Charting the safest course
by Adam Steiss|21 AUG 2020
IIHF President René Fasel (right) and General Secretary Horst Lichtner (left) briefing the Expert Group at the IIHF Office in Zurich
photo: Adam Steiss

The IIHF’s COVID-19 Expert Group held its first meeting on Thursday at the IIHF Office in Zurich, taking the first steps towards ensuring a safe start to what will be an exceptional season.

The Expert Group was convened based on a mandate from the IIHF Congress, in order to analyze and evaluate the playing status of all tournaments comprising the upcoming 2020/2021 IIHF season, and to provide the IIHF Council with recommendations on the viability of playing these tournaments.

The Expert Group is supported by the IIHF Office, led by the Event Department. During the summer, the department has produced an Event Status Tracker (EST), a dynamic document containing up-to-date information on the ability of each tournament hosts to hold the tournament.

Among other relevant date, the EST takes into account the host country’s COVID-19 situation, local government regulations concerning travel and contact sports, travel restrictions for participating teams, and any steps taken to safeguard against COVID-19 within the playing arena, any of which can have a major impact on a host’s ability to safely play a tournament.

The IIHF museum will be converted into a COVID-19 operations room for the 2020/21 season. 
photo: Adam Steiss

“We had to cancel 19 tournament last season, and we thought that in the summer things would start to cool down, but that is not the case,” said IIHF President RenĂ© Fasel in a welcome address to the Expert Group. “When the 2020 IIHF Extra-Ordinary Congress decided two and a half months ago that we were going to attempt to play the whole number of tournaments in a normal season, it was the same thinking there. But we also decided that we needed to have a way to evaluate how safe we can proceed with a full schedule.”

“At this point, you have to convince me to play, don’t try to convince me not to play because this is not our starting position,” added Fasel. “our priority is the health and safety of everyone that is coming to the IIHF tournament.”

Fasel added that in a normal season a significant amount of IIHF funding, over 12 million Swiss Francs, is spent on travel support and organizing costs for tournaments that fall outside the top divisions. In speaking to ice hockey leagues and analyzing what needs to be done to ensure a safe competition like with the current NHL playoff bubble, Fasel brought forward concerns that the IIHF’s lower division tournaments may not be able to meet the safety requirements needed. That is why an independent expert group is needed.

“Health, financial costs, government regulations, legal lability, we have four different battlefields that we need to manage to proceed into this season,” said Fasel. “There are risks we simply cannot take if they are too high, but we owe it to our membership to carefully analyze our options.”

The Expert Group will not define the IIHF’s COVID-19 policy, but instead make recommendations to the IIHF Council. However, a zero-tolerance approach will be adopted for any violations of IIHF regulations based on any approved recommendations of the Expert Group. Certain protocols need to be established, including who ultimately has the final word on cancelling the tournament.

“If we have a policy that ensures guaranteed testing, and when we get to the tournament and the LOC does not conduct testing on-site, then the tournament is cancelled, no discussion,” said Fasel.

The operations room is continually updated with information on each of the IIHF tournaments. 

“Operations Room” created in IIHF museum

The responsibility of the Expert Groups is to analyze the status of each of the 43 planned IIHF tournaments.

“We have been tasked with helping to organize 43 tournaments, organized by 31 individual member national associations,” said IIHF General Secretary Horst Lichtner. “When you start to consider all the individual variables: government regulations, arena size, player movement to and from the venue, hotel rooms…you realize quickly how much COVID-19 can affect every aspect of a tournament.”

In order to assist the Expert Group, a room within the IIHF Office that usually serves as a mini-museum – showcasing IIHF trophies, medals, and other memorabilia – has been converted into a COVID-19 “Operations Room”. For the upcoming season, the Operations Room will act as an information centre for the Expert Group and the IIHF Office, containing Event Status Tracker info, status briefings, and information on each of the individual tournaments planned for 2020/21, as well as on the participating teams.   

The 2020/21 season presents many unique challenges for ice hockey, starting with arena infrastructure. For example, preserving good hygiene and sanitation is difficult enough with a large arena containing eight teams like at the World Championship, but the issues and problems can be magnified when lower division tournaments are considered. In these environments, teams must often compete in smaller arenas, many with limited dressing and training room size.  

“Every tournament we make is a risk,” said Expert Group member Dr. Beat Villiger, who urged caution as the IIHF approaches the start of the new season. “We have to make sure that we can manage the risk to the best of our ability.”

“I think we can handle big tournaments with a lot of staff, but what we need is time and expertise. For smaller tournaments in not so well-equipped arenas, it may not be the way to go.”

The first meeting with the Expert Group finished with its first set of recommendations for the IIHF Continental Cup, which will be presented to the IIHF Council during a conference call on Monday, 24 August.

“It’s a special situation, and a special meeting, I was positive in the end,” said Expert Group member Peter Luthi, who has been involved with IIHF committees for many years and was recently project manager for the cancelled 2020 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Switzerland. “I would say after the summer season I was very pessimistic and reading all the papers and briefings and it’s easy to be negative, but I’m positive with the recommendations we made here.”

“The situation is changing every hour, and it’s difficult to make decision looking too far ahead,” added Luthi, who has also been closely involved with Swiss ice hockey through his work with the Spengler Cup and Universiade. “In the Swiss league, the Spengler Cup, and Universiade, we had to speak and discuss about these issues.”
“It’s a situation that none of us have experience, even when we’ve worked ten or 20 years,” said Daniela Diaz, a former Swiss ice hockey coach and national team player who currently serves manager for the Swiss women’s national teams. “Being on the sportive side you try to focus on the sport and try to get some normality and prepare for hockey, but the first priority has to be the health of the athlete.”

The Expert Group is also being assisted by the IIHF Medical Committee, which is in the process of completing health and safety guidelines for players competing in an IIHF tournament.

More COVID-19 regulations expected

The IIHF has also established minimum pre-event cornerstones for the upcoming season under which Championships will be organized:

-3 months prior to the event the Expert Group will evaluate the feasibility of holding the event

-At least four (4) teams must participate in the tournament (except Top Divisions, Olympic Qualification and Continental Cup)

-Special rules for team seeding in the following 2022 season are agreed in case of withdrawals

-Hosts must comply with IIHF COVID-19 Organizing/Participating Recommendations

Further details as to the IIHF’s COVID-19 policy for IIHF Championships will be communicated at a later date.

The Members of the IIHF Expert Group are as follows:

Dr. Beat Villiger-Medical
Daniela Diaz-Women's teams
Peter Luthi-Men's Teams
Christian Hofstetter-Sport
Ashley Ehlert-Legal
Gion Veraguth-Finance
Hannes Ederer-Event