In the Spotlight: IIHF President René Fasel
Thursday, 27 September 2007
In recent years, René Fasel has often spent more time in Vancouver, Canada than anywhere besides the Zurich headquarters of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) in his native Switzerland. The IIHF President chairs the IOC Coordination Commission for the 2010 Winter Olympics, and he visits Canada’s leading West Coast city regularly to make sure that the Vancouver Games organizers are staying on track with their preparations. But naturally, out of all the Olympic sports, his first love remains international hockey. HockeyAdventure.com caught up with Fasel at the Westin Bayshore Hotel in Vancouver at the conclusion of the IIHF Semi-Annual Congress (September 20-22) to get his take on the latest developments.
HockeyAdventure.com: What’s your reaction to the recent talk about potentially changing the World Championship format from 16 teams to 14 in a few years?
René Fasel: Well, this is the championship format we have now with 16 teams. [Any problem with selling tickets] will not be the case in Canada in 2008, I presume, because everybody wants to go to the hockey game, any game. That’s the Canadian attitude toward the game. But in Europe when we play the second round, it’s rather difficult to sell the tickets, because nobody knows who is playing who. There are some ideas about what we can do. Do we stay with 16 teams and go to two groups of eight? Then we would have to skip one or two games, but which games do we skip? Is it a sports decision? How do we do that? Then some people say maybe we should go back to 14 teams. We’d have a round-robin with six games, and then we’d have the same number of games as we have for the World Championship now. Six games in the Preliminary Round, and then quarter-finals, semi-finals, and finals. Nine games in total for the winning team, the other finalist, and the bronze medal game teams. Our Sports Committee is just discussing how to find a new format, a new way. Maybe we’re just going to stay with the system we have. But I would say it’s good, maybe every three or four years, just to rethink and take an X-ray of the format we have, to see if we can improve, and if we can, then we should change. Maybe we’re going to reduce to 14, but it’s not done yet. It’s just a discussion.
HockeyAdventure.com: Could the number of teams be something other than 16 or 14?
Fasel: I don’t think we will have more teams than 16, but this is a question we’ll decide in the Congress. For the organizers, when you have empty seats in the arena, it’s not exactly what you would like to have. The previous format of 12 teams was very good, where we played with a round-robin of five games, followed by the quarter-finals, semi-finals, and finals. But going back from 16 to 12, that would be a tough decision on the political side. The 16 teams gives a worldwide focus. It helps to promote the game. Something like, say, Denmark playing and beating Sweden is just an unbelievable success for them. Or Latvia beating Russia. It’s a national celebration. Those are also good things to promote. You have to strike a balance. If the good things outweigh the bad, then you just keep the existing format.
HockeyAdventure.com: Looking ahead to Canada 2008, is it safe to say this country won’t have to wait another 100 years to host the Worlds again if all goes well?
Fasel: I told Bob [Nicholson of Hockey Canada] we’re coming here once every 100 years! [laughs] No, we hope to come back to Canada for sure if it works well. That would be nice, if we can. We still have the NHL playing during the tournament, and that’s a challenge. We have to respect that there is a league going on. As we say at the IIHF, Fair Play and Respect. But for our 100-year anniversary, I explained to Gary Bettman: “Gary, this is our centenary, and we want to come back. You have to understand.” And he understood. We have to have some kind of respect for each other.
HockeyAdventure.com: At the 2010 Olympics, the games at GM Place will be played on NHL-sized ice. How do you feel about that?
Fasel: It’s about putting the athletes first, having a sustainable Games, and leaving a legacy, as well as trying to control the costs. When I went to GM Place and saw the way it’s constructed, I realized it would be a huge cost [to expand the rink to international dimensions]. Maybe five to ten million bucks, just to do it. The Canucks want to have the rink back the way it was afterwards. Expanding it and then putting it back would be too much. There wasn’t a good reason to do so. In the discussions with the federations, we also noted that we’re mostly going to be using NHL players who are used to playing on this ice surface. And it’s also a question of respect. On the other side, the NHL guys have to come over to Europe and play on the big ice [at the World Championship]. Now we’re going on the small ice, and we’re going to try to see how the game is different. Is it different? Maybe yes, maybe no. When I spoke with Igor Larionov, I was very much surprised when we spoke about the size of the ice. Igor said: “I prefer the small ice.” It’s really strange, but he has a lot of technique. He can really play in a very small space. He’s so good technically, he doesn’t need the big ice. Then we discussed it all together, and we said: “We’ll go and play on the small ice, and we’ll see what kind of a show we produce with guys who are used to that.” It’ll be a bit of a tough time for the European coaches to adjust.
HockeyAdventure.com: The NHL reduced the size of the neutral zone in 2005. Where will the bluelines be located for the next World Championship?
