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(JOHN LEHMANN/JOHN LEHMANN/GLOBE AND MAIL)
(JOHN LEHMANN/JOHN LEHMANN/GLOBE AND MAIL)

Fasel warns NHL over European expansion Add to ...

On the stage, at the Air Canada Centre, Rene Fasel, the normally mild-manner dentist who doubles as the president of the International Ice Hockey Federation, essentially told the NHL to stay out of Europe with whatever expansion plans it may have in the future.

"I will fight like hell and not allow anybody to come from abroad," said Fasel Tuesday, when asked about the much-rumoured, but never actually articulated idea that European expansion is the NHL's next frontier.

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It was an unusually strong position for Fasel, a man known for his mediating and negotiating skill and overshadowed the other small admission that he made during Day 2 of the World Hockey Summit regarding future NHL participation in the Olympics.

Most believe that the NHL's primary objection to going to Sochi for the 2014 Winter Olympics lay in the fact that it had no official status at any of the four previous tournaments which involved NHL players.

As the theory goes, if the International Olympic Committee were to grant the NHL a larger role in organizing the tournament, many of commissioner Gary Bettman's misgivings about shutting down his league for two weeks might disappear into the ether.

Fasel, who is also a member of the IOC executive board and thus has some real input into the matter, conceded that talks to that effect are under way.

"We're working on that," said Fasel, who then quickly changed the subject to how much the players want to play in the Olympics; and how important the competition is to fans around the world - safe, but familiar territory for the IIHF president.

Overall, it was an enlightening session with the multi-lingual Fasel, and it was watched with interest by NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly from his seat in the ACC lower bowl.

It should be noted that the NHL's official position on expansion of any sort is that it is not on the horizon in the short term; and that stabilizing the 30 teams in their current markets is the priority for now.

Still, Fasel's passionate response to even the hint of an NHL invasion of Europe was surprising.

"I don't think an NHL division in Europe would fly," said Fasel. "If they have a lot of money to invest, they could try, but as long as I'm sitting in my chair, I would never allow it to happen."

Instead, Fasel imagines in the future, "a European league, where we have five, six teams from Sweden and the KHL together with the Finns, the Germans, the Swiss and then try to have a European champion and having this European champion play the Stanley Cup winner. That would be, for the hockey fans, music."

From Fasel's perspective, the value of continued NHL Olympic participation would come mostly on a marketing level.

"It's not a money question," said Fasel. "I would say as a non-profit federation, the maximum we could pay would be $3- or $4-million. It's not bad, but it's pocket money for the NHL.

"This is the best promotion for the league and also for the game and also for the players. I don't know how many Canadian players were just dreaming about being part of the gold-medal team in Vancouver. I would say nearly all the Canadian players playing in the NHL would love to go and represent the country in the Olympics - and they did it, for free."

 

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