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Euro expansion? 'Hell' no, Rene Fasel says

TORONTO -- It must be hard being Rene Fasel.

The head of the International Ice Hockey Federation likes to talk tough about the NHL -- as he did Tuesday when he told those gathered at the World Hockey Summit that he'll fight until his dying breath any attempts by the league to set up a European division -- while at the same time needing to snuggle up to the NHL in an effort to keep the big boys in the Olympic family.

Gary Bettman & Rene FaselBruce Bennett/Getty Images

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, left, and IIHF president Rene Fasel made it work during the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.

Talk about conflicted.

Fasel's hawklike stance on NHL expansion came across as a tad disingenuous because the NHL has never given any intention it plans to do anything of the sort, but it was fun to listen to. (NHL commissioner Gary Bettman will get his chance to address the Olympic issue from the NHL's perspective during his Q-and-A session at the summit Wednesday.)

Beyond that, Fasel's performance on the second day of the four-day gathering of hockey minds reinforced what a vast cultural and philosophical divide exists between the NHL and the rest of the hockey world. It also reinforced what appears to be a significant inferiority complex on the part of the IIHF when it comes to the NHL.

Fasel told World Hockey Summit attendees he would "fight like hell" to keep the NHL in North America and off European soil. "As long as I am sitting on my chair, I would never allow that," he said.

The NHL has made inroads into the European market in recent years, playing annual exhibition games and a series of regular-season openers in London, Stockholm, Helsinki and Prague. This season, six NHL teams will open the regular season in Europe.

Every year, the notion of permanent Europe expansion becomes a talking point, but Fasel took the matter a step further Tuesday by insisting the NHL wouldn't be welcome on a permanent basis.

"I don't think that an NHL division in Europe would fly," he said. "I don't think so."

Although the summit is supposed to be about global hockey issues, Fasel clearly relishes his role as defender of all things European. He chided North Americans for thinking they are the only fans of the game. The Europeans have a tremendous passion for the game, too, Fasel said.

"They love the game as much [as North Americans]," he said. "[North America] is not the only place where the game is important."

Burnside: More notes from Tuesday's sessions at the World Hockey Summit

But when it came time to discuss the issue of the NHL's future involvement in the Olympics, specifically the Sochi Games in 2014, Fasel revealed a much more diplomatic tone.

The IIHF is desperate for the NHL's continued participation, as the hockey tournament is the jewel in the crown of the Winter Games. No NHL, and the tournament suddenly would become very pedestrian.

Still, Fasel stopped short of pledging to sweeten the pot monetarily in an effort to get the NHL on board for the Sochi Games.

"It's not a money question," Fasel said. "I don't think so."

The maximum the IIHF could come up with would be $3 million or $4 million, Fasel said. "It's still not bad, but pocket change for the NHL," he said.

The NHL's resistance to returning for a fifth straight Olympics likely won't hinge on whether it receives any money from the IIHF, but Fasel will have to continue to play nice, especially with the league from whence the most resistance will come.

"I'm always willing to work together with the PA [players' union] and the NHL. Actually, we did quite well in Vancouver," Fasel said.

He noted there was an issue with an NHL owner's being denied access to the locker rooms but promised those kinds of issues can be worked out and shouldn't be a deal-breaker going forward.

Fasel then went a little "Kumbaya" when talking to reporters, saying the summit was a good chance to remind everyone how successful the Vancouver Games were.

"Sometimes you are not aware that you were successful, but we have to tell people this was a successful story. Let us continue together," he said. "For sure, Sochi will be a challenge on the logistic [side], bringing all the people together. The time zone is different; it will be a huge challenge. But let us work together, find a solution with the league, with the PA, with the national federation, and then even have a better story in Sochi.

"I'm 100 percent sure that these people are willing and wishing to come to Sochi and play the game."

Just don't try to move a team across the pond.

Two sides to junior development debate

One of the more contentious issues from a European perspective is the handling of junior-aged players.

It is the belief of many European hockey leaders that it is better for young players to develop in their own country rather than coming to North America at 16 or 17 to play major junior hockey.

Slovomir Lener, a former Czech coach who is now in charge of junior development in the Czech Republic, said Tuesday that of 527 players who left the Czech Republic to play in North America as juniors only 22 went on to play 400 or more games in the NHL.

Lener said he doesn't advocate an outright ban on European players playing in the Canadian Hockey League (the CHL is the umbrella organization that oversees the three major junior leagues in North America), but would like to see the CHL -- and, by extension, the NHL, which drafts these players at age 18 -- be more patient.

"You have to take it step by step or player by player," he said. "We have to create the environment for them to stay [home] as long as possible," so they are better prepared when they do come to North America.

"I understand those clubs want the product right away, and in some way, they have to be impatient and they want to fill in holes as soon as possible," Lener said. "I'm still behind the idea that if we were two or three years more patient, we would send over a much better product."

One of the problems facing European nations, however, is in creating a competitive enough junior system to entice homegrown talent to stay home; that takes money and commitment.

Buffalo Sabres GM Darcy Regier agreed there is an issue, but wasn't sure what the answer might be.

"I felt up there today [on the panel] really conflicted because you recognize there's a problem on one hand. On the other hand, these people that are in positions that are strong like the CHL, they've worked very hard to get there," Regier said. "I don't know what the answer is. I suspect the answer for other countries is no different than the answer for the Buffalo Sabres -- get to work on your own situation, do the best you can with whatever tools you have ..."

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