TORONTO – International Ice Hockey Federation president Rene Fasel took a detour from his otherwise diplomatic path midway through a question-and-answer session on Tuesday, offering a stern rebuttal when the moderator asked about the possibility of the NHL trying to establish a division in Europe.
“Try to come,” Fasel said flatly. “Good luck.”
It was the most defiant declaration on a day filled with European concerns at the world hockey summit, with North American hockey institutions raised as both important allies and potential dangers to the global game. The NHL and the CHL, its junior counterpart, were accused of over-fishing in foreign talent pools.
Delegates assembled around more than 45 tables on the covered arena floor at the Air Canada Centre, and the audience included notable spectators such as Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke and Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson.
“This is our territory and I will fight like hell to not allow anybody to come from abroad,” Fasel said. “I think in Europe we are strong enough to do something on our own, and then have the competition between Europe and North America. That makes the fan happy.”
The long-time international executive then invoked the most sacred sporting moment in Canadian history, pointing to the excitement raised when Canada faced the Soviet Union in 1972 as a reason to avoid homogenizing the sport.
“I don’t think that an NHL division in Europe would fly,” Fasel said. “If they have a lot of money to invest, they could try. But as long as I’m sitting in my chair, I will never allow that.”
He also made the case for the NHL to commit its players to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, referring to the Games in Vancouver as the “best-ever tournament.”
“Everybody in the world knows the NHL is at the Olympics,” Fasel said. “And this is the best promotion for the league, and it’s also the best promotion for the game and also for the players.”
Fasel recalled how he had begun to dream of the NHL sending its players to the games in 1992, when NBA superstars such as Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson led the U.S. to a glittering gold medal win in Barcelona. He said he was “nearly crying” when the NHL followed suit six years later, in Nagano, Japan.
“I would say that this summit here in Toronto is an important part of going to Sochi,” Fasel said. “We’re doing that for the fans at the end, not only for nice buildings or TV or the media.”
The summit had opened Monday night with a series of so-called “Hot Stove” panels at the Hockey Hall of Fame. It continued into the second of its four days of sessions with a discussion on player development Tuesday, featuring a plea from Dr. Mark Aubry, the IIHF’s chief medical officer, to increase the age at which players are allowed to bodycheck.
Fasel spoke after a lunch break, and was followed by a panel discussion on junior development in the hockey world. And that panel was stirred to life by an impressive presentation by Slavomir Lener, director of national teams in the Czech Republic.
With terms such as “European demoralization,” and “mass migration” used to drive home his point, Lener said the Czech and Slovak feeder systems have been struggling to replace players lured to North America by agents and the lure of an NHL contract. He said many of those players never reach their full potential because they leave home before they are ready.
“We should really pay attention to it,” Lener said. “Even the managers from the NHL, they see it: There are no more players coming from the system of Czechs and Slovaks, you don’t see any more of the players like Jagr, Hossa, Gaborik, Hasek …”
He pointed to the Czech Republic’s struggles at the world junior tournament, where the country has not won gold in nine years, and where it has not even made the podium in five years. Slovakia has not been on the podium since it won bronze 11 years ago.
Lener said 31 players selected in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft were trained and schooled in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. After a decade spent bleeding talent to the North American junior system, he said only one was taken in that same draft earlier this year.
Players who leave homebefore they are ready rarely become fully formed players, he said, calling them “hybrids,” comprised of aspects from both the European and North American style of play.
He said players should delay their move across the ocean until they are 19 or 20 years old, and that 10,000 hours of practice at home would better prepare them to play in the NHL.
“I’m not saying that we would ban the players from coming over here,” Lener said. “We have to create the environment for them to stay there as long as possible, and give them the best chance possible to come over here as ready players.”
The NHL will have its voice heard on Wednesday, when commissioner Gary Bettman assumes Fasel’s chair for his own question-and-answer session.
“I would say that we are successful because the people are here, discussing, bringing the problems on the table,” Fasel said. “We have good people here … it shows that there is a wish to work together.”
– with files from Gregory Strong of The Canadian Press.