ZURICH – René Fasel will run for a fourth term as IIHF President when the General Congress convenes in Montreal on May 21. In this interview, Fasel talks about the upcoming World Championship in Canada, how he feels about being challenged for the presidency, the relations with the NHL and what he would like to address if re-elected.
Q: The first IIHF World Championship in Canada starts in ten days. What are your thoughts?
A: This will definitely be one of the major highlights of my time as president of the IIHF. When I assumed the position in 1994, it was one of the first questions I asked myself: Can we ever stage a World Championship in Canada and do it while the Stanley Cup playoffs are taking place? In those days it wasn’t really feasible, but now both the IIHF and Canada are ready.
Q: What has changed in that time that both are now ready?
A: For many years the IIHF perceived itself as mainly a European organization. Yes, we always had members from other continents but the core business was Europe. When I started I got the feeling that the North American countries didn’t really have a feeling that the IIHF also was their organization.
But every year we came closer to each other and slowly closed the gap. The World U20 Championship eventually became a huge hit in Canada, and the men’s team became more successful in our flagship event, the World Championship. Since 1998, both Canada and the United States could use their best players in the Olympics. The same year, the women’s game became an Olympic sport. All this resulted in increased interest for the international game in Canada and both the IIHF and Hockey Canada felt that the time finally had arrived to stage the World Championship in the motherland of hockey.
Q: Do you find staging the worlds in Canada a huge challenge since the Stanley Cup is king there in April and May?
A: It is indeed an enormous challenge. On the other hand, Canada is the only country in the world where you can hold a national club championship and a major international championship at the same time because it is a hockey-crazed nation. Halifax has proved its passion for international events in the past and Quebec City is simply one of the best hockey towns in the world. For me as a hockey fan, I will be in heaven. First, I’ll watch the World Championship games live and when I get back to my hotel room, I’ll be able to watch the Stanley Cup highlights on TV. Can life be better?
Q: And after the gold medal game you are moving to Montreal for the General Congress…
A: Yes, isn’t this a wonderful thing? The year that the IIHF is celebrating its 100 year anniversary, we are going to the city which basically gave us the game as we know it today. The timing and symbolism couldn’t be better. And the congress will be held three blocks from where the first real hockey rink stood, the Victoria Skating Rink. It’ perfect.
Q: The General Congress will elect a new president and a new council. You have been at the position for 14 years since you were elected in Venice in 1994. Are you running again?
Q: Tell us the background behind the decision.
A: Mainly because I love my job and I am not done with the things I want to accomplish.
Q: What is left on your ‘to-do’ list?
A: Where should I start? First, I am a believer that more nations can play the game and many of those that already do, can develop and play it better. If we look at recent results from the different divisions, it was really encouraging to see Hungary being promoted to the top division for the first time in 70 years and Australia earning a promotion to division I. You really sense that there must have been an improvement in the entire hockey program with those countries. Just by improving your power-play, you don’t advance to a higher division. Australia playing hockey at this level – you simply have to be happy for them.
Today, we have 65 member national associations and 48 of them take part in the men’s championship program. On the women’s side we have 33. When I started we had only 35 nations actually playing the men’s game and on the women’s side I think there we no more than 15.
Q: In the last year you have been very active working with European club hockey. Why?
A: This is another thing which I am sure is good for the development of game. Players are trained and developed in clubs. If we can give the clubs an international dimension, I am convinced that this will make hockey better. We are planning to launch the Champions Hockey League in October 2008 with 12 teams from the top seven nations in Europe and in year two we will expand to 22 countries. I remember when Holland became a world power in soccer in the early 70s. It all started with the clubs Ajax and Feyenoord becoming better organized and professional, through their European Cup participation in the 60s. Then it spread to the national team.
Q: Why is the Champions Hockey League so important?
A: Look what the European club competition has done for soccer, basketball and handball. It broadened the vision of the clubs, the players and the fans, it gave the sport additional exposure and provided the sport with more revenue. With the enormous popularity of hockey in many European countries, there is no reason why hockey should be the only sport without a sustainable pan-European club competition.
Q: Why do you think the CHL will succeed when the old European Hockey League didn’t?
A: Three reasons. 1) The EHL was vastly under-funded. The Champions Hockey League will have 10 million Euro in prize money in the first season, which is the most ever money invested in European club hockey. 2) The format is much better as the best clubs will play against the best. 3). The CHL winner will qualify for the Victoria Cup and play against an NHL challenger for an annually awarded trophy. This is an incentive which the clubs, players and fans have been asking for many years.
