The 20-year president of the IIHF sat down to talk with The Hockey News about the challenges the game of hockey faces, the growth of the game in Asia, NHL participation at the Olympics, educating players and his own plans for the future.
Rene Fasel has been president of the IIHF since 1994, but the soon-to-be 64-year-old (his birthday is this Thursday) is still going strong as head of the international federation.
Graduating as a Doctor of Dentistry in 1977, Fasel – a Switzerland native – played and officiated hockey for more than 20 years before turning his focus to governing the game. In ’94 he succeeded Gunther Sabetzky as the IIHF head and most recently won re-election in 2012. His current term ends in 2016 and though Fasel has thought about stepping down, he has no concrete plans to do so as of yet.
Fasel talked to THN in November about his achievements, the biggest challenges that lay ahead, his own future plans, and more. A portion of this interview appeared in the Chasing Glory edition of THN magazine and with the Sochi Games right around the corner, here is the expanded edition.
RB: What are your hobbies? Away from the game do you ski, travel, play pickup hockey?
RF: My hobby is gardening when I’m at home. I really like that. But I have not really time to have a real hobby like golf or travelling. I actually have no time. I’m lucky that my job is like a hobby. I work and I have a great hobby. That keeps me young. I do not really need an escape to something else because I love so much what I’m doing.
RB: You used to referee hockey years ago, do you ever get the itch officiate at some minor hockey level again?
RF: No, but I would say most of my job is being a referee – making the decision when people are not coming together and nobody knows where to go. I’m not on the ice, but part of my job is to make a decision, to blow the whistle. To get people to follow the rule and go in the right direction. I broke my knee 20 years ago pretty badly skiing and since then I don’t go on the ice too much. But I can skate and when I have the opportunity I do that, but I’m not looking for that. I’m happy when I can do it, not more.
RB: I know you also practiced dentistry, do you still have an interest in that or is it something you left in your past long ago?
RF: Actually I’m part of the IOC medical commission, so I’m a little bit closer to medical challenges. I’m working with a Canadian dentist, Paul Piccininni here in Toronto, and he is in charge of the dental chairs in the Olympic village and making the dental program. We do that together. We started in Nagano in 1998 where we started to make some studies. I made my thesis also on Olympic Game dentistry. So I’m still part of that. I was working very hard to study to be a dentist and worked 17 years as a dentist in my office in Fribourg and then I decided to do just hockey. I’m lucky having my job being a hobby and my hobby being a job.
RB: In 1994 you became president of the IIHF. What are you most proud of accomplishing in your time?
RF: Five times having the NHL come to the Olympics – I would say this is really big. Women’s hockey at the Olympics, I was part of the decision-making in the early ‘90s to have women in Nagano. That I would say is the most important. And the rest I think people will say when I leave.
RB: And that must have been a tough sell. North America is one thing, but when you’re trying to get the NHL to go to Japan in the middle of the season…
RF: We were lucky. We went to Salt Lake City and Vancouver, that makes it much, much easier. Torino I would say out of the five was the most difficult as the decision was made very late. We were not prepared to bring them over. Torino was not a great experience for them since the decision was made so late. Not easy.
RB: Do you get the sense the NHL will keep going back, or will it be a struggle to keep their participation?
RF: It depends how it will work in Sochi. We worked very, very, very hard to make everything very convenient for the guests, players, responsible people in the NHL, everything, that we will have as good a tournament as we had in Vancouver. The environment is different than in Vancouver, but we will have great hockey games for sure. Make a great show and let the people feel great as well. We will work hard on that and hope under that same wave to bring them to PyeongChang.
RB: What do you think are the biggest hurdles to establishing better competition in the women’s game beyond just Canada versus the USA and what is the IIHF doing to address them?
RF: The fact is, we have many more players in Canada and the USA than in Finland, Sweden. When you go on the ice and you have a selection where you can take 22 hockey players out of 800,000 playing or 80,00 playing…it’s a challenge that makes a difference. We still struggle with the boys because of costs and safety. European Federations are fighting to keep numbers as they are now, but to keep them on this level is not so easy. On the other side, they concentrate so much on the boys they forget about the girls. There’s also a lack of money there so they put the priority on the boys not the girls. It will always be a challenge. Also, women’s team sport in general in Europe doesn’t rank very high in the interest of the people.
RB: How far back would the women’s game be set if it were to be taken out of the Olympics?
RF: I cannot imagine the IOC would take women’s hockey out of the program. That would be against one of the very basic principles to promote women’s sport around the world. I simply cannot imagine that. The arguments to keep them in the Games are much easier to make than the ones to take them out. So if you want to take them out you must have a very, very, very, good argument. And I do not think they will find that. I will fight very hard to keep women’s hockey in the Olympics. You can trust me on that.
RB: Is there something you wished you had accomplished by now that you haven’t yet?
