Going Global: IIHF President René Fasel

Originally published in Rinkside in 2003

By Lucas Aykroyd

There’s no doubt about it. Serving as the President of the International Ice Hockey Federation can be a complex juggling act.

After all, René Fasel doesn’t just oversee the development of hockey in 63 member nations. The 53-year-old Swiss native also bears the chief responsibility for organizing the annual IIHF World Championships and the Olympic hockey tournament. His discussions with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA Executive Director Bob Goodenow influence such key subjects as transfer payments to European clubs and NHL participation in the Olympics.

The IIHF President has been a member of the International Olympic Committee since 1995. He was also elected in August 2002 as President of the Association of International Olympic Winter Sports Federations. Previously, Fasel headed up the Swiss Ice Hockey Federation (1985-94). Now in his third term atop the IIHF, Fasel is poised to become the second longest-serving President in the organization’s history with 15 consecutive years (1994-2008), surpassed only by Gunther Sabetzki (1975-1994).

RINKSIDE caught up with Fasel at his Zurich home in late September after the IIHF’s Semi-Annual Congress in Crete. There was plenty to discuss with the candid, personable international hockey leader.

RINKSIDE: At present, about 30 percent of NHL players come from Europe. Would you like to see that number increase or decrease in the future?

RENÉ FASEL: There are two ways to answer that question! [laughs] On the one hand, for sure I would like to see that increase, because it’s good that European players can come to North America and play in the NHL if they have the talent. We are very happy about that. But we’re less happy when they end up in the minor leagues.

RINKSIDE: How important is it for the NHL to find a way to participate in the 2006 Olympics?

FASEL: It would be good for hockey. How good it would be for the NHL is more an internal question for the NHL and the NHLPA to evaluate together. We’ll have to see how things work out. But it would be great for the NHL players who are selected by their national associations to be there.

RINKSIDE: Why the decision to go with 12 national teams in Torino instead of 14 like the last two Olympics?

FASEL: We faced some problems last time with the eight teams in the Preliminary Round playing for two places in the Final Round. The Slovaks and Latvians didn’t get to use all their best players. You’ll remember how Arturs Irbe came to a game and then had to leave during the night to travel across the country and play with his NHL club. After this experience in Salt Lake City, we decided to go with just one round for Torino. And with one round, it’s very difficult to play with 14 teams. Two groups of seven doesn’t work so well. If you increase it to 16 teams, that’s too much for the Olympics, because we only have two ice rinks, and those are shared with the eight teams in the women’s tournament. Actually, the Olympic charter only allows for 12 teams in a given competition. There’s an exception in soccer, where they use 16 teams, and they also made the exception for us in Nagano and Salt Lake City. But I think going with 12 is the right decision.

RINKSIDE: The IIHF recently introduced its new World Rankings system with a math formula to reflect each country’s standing. What was the thinking there?

FASEL: Well, we were looking at what other sports federations do. They do something similar in soccer with FIFA. We thought it would be a much fairer solution in terms of representation at the various championships we organize. For instance, we’re planning to start the Super Six Challenge Cup in January 2005. This would be a competition where the top six European clubs would play one another over a long weekend to decide which one is the best. So we have to figure out first, who are the Super Six? That’s one good reason to have this ranking system. Also, there’s the random draw at the World Championships to determine the groupings for the following year. We have different pots for places 1-4, 5-8, 9-12, and 13-16. Now for the 2004 Worlds in the Czech Republic, the US team will have Finland and Slovakia in the same group, while Canada will have Switzerland, Austria and France. It doesn’t really reflect the value of the teams. That’s why we decided to introduce the World Rankings. It will be more fair, give us better balanced groups, and that goes for the Olympics too. Still, the US has not qualified for that yet. There is no free ticket to get into the Olympics. They have to make sure they qualify with their performance at the next World Championships.

RINKSIDE: For 2004, Prague will have one of the best new arenas in Europe. Why has the IIHF made it such a priority to get new arenas built for the Worlds?

FASEL: Essentially, it’s the same as in the NHL. Look around the NHL and the beautiful arenas the teams play in. Meanwhile, in recent years arenas have been one of the main problems we’ve had to face in Europe. Things are improving a bit. In Germany, they’ve built new arenas in places like Cologne, Hamburg and Mannheim, and they’re planning one in Berlin. We have two or three nice ones in Finland, the Globen Arena in Stockholm, and the one in St. Petersburg. We took the position four or five years ago that we should have better venues in Europe, and that the World Championships could provide a reason to push cities or countries or private investors to build more. It’s working quite well. In addition to Prague, they’re building in Innsbruck for the 2005 tournament in Austria, and we’re working very hard to get a new arena in Riga, Latvia for 2006. If Moscow hosts in 2007, they’ll build a new arena too. Holding the finals of the World Championships in a fantastic arena is how it has to be.

RINKSIDE: In terms of on-ice rule changes, the 2003 Worlds in Finland were the first to feature 20 minutes of 4-on-4 overtime in playoff games. How did you like it?

FASEL: Well, besides the gold medal game, we didn’t get to see too much of it. But it makes it easier for the teams to score a goal. I think it was a good decision. The NHL’s use of 4-on-4 OT in the regular season helped us see that it could also work in our system.

RINKSIDE: In 2002, you stated: “Coaches are not entitled to hijack a beautiful and entertaining game for the simple purpose of just keeping their jobs.” Do you foresee more rule changes to keep the game out of the grip of defensive systems?

FASEL: If the coaches try to hijack our game, I will make their lives even more difficult. I promise that! Hockey is such a beautiful game when it’s played on offense.

RINKSIDE: Viktor Tikhonov was reappointed as the head coach of Team Russia in June. What was your reaction?

