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NHL in Europe? IIHF president Fasel says 'over my dead body'

As part of series of sit-down interviews with The Hockey News’ publisher, IIHF president Rene Fasel stopped by our offices to tell us the NHL should let Europe do Europe.
Shea Berencsi

Shea Berencsi

Graeme Roustan: Rene, welcome to The Hockey News.

Rene Fasel: Thank you for the invitation. I’m proud to be here.

GR: A lot of people don’t know that you started as a referee. What’s your background in hockey?

RF: I actually started as a player in Switzerland. At 21, the GM came to me and said, “Rene, that’s not enough.” He wanted to relegate me to another club. I said, “That’s not what I’d like to do, so do you need a referee?” I was a student at the time – I’m a medical dentist – and it was a good opportunity to make some money. Twenty-five Swiss francs per game. It was pocket money for me. I refereed for 10 years, six years in the top league in Switzerland.

GR: So you went from that to the head of the IIHF.

RF: Oh, there was lots in between. In ’81, I was the referee chief because I was busy with my dental practice. Three or four years later we had some problems with the Swiss Ice Hockey Federation and some problems with money. Nobody wanted to be the head of the Swiss Federation, and they asked me to do it. In my first or second IIHF congress, I had a big clash with Gunther Sabetzki. He was president at that time. Then the delegates put me on the council in Colorado Springs in ’86. I was in charge of the referees in the IIHF. Then I was elected in Venice in 1994. I was 44 when I started as president. And now it’s 25 years later.

GR: You know, I was at the game in Zurich in 2009 when the Zurich Lions beat the Chicago Blackhawks. Do you remember that? The crowd went completely nuts. They were out of their minds. There was this incredible energy from the fans. The Zurich Lions had beaten the Chicago Blackhawks. When the NHL interacts with Europe, do you think that’s a good thing for European hockey?

RF: Yes. You know, Gary (Bettman) doesn’t like the idea of the Stanley Cup winner playing a European league winner. There is some prestige where if (the NHL) loses, they lose more than just the game. In the end, it’s just a game, nothing more. You remember the 1972 Summit Series, that was the start between Europe and North America, Canadian hockey and the Soviet Union. Vladislav Tretiak once told me, “Rene, the ’72 series is so big and so important over there because the Canadians won. Could you imagine if we had won that game? In Canada, nobody would talk about it.” It’s very interesting. It was so close.

That was the beginning between the competition between North America and Europe. I would like to continue that. I’ve spoken with Gary many times about that, and Gary has maybe too much to lose compared to what we have to lose. I can understand that. But never forget that it’s a game, it’s a sport. Chicago against Zurich, if they played 10 games or even 20, Chicago would maybe lose once. But it was exactly that one time. (Winning) was so important to the fans in Zurich. There was this emotion, this special thing that gives that moment the fans love. That’s why we have the best game in the world.

GR: You’re a proponent of more international play involving the NHL, at the Olympics and so forth. We met at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. It was a very good showing. It was hockey…

RF: At its best.

GR: Yes, it was hockey at its best. Women’s and men’s. Do you see a time when that will be the norm or will it be a renewed conversation every four years?

RF: You should ask Gary. We have to accept the situation. The sport here is a little different than what we have in Europe. In North America, before the sport, it’s a business, the dollars. That’s why (the NHL and NHL Players’ Association) have the CBA. The players protecting their rights and the owners protecting their rights, too. At the end it’s just a question of dollars. (The IIHF) has a different approach. For me, before the money, it’s about...is there emotion? Fun? Disappointment? The great moments when you score a goal, when you win. In the final in Vancouver, the winning goal scored by Sidney Crosby lit up all of Canada. This is unique. There are not of a lot things for human beings that can light up a country. This is the power of sport, of our game.

GR: That’s the reason for the IIHF to be in existence, to grow the game, get more participants, is that it?

