IIHF president Rene Fasel, also an IOC Executive Board member, is from Switzerland. (ATR)
(ATR) International Ice Hockey Federation president Rene Fasel tells Around the Rings he expects women's powerhouses U.S. and Canada to be challenged – but likely not before 2018 or 2022.
Around the Rings spoke with the Swiss IOC member twice: once before last month's world championship for women – won by Canada for the 10th time in 13 tries – and again as the men's edition got underway last week in Slovakia.
Read on for Fasel's take on the state of women’s ice hockey, whether NHL players will appear at Sochi and preparations for Innsbruck 2012.
Around the Rings:
The IOC is reportedly evaluating the viability of women’s ice hockey as an Olympic sport. What must the women’s game do to secure its place on the Olympic program throughout the future, and was last month’s world championship for women a boon or a curse in that regard?
Women's hockey and its development is currently one of our biggest priorities.
Accordingly, we have hired a new staff member of who will be dealing exclusively with our women's program, and with her help we have devised several new projects which shall help bring women's hockey to a more competitive level for the next Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.
But one must keep in mind that it is simply not possible to develop elite ice hockey athletes in a few months.
I am very happy that we could convince several member national associations to increase the support they provide for their women's programs, and we saw evidence of that through the scores, which included some upsets, during the recent World Women's Championship in Switzerland. The final four games of the tournament all went to overtime or shootout - that indicates that teams are becoming much more competitive throughout the ranks.
With the programs the IIHF will be starting this summer along with the added support from the National Federations, future World Championships and Olympic Games will see better and better competition.
2011 champion USA has won four world titles and one Olympic gold medal. Canada has won the rest, and Sweden is the only other country to even appear in a gold medal match. (IIHF)
We are not anticipating that all eight teams competing in Sochi will have equal chances to play for gold. In fact, if it is not Canada and the United States in that final game, it will be a surprise to the hockey world, but the IIHF and the IOC are well aware of this.
Frankly speaking, I believe that it will be 2018 and 2022 when the North American powerhouses will be truly challenged, but if the Sochi tournament is as exciting as what we witnessed [in Switzerland], everyone will be optimistic for the future of the sport.
Where do negotiations stand with the NHL and the NHLPA? Are you 100% confident NHL players will be in the Olympics?
Let me put it this way: by staging a world-class tournament every four years in February involving only the very best players, we are putting hockey on the map. That has an incredible impact, consequently attracting more players, fans and, eventually, people who are willing to re-invest into our sport.
The resulting benefits for ice hockey are undisputable and universal. Everybody gets a piece of the cake, not only the IOC or maybe the IIHF. The NHL gets its fair share and so does the NHLPA.
Look at the boost of attendance and viewership the NHL enjoyed in the period following Vancouver 2010. Their numbers hit an all-time high.
The next Collective Bargaining Agreement will determine whether NHL players appear in Sochi. (Getty Images)
I am not 100% sure that NHL and NHLPA will go to Sochi. This will first and foremost be decided in the collective bargaining between the league and the union.
But two things are for sure: all hockey fans around the globe wish a best-on-best tournament, and I will do everything I can to make this happen.
How are preparations coming for Innsbruck 2012 and Sochi 2014?
Here, we have two totally different situations.
The first Winter Youth Olympic Games in Innsbruck 2012, for which we have been preparing intensively for the last few months, will introduce a new “Skills Challenge” competition running parallel to the traditional tournament format. This way, more of our member nations have the opportunity to compete on the top level, and I trust this will be a success with both the players and the audience.
On the other hand, Sochi is a constant item on our daily agenda, even though it is now three years away.
I always say that after the Games is before the Games; the second we finish one Olympic tournament, we turn our full attention to the next Games. The Olympics are an extremely important platform to showcase ice hockey internationally, so it deserves our full focus.
An artist's rendering of Bolshoi Ice Palace, Sochi's venue for ice hockey. (ATR)
The Sochi venues are close to completion, and soon the first pucks will be dropped. There’s more than enough for us to do.
In terms of the 2018 race, what is your federation looking for in the bids from Munich, Annecy, and PyeongChang?
There are two things that are not up for discussion: safety of the players and integrity of the game.
All other matters around the tournament, be it transport, accommodation and other logistical issues can always be discussed and eventually resolved via a constructive and open dialogue.
It is my biggest concern to protect the players and ensure that the Olympic audience sees a tournament showcasing hockey as it is: a safe, fast and skillful game that is just spectacular to watch.
Anything else on IIHF’s radar at the moment?
Nothing more than at other times: striving to organize successful and smooth ice hockey tournaments worldwide and grow our sport in and around the Olympic Movement to the best of our means.
Interview conducted by Matthew Grayson.
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