On the afternoon just two hours before the semi-finals at the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship, the IIHF held its annual press conference with members of the Organizing Committee and host association to discuss the championship with the media.
IIHF President René Fasel opened with his positive appraisal of the quality of the on-ice product we’ve seen so far.
“I am very much surprised by the level of play,” he began. “We have many NHL players here, which is a sign that they like to come here. The level is high and the atmosphere in Kosice and here in Bratislava was great.”
Fasel went on to say: “The people really enjoy the games and the hospitality and engagement of the people. It’s really something special here in Slovakia. The organizer and the volunteers did fantastic jobs. A big thank you. We are very lucky to have so many fans here from different countries enjoying the games and the celebration. This is something very special.”
“I’m very proud of the preparation. We often say that the Slovak Republic is a hockey republic. It’s not just a motto, it’s a reality,” said Igor Nemecek, Chairman of the Organizing Committee.
“Many games, even games about relegation, were sold out. Until today we’ve had over 436,000 spectators and we still have the semi-finals and medal games. My colleagues have worked really hard the past two years. We also had the observer program with the next organizers from Switzerland, Belarus and Latvia, the coaching symposium with 255 coaches, a gala dinner with 500 people, and the Congress from all IIHF nations.
“I’m proud of my people. For me, it’s the best thing when I hear from delegates and teams that it was a really well organized World Championship.”
Nemecek cited the number of 11,040 people accredited, which was nearly double the total from 2011, the last time the World Championship was held in Slovakia, and the number of volunteers. In all, there were 550 volunteers, 350 in Bratislava and 200 in Kosice.
“The fan zones were very well prepared,” Nemecek continued. “201,665 spectators visited them until today even though the weather was not very good. But this was good for the ice. In May it can be 25 to 30°C but during the last two weeks we had mostly rain. For us, it was important to prepare everything for the players and teams and they were very happy with the arenas, dressing rooms and hotels.”
Slovak Ice Hockey Federation president Martin Kohut noted the decision for the Slovak team to play in Kosice rather than Bratislava, which was initially unpopular with some people.
“We made the decision according to all the analyses of what we expected from the team and crowd, and the results in Kosice were even better than the analyses had forecast,” said Kohut. “But it was not just about the numbers but also about the atmosphere we had in Kosice. I would like to thank all people who were involved in the organization of the event.
“What we couldn’t unfortunately influence is the weather and the results of the Slovak team,” said Kohut, “but the fans appreciated the way the Slovak team played on the ice.”
This year’s World Championship is being broadcast in 157 countries and territories around the world, and IIHF General Secretary Horst Lichtner cited some of the extraordinary ratings, particularly for Thursday’s quarter-finals. The Czech Republic-Germany game drew 2.28 million viewers in Germany on a channel that normally averages 335,000, while Canada-Switzerland had a 44 per cent market share in Switzerland.
Lichtner then cited other positive statistics, such as 992,000 followers across all social media accounts, 75 million video views, 27.7 million page views on IIHF.com, a 30 per cent increase in mobile app users and the new daily podcast with background information.
After everyone on the panel had spoken, it was time for questions from the media.
The first question was about the number of teams in the top division and whether 16 is too many, with some of the one-sided scores against some of the lower teams being cited. In the past, Fasel has stated that he believes that a smaller number would be ideal but difficult to implement, and he was consistent with that point of view today.
“I think the best format would be 12 teams but it’s difficult to change,” said Fasel. “We have Kazakhstan and Belarus coming up. I saw them [at the World Championship Division I Group A] in Nur-Sultan and they are strong. I’m happy for GB and Italy that they can stay; there is potential to grow the game there.”
Next, Fasel was asked about NHL participation in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China.
“I had a short discussion with [NHLPA Executive Director] Don Fehr yesterday,” said Fasel, who then went on to say how much depends on CBA negotiations, and that ideally the IIHF would like to get confirmation of the NHL’s participation as soon as possible, but he refused to set a deadline.
“I know [NHL Commissioner] Gary Bettman hates deadlines,” he smiled. However, he reiterated his belief that it’s important to have the best players in the game involved.
“It is important for the game of ice hockey, 100 per cent,” Fasel emphasized. “We should show our product at the highest level. I’m happy that 119 NHL players are here. And they don’t come for the money, they come to represent their countries and end the season in a good atmosphere.”
On granting China an automatic berth in the Olympics despite the country’s low world ranking, Fasel said: “It’s an ideal opportunity to promote hockey in Asia, if we can be sustainable after the Olympic Winter Games. A strong China means a strong Asia.”
Since Fasel is not seeking re-election as IIHF President next year, he was asked about his retirement.
“After 26 years, it’s my duty to go,” said Fasel. “There are young people around me. I will be 70 next year. I will stay in ice hockey for sure but it’s a good time.
“We have experiences of other presidents staying too long and being kicked out. That’s not my goal,” he smiled, which drew some chuckles from the audience. “It’s better to leave when people tell you to stay then when they tell you it’s time for leave.”
Fasel then shared his opinions on video replay, an in particular about reviewing judgement calls by on-ice officials.
“We’ve had some very interesting discussions and I don’t know where we go,” he admitted. “If we continue to review judgment calls, we destroy the spirit of the game. Should we start reviewing penalties as some ask? If you review everything, you kill the game. I prefer the referees on the ice to make the judgment calls as they have the feeling for the game. It’s a very sensitive topic that we have to discuss. Should we open Pandora's box?”