Different Cultures

It's a terminology Canadians are pretty used to dealing with, but if IIHF President Rene Fasel is to be believed, what we're seeing being aired out at the World Hockey Summit is a difference of hockey cultures. 

"My message is to North America: you’re not alone in the world. Europe exists on the other side of the ocean. We need to work together: the NHL, the leagues, the clubs, the federations. It’s not money that runs us [at the IIHF]. It’s passion."

"There are 500 million people in the European community, different languages, different cultures, different view of sport. It's different," said Fasel. "Let us do the job in Europe and in the end let us come together. Keep our identity in Europe, you keep your identity here." - Courtesy of Yahoo UK

While the IIHF is trying to play up the purity of their pursuit, it's important to keep in mind the thought process that brings these kinds of statements to the forefront.  The IIHF runs a lot of hockey tournaments that don't make any money.  In fact, they're money sinkholes.  How much money is the IIHF losing by hosting 4 different world championship tournaments devoted to women's hockey at the senior level next year?  They have to pay for use of the facilities, the referees, various event staff, all to generate interest in the sport and try and give an avenue for competition that wouldn't otherwise see it.  So when Brian Burke spouts off on the little money the top players get for participating in the men's World Championships, you get an idea as to why that is:

"I think they got $1,000 for 22 days of work last year. They got one business-class ticket to bring over their wife, or a parent, or a brother – they didn't bring their families over unless they reached into their own pockets and paid for it. These guys are volunteers. Everyone makes money off of these tournaments except the players."

The World Championships subsidize a lot of events that wouldn't otherwise occur.  The hosts get the money, distribute half the profits to the various national federations, and the IIHF uses the money to help fund the next year of tournament hockey, and there's a heck of a lot of those out there

We don't know exactly what the IIHF's books are like.  That investigation hasn't yet happened.  We aren't even sure what kind of salary "The Dentist", Rene Fasel, draws.  Clearly, there is a mandate by the IIHF to grow the game.  We're just unsure how well of a job they're doing, and if there current strategy is the best method for doing so. 

European hockey leagues are built to climax with international competitions.  Top players are expected to participate in these events, as they draw more attention than the domestic leagues do.  The NHL is on a different model, and North American hockey can largely survive without seeing best on best international competition every year.  But there's certainly a balance out there that can be found, both in club play and international tournaments, to ensure hockey can gain a prominent place in the global sports scene. 

There have been some fantasies amongst hockey fans of a global hockey league, whether it is feasible or not.  On Tuesday, IIHF President Rene Fasel claimed that if that were to happen, it wouldn't be under the NHL banner.

"I don’t think an NHL division in Europe would fly," said Fasel. "If they have a lot of money to invest, they could try, but as long as I’m sitting in my chair, I would never allow it to happen...  I will fight like hell and not allow anybody to come from abroad."

Such is how the afternoon of the World Hockey Summit started, as European hockey issues took center stage.  The Fasel question and answer session was followed up by a panel on Junior Hockey Development in the World that was dominated by European federations airing grievances about the CHL Import Draft.  But Fasel's statements didn't get into that issue too much, so we'll focus this article on the other issues he addressed, mainly related to international comeptition.

Fasel went on to explain that the economic collapse of 2008 had really affected European club hockey, leading to the cancellation of the Champions Hockey League, and the subsequent loss of sponsorships that has put many clubs in danger as a result.  Clearly, Fasel's focus, despite the 'International' title of his organization, is squarely on Europe.  And with that in mind, he's looking at building upon the current structure that has existed for over a century on the continent.

The concept of a United Hockey Europe arose at last year's IIHF Semi-Annual Congress in September 2009.  A league where half the teams belong to what is currently the Kontinental Hockey League, with two more divisions placed in the Nordic Countries (Finland, Sweden, Norway, potentially Denmark), and another division for central European clubs (Germany, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria).  In the IIHF's minds, the winner of this European super league would eventually play the North American champion (i.e. the Stanley Cup Champion) for the Victoria Cup.  It's a Champions League gone global, with teams spanning the three major hockey playing continents competing for ultimate glory.  Such a vision doesn't require NHL expansion overseas, but rather uses the current infrastructures to allow Europe to potentially catch up, or make more money off of what they currently have. 

It's important to note that not everyone in Europe is behind Fasel on this, but for now, it's a non-issue.  There aren't enough arenas that could host NHL teams.  There's one in Stockholm, possibly two in Germany, one in Switzerland, one in Prague, one in London and one in Belarus that could seat 15,000 to 20,000 people.  It'd be a hodgepodge of support, not enough to sustain a whole division or conference.

Yesterday, former Swiss bench boss (and new Edmonton Oilers assistant coach) Ralph Krueger suggested further increasing the international workload, with a World Cup every 4 years (spaced 2 years after the last Olympics), continued NHL Olympic participation, and a World Championship every year as currently stands.  He also brought up the idea of having a U23 division of the World Championship program, which would take the place of the World Championships during an Olympic year.  Bill Daly, NHL Vice-President, was open to the idea of a U23 competition, but feels that top NHL players can't be asked to participate in the World Championships every year as well as Olympic and World Cup participation on top of their demanding 82 game NHL schedule (plus four rounds of playoffs) for fear of burnout.  The European hockey model is based on under 60 games of regular season play, keeping players fresh for the World Championships. 

What's the best way to accomplish such a feat?  It's hard to know what kind of money both the NHL and IIHF could make if they partnered on a true, genuine World Cup format.  I'm not talking about a model where the final is held in North America every year, but one where nations bid to host the event much like the current World Championships.  Could such an event ease the burden that the World Championships currently have on the players? 

There's clearly a cultural divide here, not to mention a continental one.  Will anything change as a result of all this?

By the way, that 2011 World Cup of Hockey?  Forget about it.  The NHL and NHLPA believes that it couldn't be organized for even 2012.  So at best, we're looking at 2016 for the relaunch of the event...  a 12 year gap.  Clearly, things weren't moving very well before this Summit.  We can only hope things will move once the dust has settled on the past few days.

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