ZURICH Ė Known as one of the greatest defencemen ever to come out of the Soviet Union, Vyacheslav (Slava) Fetisov has been almost as active in retirement as he was on the ice, where he claimed seven World Championship titles, two Stanley Cups, and two Olympic gold medals as a player.
A former Minister of Sport in Russia, Fetisov was the driving force behind the creation of the KHL. Now a Russian senator, he dropped by the IIHF offices on Thursday to visit with IIHF President Renť Fasel and talk about hockey in Russia with IIHF.com.
What brings you to Zurich today?
I came here for an invitation from a colleague at the Council of Europe, and she invited me here to an organization discussing the fight against AIDS and Anti-Doping. While Iím here I wanted to visit the President of the IIHF Renť Fasel, we have been good friends for many many years and it was nice to sit down and just talk about hockey.
With your responsibilities in Russian government, are you staying very busy these days? How involved are you with hockey at the moment?
Not as much as I would like. But when we built the KHL as a league, there were more opportunities to support the MHL (junior) league, and the Night Hockey League (amateur), and to help develop the studentsí league in Russia, which gives a great chance for students to play hockey and get a great education at the same time.
Last year in the final of the Russian Amateur Hockey League, we called it the Festival of Hockey, Renť Fasel attended along with the Russian President, Vladimir Putin.
The tournament had 80 amateur teams competing from all over the country. 10,000 people were there to see the winning team play against the Soviet Legends. it was great for developing the sport, building a new arena, supporting students, amateur players, and kids to play the game.
You are head of the Russian Amateur Hockey League, how different is this league from other junior programs in Russia?
At the amateur level itís important to just offer support to players, to make the game accessible. All the Russian legends like (Sergei) Makarov work in different regions, travelling around and organizing the teams and going to governors to find ice time at a cheaper price. Itís a different approach from the academies, a lot of regions donít have a professional team but there is a lot of interest, and with the support itís possible to build arenas for people who want to play.
You mentioned the Night Hockey League, could you describe this league and its purpose?
It was an idea that President Putin brought up once when we played together, creating a league for non-professional players over 45 years old. He said that the problem was that we needed to show support for people who have played the game their whole lives and love hockey but canít collect enough money to pay for ice time and equipment. We needed to organize a championship or tournament for these regional teams, and offer a brand-new indoor skating rink as the prize. Itís a good cause, to support those who come after work hours to play hockey.
Back in the early 2000s you were the first to propose bringing a North American model of hockey into Russia, did you ever think that you would see the KHLís creation in such a short amount of time?
In 2002 President Putin offered me the position of Minister of Sport, responsible for all sports in Russia. As a former hockey player I was trying to figure out how to get Russia back to the level where the country could be competing for championships, it had been a few years since we last competed for a championship, it was tough for a country with such a proud hockey tradition. I wanted to create something similar to the NHL, something that would help to keep the best players in Europe.
This was in 2003, Itís been a few years now and weíve done a good job, some things need to maybe be done differently but at least we are in the process of developing our own talent, and hopefully sooner or later we will see a competition for best hockey club between the KHL champion and the NHL champion.
Thatís what our goal was and I think itís the only way to develop the game world-wide and support European hockey now, because unlike in Russia where we are investing in hockey now more than ever, there is a problem in Czech Republic, Slovakia, and the Scandinavian countries where not enough is being done to keep up the competitive balance.
You are currently working towards bringing a KHL team to Vladivostok, why have you chosen this city?
We have one team in the Far East already, Amur Khabarovsk. They have been hugely successful, but for me itís been part of my long term strategy to develop a pan-pacific KHL league in the next, I donít know, couple of years, to bring in two Japanese teams, two Korean teams, and a couple of teams from China. This would create an eight-team Pacific division within the KHL, which would give a good base for hockey in a huge market like Asia.
It could be a long time, it could be never. But thatís what my vision is, though people might look at me like Iím a lunatic (laughs). But I spoke to Renť about this and he does see the future there, and the only way to see the results is to start right now. The KHL exists, the teams are there.
At the recent Olympic Qualification tournament, Japanís head coach Mark Mahon spoke about the benefits of having Amur play in the Asian league in earlier years that helped the Japanese team to improve. Is this the sort of vision you have with a Pan-Pacific league?
Yes, thatís the advantage we can offer, it is difficult for any team to improve itself if the players stay in the country and compete at always the same level. With the KHL they can get international experience, international sponsors, and more resources available to them and it can benefit everybody.
The World Juniors are coming to Russia this year, what do you like about this tournament?
Itís a great benefit, especially because it is being played in Ufa and not in a bigger city like Moscow. Iíve participated in two world junior championships and am proud to have won two titles. For me I was able to see in myself the ability I had and to see that I could compete and have a future in hockey. And now the best players come to this tournament to compete and it is good to see teams like Switzerland becoming hard teams to beat at this level. A lot of these boys are going to be big superstars and itís good to see the future of the game on display here. I think it will be a great tournament.
Looking ahead, whatís it going to take for Russia to win on home ice at the Sochi Olympics?
Team spirit, discipline, heart. Itís going to be huge pressure on the team but an amazing chance for them to play on home ice. They will have many big expectations, before and during the tournament, but we have a new head coach who understands these challenges. Their coach (Zinetula Bilyaletdinov) was a good hockey player when he played, very responsible, and as a coach he has proved that he can coach good systems and command respect in the locker room. I believe that he will be able get the best out of each of the players for Sochi.