RF: I think one of the concerns I have is in the past 20 years the game is much faster. And the seriousness of the injuries is a bigger concern than it was in the past. You remember the time when the players played without helmets and the goalies without face masks? You cannot imagine that today. The guys are bigger, better prepared, better equipment and concussions, head injuries is the biggest challenge we have in the future. And I’m happy the NHL has started to fight against head checking. But still we have too many concussions. What to do in the future, that needs a discussion with a debate with the PA, NHL and us and how can we really face that challenge. We need to protect the players.
The other thing that’s a challenge is our game is too expensive. It’s a rich man’s game. Even in Canada. I’m always surprised when I see how cheap your equipment is here, the skates, the sticks, the gloves. When you compare the prices to Europe, skates, they’re half price here. Still very expensive, but they’re half price here compared to Europe. That’s one of the concerns. To grow the game is not so easy. We are a special northern hemisphere sport, we are not present enough in South Africa, southern hemisphere, we have Australia and New Zealand. Asia is the future market and I’m really looking forward to trying to convince Gary to come to Korea (2018 Olympics). Huge market. Most of the population on Earth lives in Asia with China, India, Japan. It’s a good economic place. So, I would say to grow our game, Asia should have our priority. China is bidding for 2022. And having a strong China in ice hockey would lead to a strong Asia in ice hockey. It also will help the growth of the game globally. It would help the NHL with its brand exposure in that part of the world where there’s some potential of buying merchandising, watching the NHL. I would say that’s very important.
RB: What is the IIHF doing to try and expand hockey’s presence in these Asian markets?
RF: We elected last year a very young Hong Kong Chinese, Thomas Wu (vice president), who has a big passion for our game. He studied in North America, actually he was in Stanford, and he started to play hockey here in North America. We have a so-called Asian office in Hong Kong where we help the Asian Federation to improve involvement programs, advise, training camps, games and everything like that. I’m very focused on China, having discussions with the sports minister there, trying to convince him to start the program. We have only 500 registered hockey players in China. 500! In a country of 1.4 billion people. They have ice rinks, but they use it for short track (speed skating) and figure skating, where they make their medals. The Chinese delegation in London that made most of the medals in the Olympic Games, none came in a team sport. So team sport is not really very popular in China.
RB: With so much information available now about head injuries and their long-term effects on players, especially kids, how do you convince parents to still enroll their children in this game?
RF: There’s nothing to do more than just protect the safety and health of our players. The rules are very important. When something is happening, how you suspend is important. This is two ways to prevent. Education is key, especially in youth. Not having bodychecking in youth hockey is I think a very good point to make. Hockey is a body contact game, but it’s not a game where you have a free ticket or license to go on the ice and nearly kill somebody. It is not. Hockey to me has another meaning. I would say putting the rules together and giving the coaches a better education on how to educate players and teach them respect, this will help make our game safer. We will never avoid accidents. We have a contact sport where the speed is very high, but we should not have a game where people think they can act like a Roman Gladiator.
RB: So much about improving this comes back to coaching at the grassroots level…
RF: It is. They have a very huge responsibility. On our side, we have to put our rules together. We have our rule changes in May after our rule congress and we have people working with experts to have a look at how we can reduce the speed. Bringing back the red line offside is one of the questions we will consider. Some people are even asking if we do not allow bodychecking in the neutral zone. Statistically we have most of our injuries in the neutral zone where the speed is very high. The higher the speed the more severe the injury. Like a car. But it’s the best game in the world, we also have to protect our game. Not to have a chicken game. Hockey is great because there is this body contact, this fight to it. But we have to do the best to protect the players.
RB: And that’s the challenge, isn’t it? How do you balance the skill with the toughness?
RF: That’s the fight everyday. Coaches are very, very important at all levels to control the game with the referees and rules. Coaches are key in this. When I hear a coach say “kill him” I have a problem.
RB: What did you think of the CHL’s decision to ban European goalies from their drafts?
RF: I’m not so in favor of bans, but I can understand. We have the same in Europe where some federations have limitations on imports. There’s always a reason. Since many, many years ago I’ve spoken with Canadian and American responsible people and especially so with Gary (Bettman) “why do you need to take so many players out of Europe?” Let them maybe play and grow and get mature before you take them. We lose every year about 60 going to sign an NHL contract. Between 40 and 60 depending on the year. Only a few of them can play in the NHL. The rest are more or less disappearing. It’s a big loss for Europe, big loss for hockey.
On one side is the business and people just using people like a piece of material. They want to view them, take them, try them. And there is only a few chances for them to be successful. They do the same more or less in Europe, where we have the best soccer league in the world. Same situation with best hockey players in North America. So a lot of Africans or South Americans are coming to sign contracts and they are also disappearing. If you’re not really good and lucky you may get in trouble and go back as a loser. Now you maybe have alcohol problems, drug problems and all that. You take a young 17-year-old boy out of his environment, family and if there is not a good entourage for this boy or girl, he could really be in trouble.
RB: The best route to the NHL or wherever isn’t the same for everybody, though, so how do you ensure these young players get all the information they need to make the right career path choice?