FASEL: I couldn’t believe that he was coming back! But actually, he’s been doing well with CSKA in the Russian Superleague. It’s very good for Viktor. He is a wonderful hockey coach, and he’s proved it in the past. But at the same time, it’s a little strange that the Russians do not have young coaches who are ready to step in. This is something we really have to address, trying to help them develop more coaches. At the moment, it seems Viktor is the only one ready to take this very difficult job. We’ll see how he does in tournaments like the World Championships and the World Cup.

RINKSIDE: Looking ahead to 2008, there’s a strong chance Canada will host the World Championships for the first time. What kind of response would you expect from Canadian players and fans?

FASEL: A great response! Hockey is really number one in Canada. Even when you look at the women’s game or the juniors, the love for international hockey shines through. For sure there is always the NHL game, but international games add the flag and great emotion throughout the country. In 2008 we will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the IIHF, and it would be great to go back to the motherland of hockey for that.

RINKSIDE: As you said, enthusiasm for the World Juniors is huge in Canada. Can that be increased in Europe?

FASEL: It’s difficult. It’s a question of culture, I would say. For instance, soccer is so big in Europe, but junior soccer doesn’t get as much interest. People just don’t take to junior sports the same way, whether it’s basketball, volleyball, or hockey. We simply have to be patient and try to convince people that junior hockey is a great game. In Russia, Sweden, Finland and other big hockey countries, there is some interest, even though it’s far from what you get in Canada. You had 242,000 fans at the last tournament in Halifax and Sydney, which is more than we sometimes get for the senior Worlds in smaller European countries. This is really something.

RINKSIDE: At the IIHF Semi-Annual Congress, two female members were elected to the Council for the first time. Your thoughts?

FASEL: I believe women should be represented at the executive level, as they have eight teams at the Olympics, their own World Championships, and so on. It shows respect for women’s hockey. Also, the IOC ruled that 20 percent of international athletic councils should be female. It’s not absolutely mandatory, but they are trying to push for it.

RINKSIDE: On a personal note, how did you get into hockey as a young man in Switzerland?

FASEL: Growing up, I watched the Gotteron club in my hometown of Fribourg, which played in the Swiss second division. I’d attend their games in the winter with my father. At that time, we had good winters and we could skate outside during the Christmas holiday season. I learned to skate on a frozen lake. Then I began to play with the local junior team at age 12. When I was 21, I moved into refereeing, because I was not too big and maybe didn’t have that much talent, but had great heart and passion for this sport. My career as a referee lasted 10 years, including six years in the Swiss League and some international matches.

RINKSIDE: Who were some players you admired back then?

FASEL: I was always a fan of the Russians. My brother was also a fan, and when we played together, we’d pretend to be guys like “Rags” Ragulin. When I became more aware of North American players in the 1980’s, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux were both amazing for Canada. Around the same time, Krutov, Makarov, Fetisov and Tretiak stood out for Russia. Going back a bit further, there was Sven “Tumba” Johansson for Sweden. He was a very famous European player.

RINKSIDE: Now, when you moved into refereeing, did that benefit you later in terms of making difficult decisions as the leader of various sports federations?

FASEL: Yes, one hundred percent. And not only in my hockey work, but even in my other job as a dentist! You have to make decisions in your life. As a referee, you have no choice. But as a father or husband or dentist, the same applies. You may not always make the best decision, but you do have to take a stand. Ten years as a referee was a marvelous experience. It gave me so much in my life. It wasn’t always nice doing it, but for me it was something very special.

RINKSIDE: What drew you into the profession of dentistry?

FASEL: I love working with people, and I like to work with my hands. It’s a great profession. You’re helping people, and you can talk to them and they can’t talk back! [laughs] I’m kidding. But really, if you work with people and you love life, your life is much more interesting than it would be if you stayed home inside four walls and never went out. It gives you a real sense of life.

RINKSIDE: Getting back to your role with the IIHF, what’s the current plan as far as re-launching the European Hockey League?

FASEL: I hope we will do it. It’s an idea we’re still working on. I believe that the European clubs should have an international competition. They have such busy schedules in terms of their own national championships right now, so we must find a way to play the Super Six format I mentioned before. The different European hockey clubs need to play together so fans can see how great the sport is in other countries. The previous version of the EHL had to be shut down due to financial issues. I hope we can capitalize on the renewed interest from European clubs and bring something new to the fans. Again, we have a precedent in soccer with the UEFA Champions League, which may be going down a bit now but was really successful. We hope to relaunch the EHL in 2005.

RINKSIDE: How hard will it be for you to balance your IIHF duties with your new additional role as the chairman of the 2010 Olympic Coordination Committee?

FASEL: It’s similar to working as a referee. It’s about being honest and doing the best job you can. I’m used to that. Working with the IOC, I’ve had to wear two hats. My first focus is to do the best for sport in general and of course for hockey. I have to respect the other sports. This job as a coordinator requires me to follow the rules. I’m very excited to be in this position, and I’m looking forward to having a great Games in Vancouver. I was there a few weeks ago looking at the city, and you could see how excited the people are.

RINKSIDE: You’ve been elected to serve as IIHF President through 2008. What’s one of your major long-term goals?

FASEL: I would like to continue improving our cooperation with the NHL and the NHLPA. I know sometimes it can be difficult, because we all have different interests at stake. But we all love the game of hockey. We do the best for hockey we can. I think we can work together even more closely and align our objectives to improve the game and promote it everywhere. We are not competitors. Sometimes people think we are in competition. We are not. We are different in terms of the financial issues involved. But I believe they could do better and we could do better too. I will try to reach that goal. What drives me is my passion for the game. We are all lucky to be working for the success of the best game in the world.

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