During a visit to the Vatican on Friday, IIHF President René Fasel along with 180 IIHF guests were granted an audience with His Holiness Pope Francis.
The Pope warmly welcomed the attendees to the Vatican. In his address to the delegates, he acknowledged the role of ice hockey in social development and community-building.
“Hockey is a good example of how sport can express a sense of community. It is a team game in which each team member has an important role to play. Whenever you take part in the World Championships, you can see how people from many different countries enjoy coming together to experience the beauty of sport.”
“As you support the development of this sport worldwide, you are encouraging young and old, men and women, to bring out the best of themselves and to promote friendly relationships on the ice.”
The Papal audience also included an opening speech from IIHF President René Fasel. On behalf of the attendees, Fasel expressed his sincere thanks to Pope Francis for granting this honour to the IIHF. He also related to the Pope some of his favourite aspects of working in the international ice hockey world.
“Ice hockey is a game of fair play and respect,” said Fasel. “At the end of every hockey game, no matter what level, the teams get together and shake hands, as is our tradition.”
“It is also a sport that brings people together. We just had our IIHF Congress in Rome, which each year brings over 75 countries together with one shared passion for hockey. Here Russians and Ukrainians talk to each other about ice hockey development, despite the current political situation. Balkan nations work together in friendship and organize tournaments between countries that were at war not a long time ago."
President Fasel also spoke about the Unified Korea women’s team, as an example of ice hockey crossing borders.
“It took several years of discussions and preparations, but in the end the players from North and South Korea were together on the same team, in the same dressing room, wearing the same jersey, playing together on the ice for each other and the Korean people.”
“It is this spirit that we share across the world of sport. We work hard for each other, and this is why I refer to our Congress members as the ice hockey family.”
Fasel also thanked the Pope for last year’s public recognition of the Declaration of Principles, an initiative spearheaded by the NHL and NHLPA along with 14 other ice hockey stakeholders – including the IIHF – to advance policies, programs and initiatives that grow ice hockey, while at the same time inspiring fans, players and communities to create the best possible experience for the entire hockey community.
Following its release, in a letter Pope Francis extolled the Declaration of Principles as a significant gesture that would “inspire greater appreciation for the pivotal role played by sports and sportsmanship in training future generations to pursue personal excellence and to promote the spiritual values of teamwork, solidarity and mutual respect so necessary for the building of a more just and fraternal world”. At the time, the commendation came as an unexpected but greatly appreciated show of support from such a preeminent world leader.
“We at the IIHF pledge to uphold these values, and I hope that we will be worthy of this incredible honour you have shown us today,” said Fasel.
“I think it is great that we found such commonality between the IIHF and the Vatican,” said IIHF Vice President Thomas Wu. “It’s nice to be recognized, I think it’s great and I hope that it give us energy to continue our work.”
The idea for the Vatican meeting was initially conceived by the Italian Ice Sports Federation, which worked with the Italian National Olympic Committee in order to receive the proper clearances and pave the way for the Papal audience to happen following the end of the 2019 Semi-Annual Congress.
“We started two years ago, with an idea to bring the IIHF to the Vatican,” said Italian Ice Sports Federation President Andrea Gios. “I asked (Italian Olympic Committee President) Giovanni Malago to help us connect with them. We thought this was a very good thing to have the hockey family here, and all the people that work with me at our federation put in a 100% effort for it to work.”
“René was enthusiastic about the idea, and once we had the Semi-Annual Congress confirmed in Rome we knew we had to make it happen.”
“It unites our family, this person is very close to God and we get to visit him,” said IIHF Council member Vladislav Tretiak. “It unites us and million of people just dream to be here, so it’s very important for us.”
Considering the size of the Semi-Annual Congress, nearly all of the delegates that were in attendance from around the ice hockey world jumped at the chance to have an audience with the head of the Catholic Church.
“This is really a special feeling for all of us,” said Anders Larsson, President of the Swedish Ice Hockey Association. “I think it’s a day that I and everyone that was here will remember for the rest of our lives. It really shows that ice hockey, our fantastic sport, can bring people together and be so much more than just a game.”
“A once in a lifetime experience,” said IIHF Vice-President Bob Nicholson. “I mean you work in hockey and never think that you’d have the opportunity to meet and shake hands with the Pope. His words were very well-spoken, he certainly values sport and sport development.”
In addition to the delegates from the member national associations, also invited to the Vatican was Lincoln Zhang, Chairman of the Wanda Sport Group along with Philippe Blatter, President & CEO of Infront and Vice Chairman of Wanda Sports Group.
“The reception of his Holiness Pope Francis was an exceptional and certainly a once-in-lifetime event with IIHF delegates from all over the world and many different cultural backgrounds participating,” said Blatter. “In particular I appreciated his Holiness acknowledging the uniting power of sports, a statement that fully matches the purpose of Wanda Sports Group and Infront as the long-standing marketing partner of the IIHF.”
“Todays’ culture may sometimes steer sporting activities down the wrong path, but we must keep in mind that rules are there to serve a specific purpose and to avoid a descent into chaos. Athlete honor fair play when they not only obey the formal rules but also observe justice with respect to their opponents so that all competitors can freely engage in the game."
“With all this in mind I encourage you and your Federation to go forth and continue your special mission to make this sport inclusive and to ensure a safe community to all who take part.”
“May the Lord bless you and always give you the joy of sport being played together. Thank you.”