RF: On one side we have the NHL, the creme de la creme, 900 players who are the best of the best. On our side we do the development, we do the education and we do it with volunteers. How many moms, dads, grandpas and grandmas are bringing their kids to the rink, especially in Canada or anywhere in Europe where we play hockey? Without this big group of people, the NHL wouldn’t exist.

So thanks to these people we have the NHL, and that’s OK. We need the balance there. The NHL could help a little bit more with that. When it comes to the Olympics, there’s a special momentum where we need to bring young boys and girls to the game. Sometimes my friend Gary thinks too much about the money and not about the development. But that is his job.

GR: The KHL just celebrated its 10th anniversary. Has it had a good impact overall on the game?

RF: For sure. We need a European league to be in competition with the NHL. I don’t like the idea of the NHL coming to Europe. I said (in December) “over my dead body,” and I still say this. Let us Europeans build our system in our culture, let the NHL be as it is. They have 100 years of history, they have the best arenas, they have the billions of dollars, they have the fans, it’s different. We should be in our European way of thinking and doing our game of hockey our way.

CHANGE IS COMING SOON

Rene Fasel has ruled the roost of the IIHF for a quarter of a century. But at some point in the near future, the president and Swiss national will step down. Who will replace him? That’s a fascinating question with multiple possibilities as an answer. Will the IIHF congress elect a Fasel favorite, a big-name candidate or someone who represents the smaller, non-traditional hockey nations? Keep in mind, Canada and Sweden have the same amount of votes as Kuwait or South Africa.

When the vote comes up, there will certainly be a lot of politicking and much thought put into what the IIHF of the future should be. Will there be more transparency and reform or the status quo? While Bob Nicholson and Franz Reindl appear to be the favorites for the next presidency, there are a number of names to consider.

1. Bob Nicholson
A vice-president on the IIHF council, Nicholson is also CEO and vice chair of the Edmonton Oilers (under the Oilers Entertainment Group). He’s a former president and CEO of Hockey Canada and seen as the best candidate thanks to his experience, political skill and hockey background. But his close ties to the NHL and North America are seen as liabilities by the rank-and-file members.

2. Franz Reindl
Some believe Reindl is Fasel’s favorite as a successor. Fasel has made the German very visible on the international stage recently, and Reindl has an extensive hockey background to rely on. A three-time Olympian as a player, Reindl used to be CEO of the German League (DEL) and has been president of the German Ice Hockey Association since 2014. He also sits on the IIHF council. Reindl’s only flaw is that some see him as too nice for the job. Could he really go toe-to-toe with Gary Bettman, for example?

3. Henrik Bach Nielsen
A virtual unknown when he was elected a decade ago, Bach Nielsen came in as a rebel who wasn’t afraid to ask questions and ruffle some feathers. But as time went on, he settled down and is now part of the fold on the IIHF council. President of the Denmark Ice Hockey Union since 2007, Bach Nielsen also has experience on the IIHF’s facility committee. The best entry on his resume was as chair of the 2018 World Championship, which was held in Copenhagen and Herning. That tournament was successful and profitable.

4. Petr Briza
A highly decorated international player, Briza was a star goaltender who suited up for the Czechs in three Olympics and seven world championships. After his playing career, he was GM and eventually owner of Sparta Prague. He became an executive member and vice-president of the Czech Ice Hockey Association in 2008 and, like Bach Nielsen, was initially a rebel at the IIHF, particularly when it came to NHL transfer payments to European club teams. The 2015 World Championship in Prague and Ostrava, which broke attendance records, was his crowning achievement to date.

5. Sergej Gontcharov
The youngest candidate in the field at 35, Belarusian Gontcharov is an interesting dark horse to watch. A rising council member who grew up in Germany, Gontcharov is a smart sports politician who has worked with the national programs of Russia, Ukraine’s Olympic committee and, of course, the Belarusian Ice Hockey Association. His ace in the hole is the fact he represents a smaller hockey nation. When it comes time to vote, the smaller countries may stick together – and there are a lot of them in the IIHF. – Ryan Kennedy

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