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IIHF Annual Congress Issues

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Every year, concurrent with the IIHF World Championship, the member nations get together and decide upon major issues upcoming in the international hockey world. Even though I'm all the way over here on the Canadian prairies, I can give you a bit of an outline on what they will be discussing.

New Memberships

The IIHF is currently made up of 51 full members, 15 associate members and 3 affiliate members. These 69 different governing bodies don't encompass the full range of countries with hockey programs, and if a country wants to participate in any competitions, or get greater access to any of the training/coaching guides the IIHF makes available they have to submit an application. There are some jurisdictions that are involved that you wonder why they are there at all, as Azerbaijan hasn't been known to have any hockey program since declaring independence, although there is apparently something happening now on that front. And then there are known programs with known national teams that have yet to gain membership. I don't know who is applying at this point in time, but possibilities include Algeria, Tunisia, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, and Kyrgyzstan. The still young 21st century has seen hockey take some formative roots in North Africa and the Middle East, while Kyrgyzstan made an impressive debut at the Asian Winter Games this past year.

Another issue could be disciplinary actions against current members. The IIHF wasn't too pleased with North Korea pulling out of the World Championship program this past year at the last minute (at the Men's, Women's and U18 levels), especially with the national men's team not participating at all in any tournaments, skipping the Asian Winter Games as well. Mongolia was also a late pull-out from Division 3 competition this past year. Meanwhile, domestic issues in Greece and Ireland really hindered their programs this year, as Ireland essentially didn't have a league or arena to play in while personal issues essentially led to the banning of the entire Greek national team, to be replaced by a whole new less experienced and less talented squad. Also, Armenia remains on suspension for using illegal players for a second time in 2010, though it is doubtful their re-admittance will be explored this year.

Decisions on Future Hosts

The admittance and disciplinary actions often involve the smallest federations, while the big boys wait out to try and impress their brethren with presentations on how awesome of a party they are planning for a few years down the line. Hosting for the 2016 World Championship is going to be determined, and the IIHF has an article devoted to the bids. Denmark is promising the highest profit, splitting the hosting duties between Copenhagen and Herning. Copenhagen would covert their national football stadium into a 15,000 seat hockey arena, playing under a retractable roof, while Herning has a fairly new 10,000 seat arena that would be used as the secondary venue. Russia is bidding with a joint Moscow/St. Petersburg bid, which would be the first time Russia would host the World Championships in two different regions. A new high speed train service, plus regular connecting flights between the cities, makes the idea feasible, if not desirable. Of course, Russia's well known hockey experience makes them a strong contender. There's a feeling that once every ten years, the top European nations should each get a shot at hosting, and it'll be 9 years from Russia's last successful hosting job in 2007. Ukraine is also bidding for the games, and while they will offer the newest facilities with a brand new arena in Kiev slated to open by 2015, the country is currently not even in the elite group, finishing 3rd in their Division 1B tournament this past year.

I'd be surprised if Ukraine won the bid as a result. I think this is a battle between new and old with Denmark and Russia, and I'm thinking that Denmark will be the favourite here, as the country continues to make its mark on the international stage. Other hosting sites will be looked at, and some approved, for next year at the lower levels for the U20s, Men's, Women's, and U18s. Final approval for some of the venues will be done by September.

Format and Rule Changes

It's been fairly well publicized that there will be a format change for the next season at all levels of international hockey. Rather than creating two equal tournaments in terms of strength (Division 1A and 1B, etc.), the IIHF will move back to more well defined competitions between each other's nearest competition. I don't know if this will involve dropping the 'A and B' tags completely like the women's tournaments do (which go from Div I to Div V), but it will essentially re-order the current competition levels into groups of six (below the top group), rather than groups of twelve. The top group, meanwhile, will change as well, though this only affects the Men's Championships: Instead of four groups of four, next year's World Championships will see two groups of eight teams do a full round robin. This makes it easier for organizers to plan the events and promote the games, while it also makes it less likely to see upsets. Indeed, the importance of a single game at a key time should be diminished, making the tournaments a bit more predictable. That's a good thing for the top teams, although it will involve playing one extra game, which will probably be seen as a good thing for the middle and lower tier nations.

These changes will be reviewed, and officially teams will be assigned to their new divisions as a result. There will also be proposals made for rule changes, and votes made, but probably nothing major will be decided upon.

Updates on Future Events

This is the first annual congress since last year's World Hockey Summit in Toronto, so there might be some ideas that were bandied about there that will be acted upon. Updates on the progress of European women's hockey programs, various tournament hosting committees, and maybe even some updates on the arena construction in Sochi will be brought up. Another idea that came about from the World Hockey Summit is the Junior Hockey World Cup, featuring the top junior club teams from around the world. It hasn't quite worked out as planned for Omsk, which hoped to see the Memorial Cup Champions being sent over, but Hockey Canada is sending a Jr. A team over instead: the Fort McMurray Oil Barons of the Alberta Junior Hockey League. While its a start, it is disappointing that Hockey Canada couldn't at least send this year's RBC Cup Champions, the Pembroke Lumber Kings of the CJAHL. Hopefully this is just a temporary solution for Hockey Canada, and in the future it will be the RBC Champions that go. The Canadian Hockey League and Hockey Canada aren't the same entity by any stretch, but one would hope the CHL would like to reciprocate the goodwill the Russian federation offers from sending over a Jr. Selects team to compete against CHL All-Star teams every November. No word on an American team being sent over as of yet, though one would assume either the USHL Champions or the USNTDP U-18 program could be sent.

There is also the matter of the 2014 Olympic qualification format. For 2010, the IIHF set up levels of tournaments that allowed any of the top 30 ranked nations as of 2008 to potentially qualify for the Olympics on the men's side, while they had two levels for women's qualification. The IIHF will have to decide whether to expand or contract this format. One thing is for sure: they'll have to make sure South Korea is involved. There is a real issue with the points system in how it consistently rewards teams that were top 30 the last time the Olympic qualification tournament was held... and right now South Korea is technically outside the top 30, despite winning a bronze medal at the Division 1 level this past year. I'll explain this further after the World Championships when I do a full "Olympic Points" breakdown. It also adversely affects other nations, though not to the degree that South Korea is affected. They will also have to confirm that the top 9 men's teams and top 7 women's teams will be automatically qualified for the tournament, as they were for 2010.

The Annual Congress starts on Thursday and lasts through Saturday.