RF: The agents need to take more responsibility on that. Some agents are just looking for money and don’t care about the player. I don’t know how we could control them. The agents should be more responsible for that. Not only when the player is 16 and 17, but afterwards when he’s finishing his career. When a player doesn’t make the NHL at 21, 22, 23 what do you do with him? He has no job, no skills, what do you do? You have to put him back in the social system. He’s not a Kleenex that you just throw away. The social impact…sometimes we just focus on the shiny part, on the guy making $10 million a year who drives the big car, but behind that, he is 1 of 100,000. What is happening with the 99,999? Did they find a way in society? Just to remember that we are living in a system that isn’t only shiny – there’s a dark side. The tons of money in the system, some of it should be used to re-insert the people back into our system. I would say this is one of my challenges I missed. Because you really tried to do something and this is so difficult. Think about the over 90 percent who missed. The dream not coming true, how can we really help them? Maybe when they play hockey they should get an education, learn a job so they can come back to the system. But many just play hockey. Some of them can’t even write their names and I’m sorry to say that, but it’s all they’ve known. Hockey, hockey, hockey. Then you get a bad injury, or you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time or you’re just not good enough. Boom. Done. What do you do now? We do not think enough on how to help these athletes and players and how we can bring them back to the normal system. We forget them. The money is there to help them.
RB: You’ve been president since 1994 – any plans for retirement?
RF: I’m discussing with my family, especially with my wife. On one side I will be 22 years president in 2016 and 66 (years old). So the age is not a big issue because normally people get elected as president in their late 50s early 60s. Generally I’m in favor of age limit and length of mandate. Mandate should be 16 years – we need some new blood coming in. I still have fun though. I feel I’m still young. But on the other hand, we have to think it over. Rene, do you do something good for the IIHF if you stay? Is that really good for the federation? Why not give someone else the opportunity and the chance to be president and give maybe a new direction? When you get older you get a little bit more stubborn because you tried maybe to do something five, six times and you know it doesn’t work. And if someone comes you say ‘I tried this 15, 20 years ago, and it doesn’t work.’ You know? This is wrong. You can do something if you really try to get it. I don’t know yet. To be honest, one day I’ll say no I’m retired. I will make my decision when the time comes. We have an age limit of 72 so under those rules I could run in 2016 and 2020. I will have to discuss that.
The other side is I will be a grandfather in March for the first time and you know, there are many hours spent on a passion you have. A lot of people do everything they can do for hockey and the family in the back is sometimes suffering. You know when you’re on the road, your wife is calling you and your child is sick or there’s been an accident and you sometimes want to go home a little longer and spend time with your wife, your family. I don’t know. I’m like this (motions hands up and down like a scale). One day it will go that way. I have to think about what’s best for not only me, but the federation. Maybe the best for the federation is that I don’t stay. But we have to find the crazy guy who is ready.
RB: Is there a succession plan when you do step down? Is there someone capable to step in to your job?
RF: I would say Bob Nicholson would be a very good candidate. The only issue is our federation is more a European Federation and with the NHL having a lot of power, and a North American president – do the Europeans really want to have a non-European president? I like very much to work with Bob, he did an exceptional job with Hockey Canada. Is he ready to move to Europe with his wife and maybe family? I don’t know. There are a lot of questions. Do we find a new system to work? Do we give people like Bob a bigger presence with maybe me in the back? I don’t know.
RB: After you step down as president, what do you think your life will be like? Would you want to somehow still be involved?
RF: My family would ask me “what are you doing here” after two weeks. I’m not scared. I’m easy. There are ways to work as a volunteer in the system. There are ways to continue to work. I have experience in sport and marketing so maybe people will ask for my help. I’m a good diplomat. I love to bring people together. I’m absolutely not scared I will have a boring retirement.
RB: Finally, for some time it had been rumored you were in the running to become president of the IOC, so when that didn’t come to fruition did it change the outlook of your future? Did it push you any closer to retirement?
RF: When people asked me to consider to run as IOC president, it was an honor. But then when I researched it and spoke to some important people in the IOC, the chances were actually very small as Thomas Bach did an excellent job working many years on this call. He has good qualities. When I analyzed all that I said no, I think it would be a big fight and I don’t need that. Thomas can be a good president so I decided not to run. You know your limit. This is my limit. I’m surprised I’m (IIHF) president this long. When I was a young guy our president (Gunther) Sabetzki, he was over 70, I said ‘what is this guy doing here? 19 years sitting on this chair. Hey go and move! Give the place to young people! Sport is for the young.’ And then one day my wife said ‘Rene, do you remember 20 years back what you said about the old guy up there…and now you are sitting in this chair how many years?’ It’s funny. Now I’m the old guy in the chair. Rene, hello. One day it stops. Like the game. Bang.
RB: At least you don’t have to make that decision today.
RF: No, but I will do that. And for the good of the game we should do that. We will see what the situation is, how my health is or, even if I’m still around. Maybe the Father will say ‘Rene, we have a hockey game we need you to ref.’