Fasel was elected in Venice, Italy in 1994 (see separate story) and many things have changed since then. Rules have evolved, hockey has become faster and the Olympic Winter Games saw best-on-best hockey with the NHL cooperation on the men’s side and the inclusion of women’s hockey.
During that time the number of IIHF member countries has grown from 50 to 82, the number of competing nations in the World Championship program from 35 to 54. The number of staff servicing the IIHF membership has grown from four to almost 30 and the revenues were multiplied.
On 25 September 2021 – one year later than planned due to the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic – Fasel will pass on the presidency to new hands and leave an International Ice Hockey Federation in a good state to his successor.
During his last days in office we talked with Fasel.
Do you remember how your love for ice hockey started?
When I was a little kid I went to watch hockey games in Fribourg with my father. At that time it was special because it was an outdoor rink and you could watch from Zahringer Bridge for free. The game and the atmosphere fascinated me. I also went to football matches but hockey had that certain something.
Which position did you play in youth hockey and why?
I played left wing or centre. In winters we played in front of the house or in school tournaments and one day a scout told me I should join the team. I started to play organized hockey rather late, when I was 15. That also explains why I wasn’t that good. The heart was there but the talent wasn’t big enough that I could play with the professional team of Fribourg-Gotteron but I played with the second team in the first amateur league. That’s also when I decided to become a referee. I started 1972 and in Switzerland they started with the three-man system. I moved quickly up the ranks and in 1976, I was already a linesman in the National League.
Have you had any idols when you played hockey or were a referee?
Anatoli Firsov. I played the same position like him. He played with the number 11, as did I. He was a fantastic player. Already at that time I liked the style of Soviet hockey and to watch their games. My brother was rather for Sweden, so we had some fights.
It was my highlight as a game official. It was in Helsinki and there were players such as Larionov, Krutov, Ruotsalainen. The Swedes also had great players. It was a great class of players who were not stars yet at that time. And you know what, it was the first time I was sitting on a plane. Now it looks like I’m flying every week but my first time was at 30. And I had a fear of flying. At that time we went to summer holidays to Italy or France by car. We generally didn’t fly in my family. And then I was for the first time on a plane, I think a DC 9 of Finnair. I was sitting in the back. But I lost the fear of flying.
Did your former position as a referee influence the way you worked as a President?
For sure. Having been a referee helped me in general in my life, also as a dentist later. You have to make a decision very fast, stand behind your decision but also deal with making mistakes sometimes. Sometimes you have to say ‘this is it’.
At first it didn’t look like you would spend most of your life in ice hockey. You first worked as a dentist. What did you bring to hockey from that profession?
You learn to deal with people. In a medical profession you learn to listen to people. When a patient comes to you, you have to listen what they say. You don’t know where somebody has pain and why it hurts and how much it hurts. You have to listen first. That’s an important quality a dentist or a doctor must have. At the IIHF that meant for example to listen to a smaller member association and try to see what their problem is because everybody has their own problems.
I can’t keep silent. If something is unjust, I stand up and say it’s not correct. I moved from referee to referee-in-chief in Switzerland because some things didn’t work well and then I made a big step by becoming President. At an IIHF Congress after Switzerland had hosted a World Championship, we didn’t get some money, I found it unjust and wanted to see the accounts. And because of that people recommended me to run for Council. On the Council Andrei Starovoitov as a referee-in-chief had to be replaced, which increased my chances coming from officiating and being President in Switzerland.
Who were your mentors at that time when you were still a “rookie” in the IIHF Council?
Walter Bush. He also was the first to ask whether I’d run for Council. So that was already two votes. I asked delegates and noticed that I could get elected. Bush also helped me a lot in dealing with and understanding the North Americans. Then General Secretary Jan-Ake Edvinsson also helped me a lot when I started in Council, also Hans Dobida, who was a Council member and good friend.
Some people asked me already to run 1990 against Gunther Sabetzki but for me personally that would have been too early. It was difficult in 1994, there were seven candidates in the beginning. It was a bit nasty at times. I had support from Central Europe, from the Russians, which some people didn’t like.
What were the biggest changes you wanted to realize after winning the elections?
