Hockey Forum an eye-opener

Vital conclusions drawn by European stakeholders

15.06.2012
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More than 150 participants were in Barcelona for the 2012 Hockey Forum to discuss and listen. Photo: Martin Merk

BARCELONA – The 2012 Hockey Forum offered some great presentations and discussions about crucial topics regarding the fragmented landscape of European hockey. At the end, all agreed that it will only have a lasting effect if talk generates action.

Some people taking the stage at the Hotel Rey Juan Carlos I in Barcelona were surprised about the openness shown and praised the IIHF for taking the initiative. Indeed, the event was designed without IIHF branding for a reason. It was meant to be an open forum for everyone involved in hockey, especially in European hockey, under the noticeable motto “Together”.

All stakeholders were invited to speak their mind and more than 150 people representing clubs, leagues, national associations, the IIHF, marketing agencies, broadcasters and other stakeholders showed up to offer their insights, listen and take lessons home.

The event started with presentations from other major team sports from which ice hockey can learn. Then it went over to the core topics of a pan-European club competition, reformed governance structures and finally finding the optimal solution and balance between national teams and leagues for an international calendar.

Here are some main conclusions the Hockey Forum offered to all stakeholders.

1. Your competitors are outside of hockey

It was a sentence heard from various presenters: “Your competitors are not within hockey, they’re outside of your sport.”

The currently fragmented European hockey landscape prompted this call for unity.
It came from hockey people and from representatives of other sports who graciously came to Barcelona to offer their experience mainly from organizing European club competitions and from restructuring their governance systems.

“Competitors are not people within ice hockey, competitors are all the sports around,” said Frank Leenders, who was instrumental in the marketing of the UEFA Champions League in its pioneer days. “If they’re doing things smarter than you, they’re going to take your markets if you’re not clever enough. Co-operate as much as you can with your different stakeholders and find synergies.”

There definitely was something to learn from the other sports – football, basketball and handball – learning while keeping in mind that everything cannot be applied to hockey.

“I think we are closer to each other than in football or handball,” said Gernot Tripcke of the German elite league DEL, who knows the atmosphere between stakeholders – sometimes friendly, sometimes heated – very well from his own experiences.

Michele Centenaro from football’s European Club Association (ECA) had a great quote about “family life” within a sport when claiming grounds for new organisation: “You have to be challenging, not confrontational. You have to be good, well-prepared and reasonable. You have to claim things that make sense.”

2. Parallel pan-European club competition to be worked on

One of the main reasons behind the Forum was hockey’s lack of a top-notch European club competition which practically all other team sports have. The Champions Hockey League in 2008/2009 was the first to claim acceptance but it folded only after one year due to the financial crisis.

Attempts of reviving it on a smaller scale failed due to different opinions between the stakeholders. At the Forum, the IIHF, the European Trophy and the Kontinental Hockey League presented their diverging visions for a European club competition.

The three visions differ in two major components:
  • Firstly, whether it should be a permanent pan-European league that would affect the existing national leagues, or whether it should be a competition run parallel and in collaboration with the national leagues.
  • Secondly, whether such a competition should be open and built on sporting qualification principles (Champions League model), or whether it should be closed and invitational (NHL model).
While no formal decisions were taken, participants were asked to show their opinion by raising their hands and there was an overwhelming tendency towards a European club competition played parallel to the national leagues.

These two quotes might best represent the majority-feeling within the hockey family:

Centenaro replied to the question why football clubs didn’t want a permanent European league: “The European competitions are the icing on the cake. Clubs want to retain their national and local identity.”

Or Rolf Bachmann, COO of SC Bern, said: “What we need is a parallel system according to the example of the Champions League in football. We need to maintain the local rivalries in the national league that are crucial for the fan base.”

Also a fan poll on Facebook that was launched after the presentations indicated similar results. 73 per cent of the voters prefer a parallel Champions League style competition, 26 per cent a permanent league (as per the suggestion from the KHL), and only one per cent thinks no European club competition is needed.

Another conclusion to be taken is whether such a competition should follow the model of the highly successful UEFA Champions League in football or be invitational such as suggested by the European Trophy group.
 
Centenaro calls the Champions League model authentic. “We are born with promotion/relegation in Europe, we are born with sporting qualifications,” he said. “We shouldn’t change that. When we asked our sponsors and broadcasters before changing the format what is most important for them, they said: ‘We need the competition to be credible and integral.’”

Such a format seems to be a dilemma for clubs, who would like to have their participation secured.

“Clubs request stability with a long-term committed participation,” said Timo Everi of HIFK Helsinki, who represents the Finnish clubs in the European Trophy.

IIHF General Secretary Horst Lichtner is convinced that sporting principles are the important qualification criteria which ensure quality and which appeal to the fans.

