International Ice Hockey Federation President Rene Fasel had started thumping the war drums on Tuesday when he warned the NHL that they would expand to Europe “over his dead body”.
During that same question and answer session with TSN’s Gord Miller he called for professional hockey players to play at the 2014 Winter Olympics at Sochi, Russia.
Wednesday morning there was an evaluation of the 2010 Olympics, with Fasel, Vancouver Organizing Committee CEO John Furlong and International OIympic Committee member Timo Lumme speaking about the great success and popularity of hockey at this year's Games.
All three emphasized that the 114 million worldwide viewers of the USA-Canada men’s hockey final had been drawn, in part, by the fact that it was a best-on-best game that featured NHLers.
After the keynotes were done, Miller, acting as moderator, allowed IIHF member Igor Kuperman, sports marketing guru Brian Cooper, Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland, Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson and New Jersey Devils captain Jamie Langenbrunner to respond.
Not surprisingly, all five panellists supported the NHL’s return to the Olympics, with only Holland showing any kind of hesitation. The successful GM had many concerns about scheduling and injury issues affecting the success and health of his professional club.
When discussion broke out amongst the hundreds of delegates in attendance, there was an easy consensus that the NHL and Olympics need each other for the fans and the good of the game.
After lunch, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman had a Q+A with TSN’s Pierre Maguire. During the interview Bettman repeatedly said there were pros and cons to sending his players to Sochi.
“We haven’t said ‘no,’” said Bettman. “And anybody who suggests that we’ve made a decision or suggests I’m anti-Olympics doesn’t get it, because what we’ve been simply saying is, ‘it’s a mixed bag.’”
Bettman stressed that he was commissioner when the NHL first started playing in the Olympics at Nagano, Japan, four cycles ago and that he has always been interested in exposing the sport to as many people as possible.
Many had expected that Bettman’s half-hour session was going to be the most heated event of the day. However, it was the follow-up discussion of a Global Event Agenda that was really contentious.
Moderated by Darren Dreger, the panel began with a thoughtful presentation by Edmonton Oilers associate coach Ralph Krueger, who had served as head coach of the Swiss national team at the Vancouver Olympics.
Krueger proposed a new schedule for international events, featuring the Olympics every four years, a World Hockey Championship during the intervening years and an under-23 world championship during Olympic years.
He also suggested that the Victoria Cup, an annual club championship between two European teams and two NHL teams, should be revived.
Miller then opened the floor to the panel of NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly, Kontinental Hockey League President Alexander Medvedev, Team USA and Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke, NHL alum Anders Hedberg, former NHL goaltender and prominent NHLPA member Glenn Healy, NHLPA representative Mike Ouellet and IIHF member and broadcaster Paul Romanuk.
Although things began reasonably as each panellist said their piece, Fireworks ensued when they had the chance to rebut each other.
Generally speaking, Burke and Daly presented the case for the NHL staying out of the Olympics, highlighting that it put teams’ assets – the players – at considerable risk of injury. They were also concerned that the interruption in the professional season damaged the momentum of small-market teams.
“The Olympics don’t hurt the Toronto Maple Leafs, it doesn’t hurt our business model,” said Burke, the former GM of the Mighty Ducks. “But in Anaheim it does. In Nashville, it does. In Florida, it does.”
They were opposed by Healy and Ouellet, who as representatives of the players’ association, felt that their constituency should be allowed to play when and where they wanted, and that practically all NHLers would love to play at the Olympics.
Panellists outside of the labour politics of the NHL like Medvedev, Hedberg and Romanuk also chimed in with their concerns, although all three were adamant that the Olympics should be a “best-on-best” tournament.
The debate laid bare many of the tensions at the highest levels of hockey.
Everything from the ongoing labour disputes between the NHL and NHLPA, the lack of communication between the NHL and IIHF, the competing styles and values of European and North American hockey as well as the emergence of the KHL as a threat to NHL supremacy were all on display.
There were many dramatic moments, including Healy wondering aloud why Burke cared so much about when the World Hockey Championships were scheduled, since the Maple Leafs are always available when the tournament begins in April.
Alliances also shifted quickly in the swirling debate. When a doctor from the IIHF spoke from the floor to correct Healy’s impression that the quality of medical care provided at the Olympics is sub-par, the former Toronto goaltender saw his nemesis Burke leap to his defence.
Similarly, when another delegate called out Burke and Daly saying that it was a simple issue and that he was sick of hearing excuses about NHLers playing in the Olympics, Ouellet and Healy both allowed that it was a complex issue.
Burke was the most energetic debater throughout, taking on all comers from the stage and the floor of delegates, although Daly, Ouellet and Healy were very active as well. It was an exciting and intriguing show that had delegates buzzing for the rest of the day.
Today’s topics will be Women’s Hockey in the morning and Growing Participation. It’s hard to imagine that those panels will be nearly as heated, but you never know.