Hockey: former IIHF president René Fasel dreams of a major European league

MONTREAL – After orchestrating the transfer of the presidency of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) which he had held since 1994 to Quebecer Luc Tardif, René Fasel spent a quiet Christmas and holiday season in his native Switzerland.

At least, that was the plan.

A plan that the Omicron variant came to upset if not completely ransacked.


Like all the great hockey fans spread across the four corners of a planet that has expanded during his reign as head of the IIHF, René Fasel was deprived of the World Junior Hockey Championship.

For the first time in 28 years, it was from the comfort of his home in Zurich and not in the boxes reserved for dignitaries and other sponsors of a tournament that he helped to make larger than life that the former president prepared to savor the prowess of the best hockey players under the age of 20 in the world.

Like you, like me, like everyone else, René Fasel remained unsatisfied.

The COVID first forced the cancellation of a few games before forcing his successor to make a second very difficult decision since the start of his mandate in September: the cancellation – the postponement in fact since the IIHF intends to resume the tournament when the COVID forecheck is less stifling – from the world junior championship that had just gotten under way in Edmonton. Already criticized on all platforms for having postponed – still due to the virus – the tournament which was to highlight the best female hockey players in the world under the age of 18, Luc Tardif suffered a second wave of criticism.

Although he dodged these cascades of criticism, René Fasel was careful not to abandon his successor. He was quick to offer advice when asked. After all, while it’s possible to squeeze a hockey man out of the IIHF presidency fairly easily, it’s much harder to squeeze the love of hockey out of a former president. Especially when he’s just put away the skates he’s been wearing for 27 years.

A few days after the cancellation, or postponement, of the World Junior Hockey Championship came to break the magic of the Holidays, a magic already tarnished in Switzerland due to the cancellation of the Spengler Cup, René Fasel had to deal with a disappointment even bigger: the decision of the NHL and its players to turn their backs on the Beijing Olympics.

Let’s say that as retirement gifts, we have already seen more generous than the cancellations of the Spengler Cup, the junior world championships for men and the under-18 for women, not to mention the withdrawal of NHL players from the Olympic tournament. from Beijing.

We have also already seen better as a birthday present when René Fasel will celebrate his 72and next February 6. As a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), he will be – or should be – then in China to attend the Games and the Olympic tournament which will not have the luster hoped for.

This absence decried by many, starting with several NHL players, is a shame. Too bad for the players who will miss the opportunity to defend the colors of their countries. Too bad for the fans who will be deprived of the highest level of hockey imaginable. Too bad for the broadcasters who pay astronomical sums for the broadcasting of the Games and who will not have the hockey he wanted on their antennas.

This absence is also a pity for René Fasel. Because a return of NHL players after their absence in South Korea (2018) would have made it possible to halo the retirement of the former president who was the first to bring together the best hockey players in the world as part of a hockey tournament. A highlight of his reign occurred in 1998 in Nagano (Japan). After long negotiations with commissioner Gary Bettman, René Fasel had obtained that the NHL, like all the other professional leagues in Europe, observe a truce in its calendar in order to allow its best players to take part in the Olympic Games.

NHL players went on to elevate Olympic tournaments in Salt Lake City (2002), Turin (2006), Vancouver (2010) and Sochi (2014) before missing Peyongchang and Beijing. Perhaps they will be able to revive René Fasel’s Olympic dream in four years when the Games will be presented in Italy (Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo).

A break… and lots of projects

Newly retired, René Fasel was catching his breath when I contacted him at his home in Zurich before the holidays.

“I will soon be 72 years old. The past few years have been difficult with the aftermath of COVID here in Europe and around the world. Maybe it’s time to think about slowing down a bit, you know,” he replied when I asked him if he was taking full advantage of his first few weeks as a retiree.

But beware! The expression « raise your foot » does not seem to have the same meaning in the mouth of René Fasel who, despite his 71 years, could shave much younger people in terms of the energy deployed to share his passion for hockey. .

In fact, Fasel had just returned from a visit to Israel where, together with Vyacheslav Fetisov – former great defender of the national team of the Soviet Union and now Minister of Sports of Russia – he is working to develop hockey.

