In the midst of the NHL’s suspended season and the global coronavirus pandemic, IIHF president Rene Fasel spoke with The Hockey News’ owner and publisher W. Graeme Roustan via email about how the IIHF is dealing with the short- and long-term plans of a global shutdown and addresses rumors that Fasel will become the KHL president in the future.
Graeme Roustan: Many businesses around the world have shut down their office and have asked their employees to work from home. What is the status for employees at the IIHF?
Rene Fasel: The IIHF has instructed all employees to work from home. In order to service our member nations and other stakeholders, all office staff remain reachable via email or telephone, and the organization is fully operational and approachable to all partners and clients. The IIHF office also holds weekly status meetings remotely to ensure that all service to member national associations remains uninterrupted and carefully coordinated between departments.
GR: U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson just announced the possibility of a six-month lockdown. Is the IIHF and its member countries prepared for a six-month or more lockdown?
RF: With the cancellation of the 2020 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship, the 2020 international hockey season is closed. Most of the IIHF’s office work will revolve around preparing for next season. The IIHF council will be in close contact with our membership as we determine the feasibility of holding the 2020 annual congress at an appropriate time. But the situation with the coronavirus is very fluid. We hope, as does the rest of the world, that this pandemic is over as soon as possible, but we are doing our best to prepare for a long-term lockdown.
GR: Many pundits are now talking about the COVID-19 causing a six-, 12- or 18-month shutdown of the economy. What effect will a prolonged shutdown cause for the game of hockey around the world?
RF: It would be very difficult. A long-term shutdown would drastically affect the revenues of clubs and leagues, both in Europe and around the world. This incident occurred at the tail end of the club season, meaning that almost all leagues missed out on significant revenue from the playoff stage.
It is tough to predict what kind of impact the pandemic will have on corporations and organizations that act as sponsors for ice hockey teams, leagues and clubs. A lot of small-market teams operate on very tight budgets, and for them, a prolonged shutdown would be a serious obstacle to overcome.
GR: Social distancing is the best prevention from spreading the COVID-19 and many other viruses. Does the IIHF and member countries believe that people will flock back to arenas where up to 20,000 people are packed into an arena to watch hockey?
RF: We follow the WHO and CDC guidelines for mass gatherings and countries follow the social-distancing rules that are in place. There will be a time that fans will be able to return to arenas around the world, and we look forward to that day as long as it respects the rules and guidelines in place.I think that as long as it is deemed to be safe from a medical perspective, there is nothing that would prevent fans from returning to the arenas. Sport is a big part of our social fabric, and I believe that fans would want to get out and enjoy it as soon as it is possible to do so.
GR: As president of the IIHF, you are the head of all international hockey, which includes the Olympics. What are your top priorities at this time of the COVID-19 virus?
RF: Together with the IIHF Council, we are evaluating the impact of the cancellation of the World Championship on our membership. The revenue generated by this tournament goes back into our championship program each year and is needed to support the 30-plus other IIHF tournaments that we operate each year in the various men’s and women's’ categories.
Fortunately, the IIHF is insured against such a force majeure cancellation of the World Championship, and we are now in the process of preparing a report for the insurance company.
GR: Athletes around the world have always been focused on their health and safety. What will the IIHF do to protect the health and safety of potential NHL players participating in future Olympics?
RF: The IIHF Medical Committee includes members that have extensive experience working with NHL players, such as our volunteer chief medical officer, Dr. Mark Aubry, who is also the team physician for the Ottawa Senators and president of the Team Physician Society of the NHL. We have always coordinated closely with the NHL to promote player health and safety and would continue to do so.
GR: Up until recently, the discussion of NHL players going to the 2022 Olympics in China was primarily around money and insurance. What will the main points be now after this pandemic that began in China?
RF: I think that player health and safety is and always has been an important discussion. We have had instances in the past at our World Championship and Olympics where a player or team official reported a flu or other illness that caused us to take immediate precautionary measures, for example avoiding handshakes after a game. We also ensure that we follow our prevention of infection guidelines that we give all organizers before their championship. We will also be developing further rules of infection prevention following this outbreak. Our medical committee is in close communication with the WHO, CDC and other medical committees from other sports organizations as well as international medical organizations in order to always be ready to adopt the best practices to ensure player health and safety.
GR: The NHL will more than likely halt all pre-season and regular-season games anywhere outside of Canada and the U.S., something the IIHF was never happy with. Does the IIHF prefer if the NHL stay home?
RF: I wouldn’t say that exactly, we are a big hockey family and the fans love when they can see their NHL players play at home. I believe there were some concerns at first over whether these games would interfere with European league operations, but it has not been the case.
GR: The KHL could not survive financially if it were not for the oligarchs, and the Russian Ice Hockey Federation is supported by the Russian government. Is the IIHF concerned that some of the small countries who've been impacted most by this pandemic, like Italy and Spain, will allocate their resources away from hockey?
RF: I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this is an existential crisis for small-market teams. It’s not only ice hockey but all sports that are suffering now. These are tough times, but we will get through this. Even if the money is not there, the passions of our members will stay strong. That passion, rather than money, is what pushed them to work to grow the game within their countries in the first place.
GR: You were to step down from being president of the IIHF in September and rumors are that you will become the commissioner of the KHL. How does this global health crisis impact these plans?
RF: I like the rumors, ha ha, but no. I am 100 percent focused on my job as the IIHF president.
GR: Today the world is looking to its leaders for answers to what should we all do and how can we get through this global pandemic. As the leader of millions of people in the hockey and sports world, what is your message that you want everyone to hear?
I want to keep it simple: stay home, listen to the experts, and stay healthy! We have to set aside sport for now and focus on the greater good.
GR: Millions of people around the world are self-isolated. Where are you and how are you and your family doing?
Other than an occasional trip to the office by me to get status updates, we are staying home. Our family moved recently and are now using the time to settle in.
Parts of this Q&A have been edited for clarity.
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