My first experience of ice hockey politics came during a press conference in Sochi midway through the 2014 Winter Olympics, where world governing body chief René Fasel appeared alongside National Hockey League (NHL) Commissioner Gary Bettman.
Both men were tie-less and seemed intent on painting a picture of relaxed camaraderie between two old adversaries turned allies. But this did not stop ripples of tension occasionally coming to the fore, particularly when Fasel dared to claim that there is “nothing like winning an Olympic gold medal in the life of an athlete”.
“Nothing...except, perhaps, winning the Stanley Cup,” fired back a beaming Bettman, before his Swiss opponent, also smiling but with a slight gritting of teeth, had the final word: “Every year there is a Stanley Cup, every year a world champion but an Olympic gold medal is only every four years. Look at the faces of the players next Sunday when they get their gold medal. They will be so different."
The press conference proved embarrassing for me because I had been primed by my absent editor to ask “a very clever little question”. “Now that baseball could also be back in the Olympics,” I quizzed Bettman, “could you join up with Major League Baseball (MLB) to form some sort of collective bargaining bloc when participating at the Games?”
After receiving a look not dissimilar to how you would regard something unpleasant lurking on the bottom of your shoe, he fired back: “No, why would we do that? Next." I was not alone, as the similarly innocent question from the next journalist prompted a response of: “Do you know anything about hockey?” from the visibly riled New Yorker.
Fasel, in comparison, seemed the picture of calm; dealing with questions about whether NHL players would participate at the next Olympic Games in Pyeongchang four years later with the relaxed ease of someone with a lifetime’s worth of experience in the matter.
The 66-year-old has been President of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) since 1994 and was instrumental in hammering out the landmark deal which saw NHL professionals compete at the Olympic Games for the first time at Nagano 1998 - and at all four subsequent editions.
"I love to bargain with these people, it's fun to do that after every Olympics," he said in that same press conference. "It would be boring if we decide something for the next 10 years or 20 years - it's so nice to be with Gary and fight and have some discussions."
A year later and he appeared similarly confident when I briefly collared him during an International Olympic Committee (IOC) Coordination Commission inspection visit to Pyeongchang. "It is my job to work this out and I have been doing it for 20 years,” he said when predicting how consensus would eventually be reached.
For this reason I was surprised by his less confident approach when we spoke during the recent SportAccord Convention in Lausanne earlier this month. I told him I was most interested in asking about the upcoming World Championships in Russia as well as his re-election campaign, only for him to reply: ‘Well, don’t you want to speak about the Olympics first?”
"We had a meeting with the NHL last week and the prognosis is not really good,” he said in comments that can be read in full in our article last week. “Our wish is to have the best players. [But the IOC] not covering the cost as they did at the last five Olympic Games puts us in a difficult financial situation. We still have challenges - it is even more difficult than before."
The IOC’s decision to no longer pay transportation and insurance costs was cited as the main reason for these problems. But it is clear that the NHL are also lukewarm about the prospect of coming to South Korea, a country expected to open far less commercial opportunities than Sochi did in Russia or that a 2022 Olympics in Chinese capital Beijing would do.
Fasel expects the total transportation and insurance figure to come to around $10 million (£7 million/€9 million) this time around, a sum that does not appear particularly vast for an organisation with as much commercial clout as the NHL. This, therefore, appears more the icing on the cake, almost an excuse for the likes of Bettman to play hardball rather than the underlying cause for their apathy. Fasel, possibly, was deliberately trying to place this issue at the forefront in order to convince the IOC to change their mind.
Our conversation moves on, but he soon meanders back of his own accord. “There is nothing like the Olympics,” Fasel admits. “The Olympics is exceptional. We can, for sure, play without the NHL, we did for 70 years, but the reach will be very different.” It appears he is opening-up to the possibility for the first time in 24 years of an Olympic Games lacking the NHL superstars.
It would be foolish to write Fasel off at this point, however. No deal was struck for Sochi 2014, remember, until just seven months before the Opening Ceremony. A key point is that all stakeholders: IIHF, NHL, IOC and, most importantly, the players and fans, all ultimately want a solution to be found. Indeed, Washington Capitals captain Alexander Ovechkin, who carried the Olympic Torch in Ancient Olympia to become the first Russian flamebearer ahead of Sochi 2014, has vowed to compete in the Games even if there is no deal.
At the same time, though, many streaks in sport come to an end at some point, highlighted by how this season - for the first time in 46 years - there are no Canadian teams in the NHL playoffs.