Q: This Europe vs. NHL match-up has been a long standing dream of yours, is that correct?
A: Definitely. If you look at the world of hockey, we are very well positioned in national team events. We have the IIHF World Championship as the annual event. We have Olympics every fourth year and occasionally we have the World Cup of Hockey organized by the NHL and the NHLPA. Here, we cannot add so much. But we always had this big hole when it came to meaningful games between NHL clubs and European teams. This is the need we are addressing with the Victoria Cup.
Q: This brings us to the topic of IIHF – NHL relations. How would you describe for them?
A: If there is something that I am proud of to have contributed to is the partnership we have with the National Hockey League and also with the players’ union. It’s not a secret that the relations weren’t the best in the 70s, 80s and early 90s. But today we have a true partnership. You can see it in the Player Transfer Agreements, the NHL’s Olympic participation in every Winter Olympics since 1998, the NHL players’ participation in the World Championship and now the Victoria Cup. Many fans maybe take those things for granted, that they just happen. But they don’t. Behind every one of those things are hours and hours of negotiations.
Q: Why is the partnership so fruitful?
A: They need us, we need them. It’s pretty easy. Remember that 30 percent of all NHL players come from Europe. These players we later want to see in international competition. We benefit from each other. Also, on a purely personal basis, there is good chemistry between Commissioner Gary Bettman and myself. This is also vital.
Q: Back to the general congress in Montreal. It looks like that you will be challenged for the presidency for the first time. How do you feel about it?
A: It shows that the democratic system works. Challenges are good, they make you work harder and they prevent one from getting what I call mentally fat. I think it’s important that the congress will have the chance to make a choice. Again, this is how it should be in a democratic organization.
Q: Assuming that you get a new vote of confidence from your constituency and you get re-elected for a new four-year term, will you do things differently until 2012?
A: Although that I feel that I have a pretty good track record going back to 1994, there are always things you want to improve and this goes back to what I said initially – I am not done yet. There are some things that must be improved.
Q: Like what?
A: We must change how we run our congresses. There is something in the setting that makes our members refrain from talking and expressing their views. I don’t know if this is a language issue or a congress agenda issue, but we must be better at listening. You cannot just say: “Talk. This is a democratic forum.” Democracy is also creating a positive environment where all members feel comfortable taking a stand and tell us about their problems. If we succeed, we will be able to channel many frustrations the right way.
Q: Are you foreseeing any tangible reforms?
A: We must again take a comprehensive look at our entire World Championship program and discuss where we want to go. There are many issues. Some nations have addressed the World Championship format and whether we should remain with 16 teams in the top division or reduce the number. There are those who question the entire championship pyramid like it is today. For example, does it make sense for developing hockey nations to travel all over the world to play four or five games in division III or IV? Is this the best way to develop a program? Can we organize the lower-division championship more regionally? These are important issues.
Basically we are looking for a system which addresses reality and reality is that Canada’s and Sweden’s needs are totally different from Mongolia’s and Luxembourg’s. And the IIHF should remain a world body for everyone. This is the challenge and responsibility that I want to assume.
Q: What other issues do some of the member nations have?
A: Many countries are asking the IIHF to come up with a solution of how to deal with the declining interest in the tournaments that are played during the international breaks. The IIHF has traditionally always let the national associations to run them, without any interference from the IIHF. Those tournaments are important for the finances of the associations but the revenues and public interest are declining. This is something that we want to take a look at together with the nations. We don’t have a magic solution, but we can try solving this together.
Q: When you look back at your 14 years at the helm of the IIHF, what are you most proud of?
A: For me 1998 in Nagano will probably stand out as the most rewarding event. This was the year the NHL for the first time took an Olympic break and we could have true Olympic best-on-best hockey tournament where each nation could name any player they wanted to the tournament, regardless of which league he played in. Second, we were able to introduce women’s hockey as an Olympic sport. This was incredibly important for the development of the women’s game. Because of the Olympics, female hockey players are prepared to make long-term commitments to the sport.
Thanks to those developments, ice hockey is nowadays the biggest sport at any Winter Games. We sell the most tickets, we have the most airtime and we have the greatest participation. Ice Hockey is an important sport within the Olympic movement. Today, people hardly think about those things, but this was not always the case. In the 70s we didn’t have Canada participating and in 1976 in Innsbruck, Sweden chose not to show up. It’s unthinkable today.