TORONTO – Two powerful men from opposite sides of the hockey world bumped into each other just outside the main conference room. They chatted for a few minutes as they walked down the hall, shook hands and demonstrated what organizers hope will be a lasting impact of the world hockey summit.
International Ice Hockey Federation president Rene Fasel would not have seen Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke until the next world championships, but they spent more than five minutes together in a lobby sprinkled with delegates from across the hockey world as the four-day event was drawing to a close.
“When we started to build the agenda, it was like herding cats with everybody,” Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson said during a break Thursday. “The sessions have been good, but more importantly, what’s happened in the hall—in the discussions and in the networking that’s gone on—has just been fantastic.”
Sessions began with a series of so-called “Hot Stove” panels on Monday night, and they continued through the week. Issues ranged from the NHL’s involvement in the Olympics to raising the age at which children are taught to bodycheck to the difficulty of retaining elite junior players in Europe.
None of the talk was binding, but it was a start, according to several high-ranking participants.
“I think we came in saying we didn’t expect anything to be enacted immediately, or come out of this,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said. “It was more a way of identifying issues and having discussion on those issues. My view is, over time, there will clearly be some things that were discussed at his conference that will happen in our league.”
One of the most contentious panel discussions unfolded on Wednesday afternoon, after NHL commissioner Gary Bettman had repeatedly described his league’s involvement in the Olympics as a “mixed bag.”
The discussion that followed included a series of colourful exchanges between panellists and delegates from the floor. The league’s concerns—which range from the television schedule to access to its players—were contrasted with the player and fan desire to renew the best-on-best showcase when Sochi hosts the Olympics in 2014.
“I’m happy that, now, we know where the issues are,” Fasel said on Thursday. “I would say a lot of them are easy to solve—very easy to solve—and I’m happy about that.”
He said his delegation will take a “couple of days” to digest information collected in Toronto.
The European agenda featured one of the most compelling presentations of the week, with a high-ranking official from the Czech Republic sounding the alarm over player development concerns. Slavomir Lener, director of the Czech national teams, said young players are being lured to North America before they have matured, harming their development and stunting the growth of the game in Europe.
“I always say, ‘We exist, and people love the game as much as you love,'” Fasel said. “Russia is a great hockey country. Finland? It’s like here in Canada. You smell hockey everywhere.”
The gathering had its roots in a summit hosted by Hockey Canada 11 years ago, after both the men’s and the women’s team washed out of the Winter Games without a gold medal. Nicholson said he would be open to a summit after the Olympics every four years, but added the idea had not been widely discussed.
More than 400 delegates gathered for sessions that were spread between a downtown hotel and the floor of the Air Canada Centre, which is usually home to the Maple Leafs. It was open to the public, but it was not cheap, with four-day passes priced at $450.
Sessions encouraged participation from the floor, which stoked some of the more fiery moments of the debate about the NHL’s participation at the 2014 Games. It also led to a handful of enlightening exchanges.
“I think I’ve heard a lot here which I hadn’t necessarily considered in a concrete way,” Daly said with a smile. “And I think some ideas are crazy. But that’s just me. Other ideas, I think, are very creative and could be very beneficial to hockey and to the National Hockey League.”
Daly and Burke attended both of the final two sessions on Thursday, which featured panel discussions on the need to spur global growth in women’s hockey, and the various ways of improving participation in the sport.
“We should never assume we do things right,” Burke said. “We should never assume that there’s not a better way to do things. The minute you do that, your product stops improving. So to me, if we can learn something from people from other parts of the world, that’s a positive.”