“It’s amazing what’s going on there right now. The sport is booming. It’s fantastic! »

His complicity with Fetisov also suggests that René Fasel could swap the seat of president of the IIHF which he has just ceded to his runner-up Luc Tardif for that of president of the KHL. The great Russian League which prides itself on being the second in importance on the hockey planet behind the National League.

It also seems that Fasel is working to learn Russian and to camouflage as much as possible the charming accent of Fribourg, his hometown, which still colors his French today despite the many years spent in Zurich where he closer to the offices of the IIHF once president.

« You have to pay attention to everything you hear, » says René Fasel as a first dodge.

In the footsteps of Garry Bettman?

The rest of the conversation, however, makes it clear that the new retiree does not intend to spend his days drinking in memories while contemplating the snow-capped peaks that point to the sky and enjoying a few hockey games. to brighten up your evenings.

“I have received offers over the past few weeks. It’s true. There are plenty of interesting challenges in the world of hockey. Whether in KHL or elsewhere. I told you earlier, I want to give myself a break. I want to catch my breath. I have spent the past few months preparing for the transition to Luc Tardif. I will be in China for the next Games. Next? Who knows! I need a little rest, I agree. But once well rested, and despite my 72 years, I know that I will still be in good enough shape to take on other challenges. Perhaps as a consultant first so as not to be in the whirlwind of daily operations. I do not know. Time will tell. »

For a guy who left the door open to several options, Rene Fasel looked like he had a well-planned route ahead of him.

But OK. Time will tell.

That said, it would be a bit ironic to see Fasel leading the League that offers the most competition to the NHL. A normal rivalry many would say considering the many neck and necks the former IIHF president has delivered to the NHL commissioner over the years.

René Fasel sneers on the other end of the wire when I suggest a possible face to face with Bettman as president of the KHL.

“When you look at the growth the NHL has experienced since his arrival, we all have to recognize that Gary has done a very good job at the head of his league. I assumed the presidency of the IIHF a year after his arrival. Our careers have taken place in parallel and it is true that we have not always shared the same points of view. But he always defended his League, « recognizes Fasel, who could now follow his « opponent » by a few years in the Hockey Hall of Fame, where the former president of the IIHF has a place waiting for him. .

Towards a European NHL

Although the KHL and its 24 teams form a great hockey league and the idea of ​​being its president or commissioner represents a career objective likely to make anyone salivate, René Fasel allows himself to dream of a League European which could look more like the NHL.

“We have around 100 professional clubs spread across all our leagues in Europe. We have teams in Russia, in the Scandinavian countries, in Switzerland, in Germany, in the Czech Republic, in Slovakia, in France, in Italy. It’s a lot. It’s too much for the number of high-caliber players available to all these clubs. It would take 2500 per year. We do not know it. Teams have to pay big salaries and provide top-notch living conditions to attract the best players. The NHL shares its revenue 50-50 with its players. Here, it is 100% of the income that is paid to the players. This causes a lot of worries for the teams, many of which are operating at a loss. It may be time to review our parameters,” says René Fasel.

“The NHL has expanded its number of teams to 32. If we had 28, 30 or 32 in a big league in Europe. If we had big clubs in big cities and big capitals, we could raise the level of competition on the ice and provide healthier competition for the National League. In the heyday of hockey in the Soviet Union, there were 12 clubs in 15 republics. Today, the KHL has 24 clubs separated by thousands of miles and playing in nine different time zones. It complicates operations. There may be a way to structure things to make operations easier and more profitable. »

René Fasel talks about this league he dreams of out loud without ever indicating that he would like to be its commissioner or president.

It’s normal.

The creation of such a league, with all the negotiations to be conducted with the governments and federations of the countries concerned, without forgetting the IIHF, represents a colossal challenge.

Too big a challenge for a recently retired president who will soon be 72 years old and whose career is already crowned with many exploits and highlights ensuring him a solid legacy and a prominent place in hockey history. ?

René Fasel did not respond.

But behind this silence that led to the usual greetings at the end of our interview, I thought I heard the: “go figure! he had offered me about 30 minutes earlier when I told him he would have trouble keeping his skates tidy.

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