Better contacts to the NHL was a big goal. I wanted better cooperation. I also wanted a bigger World Championship where the host would be automatically qualified – unlike Switzerland in 1990. Since 1998 we have 16 teams. But the biggest goal was the cooperation with the NHL and to bring them to the Olympics.
In 27 years as a President you visited many bigger and smaller hockey countries. Have you ever counted them?
No but there are few member countries of the IIHF where I haven’t been. I think just Mongolia, New Zealand and some of the newer members.
What were your most memorable trips?
Probably San Diego in 1995. It was during the NHL lockout. I wanted to meet with the NHLPA and talk about the participation in Nagano 1998. During the lockout I showed understanding for the league, which the PA didn’t appreciate. When I was there, Marty McSorley stood up with a menacing voice and asked: “What is your position? Don’t you like the Players’ Association?” But he did it as a joke and everybody was laughing. The players had many questions concerning the Olympics, the Olympic Village and how it would be. It was impressive, there were many NHL stars, I got to know Bob Goodenow and it was my first long trip.
Home is where the family is. But in my heart I’m still a Fribourger even though Zurich is a very beautiful city and I feel comfortable in the area.
During your presidency with the IIHF, you were also an executive board member of the IOC. What were your greatest experiences with the IOC?
One of my big mentors was Juan Antonio Samaranch, who made me IOC member. [Points to photos on a wall in his office.] These are my three big mentors you can see here, Samaranch, Walter Busch and Cesar Luthi, who was a genius in sports marketing and helped to make us better. That’s why you see the three pictures there. The Olympics are something very special. It’s almost like a World Championship on the ice but it’s still different, with a different spirit. With the motto of excellence, friendship and respect; to give the best and always become better. Now there’s more money in the Olympics but I hope that we can keep these values.
Jean-Claude Killy became a member at the same time with me, a great ski racer who was an idol for me; he beat many Swiss racers to win gold medals. He was a “monster”. We’re still in contact and he was a great personality who influenced me on the IOC. I worked with him when he chaired the coordination committee of Salt Lake City 2002, Turin 2006 and Sochi 2014. In Vancouver 2010 I was the chairman, which was definitely a highlight during my time at the IOC. It was seven years of work, I got to know many friends and to have that final in Vancouver 2010 with the overtime goal of Sidney Crosby is something people still remember. Sochi 2014 was also great, for me the best-organized Olympic Games. I think for the athletes it was the best.
You have been President for 27 years. What are the biggest differences in ice hockey and the IIHF since then?
The big difference was the stricter rule interpretations to eliminate interference and hooking. That added more speed. We started in the early 2000s and then the NHL did the same in 2005. That changed the game, and with the added speed I found the game on the North American size ice sheets of 60-on-26 metres more attractive and started to like this ice size more. With this rule we gave more players who are not very big a chance to show their skill. Also taking out hits against the heads out was important for our sport. We intervened early with our Medical Committee.
What has remained the same at the IIHF since the ‘90s?
The emotions are still the same but the game has changed and improved, also the equipment. Things evolve and that’s good. There needs to be changes.
He became commissioner shortly before me. He’s a businessman. He did many good things in the NHL. He went from 800 million to almost 5 billion dollars. Hats off. He played an important role for getting the NHL players to the Olympics in 1998. Many people praise me for having done it but it was not just me. If Gary Bettman didn’t want to go, or the players didn’t want to go, we wouldn’t have had the NHL players at the Olympics. We have to be thankful to him too. He’s fully focused on the business and me more on the sport, so sometimes we had to battle. There were incredible meetings I’ll never forget in which he would have liked to throw me out of the window. We have developed a relationship and friendship of mutual respect.
An important task in top-level hockey has been to have a good balance between east and west, between the NHL and hockey in Europe. How did you handle that?
Balance is important. You have to listen to everybody and what they want. There’s not just the NHL, and in Europe not just the KHL, there are also strong leagues in Northern and Central Europe. And also within North America you have a rivalry between Canada and the United States. And then there’s also Asia as a big block of countries. It’s important to understand each other.
A Player Transfer Agreement was negotiated at that time. How did that work? And is it still a good deal nowadays when the different federations and leagues have individual agreements with the NHL?