Another issue seen by many as adding to the difficulty is the return of the NHL-organised but IIHF-sanctioned World Cup of Hockey after a 12-year absence. Teams from United States, Canada, Russia, Sweden, Finland and Czech Republic will feature at the event - due to take place from September 17 until October 1 - along with an “All-Star” group of young stars from North America and a team made up of players from the remaining European countries.
It will be held before the start of the NHL season, so disruption should be minimal, but would it not be too much to ask NHL players to participate in the Olympics as well? “The World Cup of hockey is not déjà vu and will be different from the Olympics and World Championships,” Fasel responded. “The selection of European players and the young North Americans will be very interesting, so it will be a huge show. I urge all hockey fans to go to Toronto in September, they will enjoy it so much. It is the number one city in the world for hockey.”
First held in 1996 to replace the now defunct Canada Cup, the World Cup is another event of the Fasel-era, which should be extended for another four years providing he is re-elected to his Presidential post for a sixth term at the IIHF Congress in Moscow on May 19. He is the only candidate so success is virtually guaranteed.
Born and raised in the Swiss town of Fribourg, Switzerland, Fasel studied locally and in Bern before completing his diploma in dentistry in 1977.
An ice hockey aficionado, he played for amateur team HC Fribourg Gottéron for 12 years before spending the next 10 as a top-class referee. After obtaining his licence in 1972, he officiated in 37 international matches. In 1985, the dentist shifted fully to the administrative ranks when becoming President of the Swiss Ice Hockey Association, and the following year he joined the IIHF leadership when he was elected as a member of the world body’s ruling Council. He then served as chairman in the IIHF Referee, Marketing and Women's Committees before replacing Günther Sabetzki as its President in 1994.
Until then, sport had been his “hobby”, but at that point he swapped around. “My hobby became my profession and my profession is now a hobby,” he explained.
He is still interested in dentistry, however, and was commissioned by the IOC in 1997 to conduct a study of dental treatment of Olympic athletes. A report, Sports Dentistry and the Olympic Games, was published in 2005, and three years later Fasel completed a doctoral thesis entitled: Analysis of oral pathology and therapeutic dental services performed in the Olympic Games to improve oral and dental care for athletes.
All of his surgical precision has been required to deal with a changing era of professionalism within his, and all other, sports.
“The internet coming in has meant huge changes in terms of TV and information,” Fasel claimed. “The sport has also changed, it is much faster now…and the money. This brings a positive but also a negative impact. And can sometimes even create a criminal tendency, because there is so much money around.”
Today the IIHF employs 28 staff and presides over an annual budget of around CHF 40 million (£28 million/$41 million/€36 million). In 1994 there were just four full-time staff and a budget of around only 20 per cent of that figure.
Fasel has a reach beyond ice hockey, having sat on the IOC Executive Board since 2008 and was once considered as a potential candidate to replace Jacques Rogge as President in 2013. He ultimately chose not to stand when realising how much support eventual election winner Thomas Bach had already.
“Governance is the word of today - it is used so much and no one really knows what it means,” Fasel said although this is not a subject over which he has a perfect record. In 2010 he was reprimanded by the IOC Ethics Commission in connection with a television and marketing rights deal struck by IIHF partner Infront Sport Media with Proc AG, a company run by a childhood friend.
He denied receiving anything personally from the deal, but acknowledged he should not have acted to help a friend's business. “Today, I realise that this likely was a case of poor judgment,” he admitted. “For this I apologise."
Infront, the firm headed by Philippe Blatter, nephew of Sepp, has retained its media and marketing partnership with the IIHF until the beginning of 2023.
“We need stronger Ethical, Athletes’ and Finance Commissions,” Fasel admitted. “We have to make the Athletes’ Commission more involved in the decision making process. That is one of my goals, I would love to have more former athletes involved. I would love to have it so, in the future, everybody involved in administration was a [former] top level player - they have a better understanding of the game. For me, this is key.”
Part of Fasel’s success, many believe, is his strong relationship with Russia and its President, Vladimir Putin. The edition opening in Moscow and St, Petersburg this week will mark the third World Championships on Russian ice under his watch, following an event in St. Petersburg in 2000 and another in Moscow and Mytishchi in 2007.
Putin, who was officially convened as Russian President one week before the final of the 2000 event on May 7, first met Fasel during that tournament.
“I was asked to do a toast at a function,” he explained. “But my translator had disappeared. ‘René, said Putin, I speak German - speak, and I can translate for you.'"
Their relationship has grown and developed since and Putin is expected to attend the Opening Ceremony and key matches during the World Championships.