“The European credibility model of sport is still valid for the fans in Europe,” Lichtner said. “The qualification system must be understandable for fans and it must be attractive for broadcasters and appealing for sponsors.”

One conclusion was that hockey needs one unifying group that oversees international club competitions rather than several.

It was agreed that representatives from clubs, leagues, associations and the IIHF; from Western Europe to Russia; need to be named by the various stakeholders and join together to find a competition that will determine the true European club champion.

3. International calendar in Olympic cycles

Finding an international calendar in the four-year Olympic cycles is easier said than done. It needs a balance between league and national team play, it needs to take into account the European calendar, but also consider the North American season. Other important sport events need to be taken into account to find the right dates for a season-highlight event and ensure large TV coverage.

“We will have a lot to do. To find a solution is very tough,” summarized Franz Reindl of the German Ice Hockey Association after his presentation.

One question: Should a World Championship be played every year? The tournament is of course vital for the IIHF and its global development programs, but also for smaller nations to have that annual competition.
 
“People should not forget about the smaller and developing countries when it comes to making big decisions,” reminded Zoltan Kovacs of the Hungarian Ice Hockey Federation.

Is May the right month for a World Championship? TV ratings showed a consistent growth for this month even during Olympic years.

What to do with the international breaks? Shall the tournaments remain as they are, be improved or be changed into kind of a European Championship? The games being played in these breaks are essential in generating money for the national ice hockey associations and their programs.

Another topic: Can the NHL’s international participation with a break, for example in February, be extended to a break every two years (i.e. with a World Cup of Hockey two years after the Olympics) or every year (with a World Championship in non-Olympic years) as some suggested?

Can the NHL and its owners be convinced that being part of international hockey and help development in other countries is a good cause that also serves the NHL in the long run? And how can international events be made more appealing to the NHL?

Also Donald Fehr, the NHLPA’s Executive Director, personally thinks about the need of a four-year calendar after having talked to his players.

“The players tell me that they want to play the best in the world,” Fehr said. “Hopefully, after we get our CBA done, we will be in a position to have a discussion to see what we can figure out.”

4. International governance structure to be reviewed

Centralized governance is essential – this became clear with statements from all stakeholders.

One emphasis from various organizations was that it just needs one governing body for international ice hockey and that this organization is already there with the democratically structured International Ice Hockey Federation. But its traditional governance structure needs to be reviewed.

Suggestions about modernizing the governance structure came from various sides. Consultants such as Thomas Grimm with a vast experience from football emphasised the need of sport governing bodies, but they have to involve all stakeholders (also leagues, clubs, players) in the decision-making process.

Hockey Europe, a lobby organization representing seven European leagues, wants to see more influence for leagues and its President Christian Feichtinger said his organization is prepared to work within the current IIHF structures. The KHL’s Dmitri Kurbatov recommended a Union of Leagues organized within the IIHF.

“Everybody is cooking its own soup in its own kitchen,” IIHF President René Fasel explained the situation with a metaphor. “We must bring all these people together. We must have ideas about how to work together.”

The discussions about governance structures came at a right time as there’s openness from the IIHF to adjust. Its General Secretary Horst Lichtner sees the forum as a starting point for further discussions.

“One of the main reasons to have this forum is to put the governance structure into question,” Lichtner said. “We have to discuss this and we have to come to different conclusions than what we have today.”

With elections being held end of September, the time is right for the new IIHF Council – the organization’s board – to work on the issue of governance and involvement of other stakeholders.

“We have ideas and together with the Council this question will be asked immediately after the election,” said Lichtner. “We will have the task to think about what is the right way into the future and we are very happy to listen to all the proposals.

“The critical question is not who is running it. It’s whether the stakeholders are listening, whether they’re on the same table and whether they can have their say.”

5. Ideas from the forum to the agendas

By organizing and participating in the 2012 Hockey Forum the work is not done. This event offered many conclusions and unveiled common positions as well as differences.

Bob Nicholson, President/CEO of Hockey Canada, congratulated the European stakeholders on making use of the opportunity to take part in such a forum, and he talked about the experiences he made back in 1998 when Hockey Canada was in a crisis and started initiatives following a similar event.

He reminded the audience that the most important thing of the forum is to identify initiatives and work on them.

“The Hockey Forum can be three important days for hockey, but it can also be three wasted days if nothing follows,” Nicholson said.

To make sure the words and voices don’t trail away unheard, a five-man Observer & Recommendations Group was present to draw conclusions and draft recommendations for future action.

Barcelona was just a beginning. Now, time has come to form groups representing the various stakeholders and to start working on implementing the recommendations.

MARTIN MERK

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