U.S. defenseman Ryan Whitney is checked into the boards by Canada forward… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)
While the NHL and NHL Players Assn. squabble over last season's hockey-related revenue and future realignment, Rene Fasel watches from afar and hopes their disagreements won't spill over to include NHL players' participation in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
Fasel, president of the Switzerland-based International Ice Hockey Federation and a member of the International Olympic Committee's executive board, avidly supports NHL players' competing in the Winter Games. He helped negotiate the deal that allowed NHL stars to represent their homelands for the first time at Nagano, Japan, in 1998, making it a marquee event there and in Salt Lake City; Turin, Italy; and Vancouver, Canada.
However, future Olympic participation must be determined by the NHL and the union through collective bargaining. With the current labor deal expiring Sept. 15 and nothing in the air but hostility, prospects are dicey that the NHL will again halt its season to send players to Sochi for exposure that's not in prime time. The Games will take place Feb. 7-23, 2014.
"It's difficult to tell you something now," Fasel said by phone Monday. "We will see a little more during August and the summertime where the CBA negotiations go."
Although he said he can't comment on internal NHL matters, he clearly wants to see the league and union agree on returning to the Olympics. He has spoken about it with Donald Fehr, the union's still-new executive director, and the league.
"For us, for sure it is very important they could come to an agreement to come to Sochi. It means a lot for our sport and it means a lot for the NHL," Fasel said.
"As you know, we need to work on a schedule for Sochi. The IOC is asking about the playing format and the schedule of games for hockey and there is also figure skating and curling to take into account and we need to know how the format will be."
He said he remains optimistic the NHL will send players but added that the IOC would have to know in 2013 so alternative plans could be made. If the NHL doesn't send players, the U.S. and Canada would have to form teams from players in college or in Europe.
"In my mind it looks not too bad. I would say it could work," he said. "We are looking at what would happen if they decide not to come. I will have discussions, especially with USA Hockey and Hockey Canada. If the NHL says no, the national federations would be more under pressure than European federations because players are playing in leagues there. If the NHL says no by the spring of 2013, they would have one year to prepare."
Fasel also said the IIHF followed the NHL's lead in forming a committee to examine causes and consequences of concussions. Hits to the head were banned in international competition a decade ago.
"They will study body checking, the speed of the game. Put some questions on the table," Fasel said. "We have fought head shots very strongly. The health of athletes is very important. We would work together with the NHL."
Another area in which he'd like to cooperate with the NHL is its European incursions. He has opposed the possibility that the league might expand there but said for teams to play in Sweden or Finland to showcase players in their native countries "is not a big issue for us."
He added, "It is still my dream one day to have the European club winner and the Stanley Cup winner have a competition. That would be great, especially for fans. We play hockey for fans. They should have this competition."
Fans should also be able to watch the world's best players at the Olympics. We can only hope the NHL and union will agree on that much.
The Ottawa Citizen was misguided when it criticized Ducks winger Teemu Selanne and Detroit defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom for skipping the Jan. 29 All-Star game at Ottawa.
Writer Ken Warren said the NHL allowed the two future Hall of Fame members to "become bigger than the game," but that's not true. Both declined to be considered, as opposed to turning down a spot, and wanted to conserve energy for games that are meaningful to their teams. Both are 41 and have character above reproach. They deserve that consideration.
All-Star games — especially hockey's hitless version — are outdated events staged for sponsors and to gouge fans. Lidstrom and Selanne have played in 21 All-Star games between them. They're letting younger players enjoy the spotlight and become more marketable. There's nothing wrong with that.
It's time the NHL and the union came up with a better All-Star format or dumped it altogether.