Former Kontinental Hockey League chief Alexander Medvedev ruled himself out of running against Fasel for the IIHF Presidency this year after admitting there was “no sense” in entering the race due to the close relationship between him and Russia. Both Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko and Russian Ice Hockey Federation President chief Vladislav Tretyak publicly backed Fasel and Medvedev would have been reduced to running as a special member of the IIHF, rather than from Russian hockey’s governing body.
To my slight surprise, Fasel makes no qualms about this “special relationship” during our interview and is confident that the World Championships, for which 80 per cent of tickets have already been sold, will be a huge success.
“Russia is a hockey country,” he said. “Hockey is more important than football in Russia. Football is big, but hockey is national sport number one. This is helped by President Putin - loving the game as he does; playing the game as he does. He is a great sportsman and I have huge respect. I know him in a different way to how he is described in the west - he is a different person."
Fasel continued: “I love Russia and I consider myself a very lucky man that I can be in touch with different cultures. My job is to try to understand these differences. Sometimes we forget to speak about the values of sport. Today we speak about doping, corruption, match-fixing. But what is sport? Friendship, respect, excellence. We should never forget these three words.”
One of these words - doping – has come to the fore in recent weeks after the Russian under-18 ice hockey team were suspended following a glut of positive tests for meldonium, a substance only added to the banned list on January 1. News of this broke shortly before the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) announced a “clarification” - admitting that more research was required to ascertain whether some of those who failed only took the product - a heart attack drug with performance enhancing benefits - before it was outlawed.
“I have the same opinion as many others. I think it was a very fast decision of WADA to ban it without knowing the consequences it can have,” Fasel claimed. “We need to do research on whether, if you take it for 10 years, does it go away after two months? We do not have enough scientific studies. So, that’s what we need, and WADA is doing that now.”
A decision has not yet been made on what will happen to the Russian teenagers. “They reacted quite well,” according to Fasel, who believes they cannot “suddenly suspend a young 18-year-old with no evidence it [meldonium] is performance-enhancing when they maybe took it before [it was banned].”
But, at the same time, he remains sceptical. “Why should such young players be taking this sort of medicine in the first place? It is really strange.”
Two other major priorities are cited for the next four years.
One relates to player safety, with more of a stick rather than a carrot approach to be adopted to curb violent conduct. “Our top priority is the health and safety of players,” Fasel insisted. “We have some challenges with concussion and severe injury so we have to protect the players. This can be done through the rules, first of all, to change the behaviour of players and make them show more respect. There should be severe sanctions if you cross the line - three games, 10 games or 20 games suspensions plus financial punishments. We will always have injuries but we have to avoid people targeting other people just to take them out of the game."
This is becoming a growing concern as athletes become stronger and more powerful and I was shocked by an incident during the Winter Youth Olympic Games in Lillehammer in February where an American teenage player was left prostrate on the ice - and later taken to hospital - after a sly hit from a Russian stick.
“There is a long way to go,” Fasel added. “We have to start with coaches, young players, and to coach them as to how best to act - there can be no clean hit to the head. Even if it is an accident, they have to be more careful. Players have to know that if they act in a certain way, it will severely injure others. This is a top priority for the next four years.”
Dealing with clubs and rival leagues is another concern, like in handball and basketball, where up to 14 teams - including Olympic silver medallists Spain - face an international suspension due to joining an unsanctioned European club body.
“We have similar concerns to other team sports,” Fasel said. “Clubs, more and more, want to have power. I agree with autonomy, but autonomy needs to be structured. Clubs have no long vision - they are under pressure financially and their main challenge is to increase income. We need a strategy, a programme, integrity and rules about protecting athletes and referees. You need this structure. Clubs decide something, then decide they don’t like it and change their mind. This is the worst thing you can do for the fans.”
He sighed after completing his sentence: “It’s not boring, I love what I am doing.”
In response to questions on whether it is time for a fresh leader, Fasel pointed out that he remains, at 66, young in comparison to some International Federation Presidential colleagues. He claims he is a team player whose leadership style is based around consent. “Our Council is also stocked with younger people and former players,” he added.
He is stepping down from the IOC Executive Board this year after serving the maximum two four-year terms, although it is possible he could return in the future.
One other aim could relate to a potential Winter Olympics in his home country in 2026, with Fasel, like his fellow Swiss IOC members, involved in preliminary discussions. “For sure, it is a dream for me to have the Winter Olympics in the Alps,” he says. “I’m dreaming of the fairytale of a Winter Olympics with snow, being in the mountains.”
For now, however, he has enough on his plate in the ice hockey world and, after the World Championships, he will return to his latest dual with Bettman as Pyeongchang 2018 draws ever closer.