of the rules of Olympic play versus the rules of the NHL. “Do we merge the rule book or leave the difference as is?” Fasel asked, and then answered: “Most people I have talked to say let’s keep the differences.”
Behind the scenes was the issue of officiating. Not only were the games a blend of NHL and European referees and linesmen, but the quality of officiating was virtually flawless. There can be no question that referees from around the world, if they are the best, can and should work together.
Finally, the major question of rink size has moved to the forefront of future Olympics. Vancouver 2010 was the first time the Olympics was played on the smaller, North American sheet of ice. But players, fans, and media were unanimous in their praise of the speed and quality of play. So now, moving ahead, do we continue to use the small ice or continue the European tradition of the larger ice? It’s a valid and important question.
Furlong noted the quality of play with the NHLers. “The fans saw the purest form of the sport. Hockey and the Games were one.”
Holland discussed the two sides of the argument of participation, one which he deals with all the time.
“I have two perspectives,” he explained, “one as a fan of hockey and proud passionate Canadian involved in Vancouver. The other perspective as manager of an NHL team. As a fan, I want to go back to the Olympics. The Olympics definitely help to grow the game globally. But there are major difficulties. In 2002, Steve Yzerman played on a bad knee and missed the rest of the season. This year, Tomas Holmström had the same trouble and decided not to play. We were in ninth place fighting for a playoff spot, and he recovered over the Olympics.”
The players, of course, produced compelling testimonies, since they are the ones who can determine whether to participate or not. Said Ottawa Senators captain and Tre Kronor veteran Daniel Alfredsson: ”It’s a powerful experience. You come into the village, and you’re so excited. Every country has a section in the village where all the athletes stay. The dining area is for everyone. I had breakfast one morning with a member of the Jamaican bobsled team. It’s pretty neat.”
As for the actual playing of the hockey games, he was equally enthusiastic. “It’s unbelievable how much emotion the Olympics creates. I would love for the NHL to continue, and the fans deserve to see it. The Olympics are bigger than all the concerns.”
Jamie Langenbrunner, captain of the 2010 United States Olympic team and a member of the ’98 team as well, agreed with Alfredsson. “It’s hard to explain, but the Olympics is just so much bigger than playing for a club or a city. 2010 was a great thing to be a part of, and the reach of the gold-medal game is just so much broader than any NHL game.”
He finished in the same vein as Furlong: “The fans want to see best on best. It’s our obligation to do something for them, for all they do for us.”
Kuperman refuted several of the well-worn arguments used to suggest going to the Olympics is not a good thing. Player fatigue? “Jonathan Toews won Olympic gold, won the Stanley Cup, and was MVP of the playoffs. Patrick Kane scored the Cup-winning goal and was one of the best players in the playoffs. Henrik Sedin won the Hart Trophy.” Fatigue, Kuperman said, is not a factor.
Cooper re-stated the obvious and then sought out new territory. “Advertisers spend hundreds of millions of dollars at the Olympics,” he began, “and I don’t think we can miss the opportunity to grow the game exponentially. But I believe we should not be thinking about NHL players not participating. I think it should be the opposite. I think we should be placing even greater emphasis on NHL players at the Olympics. We should increase their profile. We should use the stars of the game to grow the sport.”
“The marketing value that the Olympics brings to the sport cannot be quantified,” he finished. “It’s priceless.”