Fasel: We’re going to have to decide that for Quebec City, and then we’ll use the same thing for the Olympics. You have a smaller neutral zone in North America, and personally, I like that. There’s more space when you run a power play. And people don’t want to watch the trap, they want to see a show. Still, I’m not making the decision on that by myself. I would like to speak with experts and try to get their opinion. We’ll do some tests and make the decision not just based on political reasons.
HockeyAdventure.com: How about NHL participation in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia?
Fasel: I’m really looking forward to 2010. 2014 is another question. We’re going to see if the NHL players want to come or not. The CBA runs through 2011. They’re going to start talking about it before Vancouver, I think. But there is nothing like the Olympics. For sure, if you have the Stanley Cup final or World Cup final here in Vancouver, it would be huge. But having the Olympic Games, the Olympic tournament with all the other winter sports, is different. It’s even bigger. I don’t know how it can be bigger, but it will be. I hope the players feel how it is to be part of that. It’s very, very, very special every four years. I hope that the players, if not the owners, will understand that it’s good to go to the Olympics. It’s a unique opportunity to show the world of winter sports our game. This is the stage where we can show it off at its best. It shouldn’t be a question of money. It should be for everybody: “I want to be there.” You have the Stanley Cup every year, you have the World Championship every year. Here, it is different. The world is watching you. This is the big difference. It’s not just local, it’s really global.
HockeyAdventure.com: Sweden was just awarded the 2013 Worlds, but you also have Belarus and Hungary, emerging hockey nations, who were unsuccessful this year but have already said they’ll apply again to host in 2014.
Fasel: I think it’s a good signal. The more countries that are interested in hosting the World Championship, the better. It creates a challenge. But for sure we need to go to countries like the Czech Republic, Russia, Finland, Sweden, and Slovakia. Then you have some other small countries like Switzerland, Germany, and Latvia. Now we’re up to eight, and then there’s Canada, which makes it nine. It means that every ten years you have a championship in your country, roughly. That’s why the competition is so tough. In the past it was easier. We had the top countries, and they were the ones who organized it with eight teams. Now, it’s about using the money that’s generated to build the game. Sometimes North Americans don’t understand that the IIHF is a non-profit organization. All the money that the federations get goes to grassroots development of the game: coaches, schooling, and so on. It’s not to enrich people.
HockeyAdventure.com: What are your hopes for the Champions Hockey League kicking off in 2008?
Fasel: All the other sports have this kind of competition, like football, handball, and basketball. Football has been very successful, and we’re working with people that have worked in football. They have the knowledge and expertise. I hope it will work. We’re going to play on Wednesday nights. I think there will be a huge interest in this Champions Hockey League.
HockeyAdventure.com: And how about the Victoria Cup? Do you have a timeline for determining which NHL team will come over and play the top two European clubs next September?
Fasel: We’re having discussions with the NHL. They’re ready to help us. I really appreciate this cooperation with them. It’s open. We’re trying to find a team that’s ready to come. I’m also happy that this season they’re opening up with the Anaheim Ducks and L.A. Kings in London. As you can see, you have people selling tickets for that on eBay for 600 British pounds. It’s totally sold out. London is a special market. It’s not a typical hockey market, but you can do that for a one-off event. What the European fan really wants to see is competition between a European team and a North American team. And we have to build it up. Then the European fan and North American fan will really be able to make comparisons, and it’ll be great competition. Just as we had Canada versus the Soviets in the past, we would now like to have Europe versus North America. That would be great. We need that and the NHL needs that too. Hockey needs it.
HockeyAdventure.com: For women’s hockey, what needs to happen to take the sport to the next level?
Fasel: The problem is that Canada and the US are working so well! They are really improving, and in Europe, there has been some improvement, but the Canadians and Americans are just so fast and so good that we struggle with that. We’re working on it. I’ve pushed the members here, and we have Sweden and Finland working hard. The Russians are trying to come in. There’s Switzerland, Germany, and the Slovaks and Czechs too. We’re trying to make it a bit more interesting. But the federations already have so many challenges with the men’s teams.
HockeyAdventure.com: Dr. Gunther Sabetzki was the President of the IIHF from 1975 to 1994. Have you considered the possibility of breaking his record of 19 years of service?
Fasel: Well, I’m of the opinion that there’s a period when you get tired, and you need another push, new people coming in. I’ve been President for 13 years, but I’m lucky because we recently got a new General Secretary in Horst Lichtner. It’s brought a breath of fresh air. He comes in from football. He was the Marketing Director for the German Football Association. He was involved with the European Champions League in football. He’s a good, tough, creative German with lots of ideas, and he keeps very busy. We need those new ideas, new challenges in our system. So that makes me really keen to work. I will run for sure [for the presidency] again in 2008. In 2012, I don’t know.