At that time the Russians lost many players after the break-up of the Soviet Union and they were the first who wanted an agreement. We discussed with the NHL and had the international player transfer agreement for many years that was unfortunately killed when some countries wanted to pull out. That’s why countries did transfer agreements on an individual basis and those who pulled out recognized fast the need for it and have such transfer agreements again. It’s still a pity because it was two, three millions that some countries lost to recognize that there’s no other way. The dream of every player is to play in the NHL. It’s what it is and we have to accept the reality.
What would you call your biggest achievements for ice hockey during the 27 years?
The cooperation with the NHL in general, and more recently also the Unified Korean women’s ice hockey team at the Olympics. It was many years of work. If people talk about the PyeongChang Olympics, people will most likely mention the Unified Korean women’s ice hockey team. To bring players of the two Koreas together not only at the opening ceremony but on the same team was something special. It was a lot of work for the IIHF but we had great help with Ung Chang, the former IOC member from the north, and the organizing committee and new government in the south with Moon Jae-in.
The balance is important. 16 teams are many with a full schedule. On the other side we have countries such as Great Britain who can participate and wouldn’t be part of our hockey festival if there were only 12 teams. We can see the success we have today with 16 teams and I don’t see a reason to change.
In general the number of hockey-playing countries has grown significantly since your election. How do you see that growth and how have you been dealing with the smaller hockey nations?
During all these years we have always thought about the small nations and invested a lot of funds we generate from the top events. We invest millions every year into tournaments and projects for our smaller member national associations and try to help them to make hockey bigger in their countries as much as it’s possible. We are probably the only federation in the world which is doing that. We reinvest the money we have. Our income goes back to the system, both to the bigger and smaller countries. After all it’s our task to develop hockey worldwide even though it’s not easy in some countries with a warmer climate but we’re happy that there are people in so many countries who play out sport.
Women’s ice hockey became an Olympic sport during your time and for the first time will see 10 teams at the Olympics. Are you satisfied with the developments of the women’s game?
I was part of the Council meetings when we decided to create a Women’s World Championship and later to bring women’s ice hockey to the Olympics, first with six nations, in 2022 with ten. There has been a lot of progress. We had a wake-up call when Canada beat Slovakia 18-0 at the Vancouver Olympics when we also changed the format and created initiatives both for the development of women’s ice hockey worldwide but also for the top players. It still remains a challenge since there are over 100,000 female players in Canada, 80,000 in the United States and then you have countries in Europe that have 1,000 or 2,000 players.
Women’s sports in Europe isn’t as big as in North America and that’s why you can see the gap. But it has become smaller. Finland almost became World Champion in 2019. There’s a chance and they’re getting closer. One advice I can give to the women’s hockey community is that they shouldn’t look too much at the men, like body-checking, but have their own style of hockey. It’s so much better when they play their own style and don’t try to copy men’s hockey. That’s what makes women’s hockey interesting.
I’m not tired but I think it’s time for a change. If there’s a problem, I will still be here to help if it needs to be. But it doesn’t have to be. I’ve been President for 27 years and I think it’s the perfect time for somebody else to come with new ideas.
In a few days your time as IIHF President ends. What do you plan for the weeks after the congress?
I want to learn Russian and speak the Russian language properly. I already know a bit and the language fascinates me. In my age it’s good to keep the brain active. Others do sudoku or crossword. And I want to learn a language better.
Do you have any plans to stay involved in hockey?
I’ll always be around but there’s nothing special planned. I will certainly not be a burden for the new President but I’ll be here if somebody needs me.
How do you see hockey moving forward? Are there any concerns for you to keep in mind?
A great challenge is the collaboration between the different leagues and also the new era with social media where many fans and athletes are active. That changes the way of communication. It’s important to stay up to date with new technology also with sports data. The average age of people watching sports on TV becomes older. We need to go to the young people. That’s a challenge we have to work on in the future.
What are your wishes for the new president and what advice would you give for the start?
An important point is to listen to people. Before you make decisions you need to listen to the concerns, find the balance. You need to settle in and try to understand how the machine of an international federation works compared to a national organization or a league.
And I hope the new President will know something about ice hockey. We have a good ice hockey family and I hope it will continue like this and that there won’t be disputes. For that you need to listen and not be confrontational but keep up the family spirit.