World Hockey Summit wraps up
And so after four days of meetings in downtown Toronto, the World Hockey Summit draws to a close with many asking, "what was that all about"?
Again, I go back to comments made on the first night of discussion by agents Don Meehan and Pat Brisson about "managing expectations," which although intended to be part of a discussion about young players making it to the NHL really was a metaphor for this entire week.
If you expected concrete, quantifiable results immediately or handshake agreements you were horribly disappointed. The lone pledge was Murray Costello of the International Ice Hockey Federation pledging $2 million of IIHF money (pending approval) towards women's hockey.
But if you went into this curious to hear what the games powerbrokers consider the main issues and challenges they face in the immediate and far-reaching future then it proved to be an interesting week.
But let's be straight about it: this was not a debate. There was very little discussion and point/counter-point, but rather it was more a state of the hockey union address by the people that affect change in the sport. Nobody came off their platform, nobody made any concessions, nobody gave up ground, but I don't think that was the point of the four days of hockey's equivalent of Comic-Con.
It's not to say that nothing was learned or that ultimately this summit won't produce results somewhere down the line as every group will take back to their federation, team, organization lessons learned from each other for further discussion and possible implementation into their system.
I've always maintained it's never a bad idea to get people together talking about hockey and the issues and challenges facing the sport, and that's pretty much what my expectation was.
Would I like to have seen Paul Kelly of College Hockey Inc., go at it with CHL Commissioner David Branch over youth recruitment? Absolutely.
Do I think there should have been more of an accent placed on the ever-changing media landscape, especially social media, which shrinks borders and allows immediate free-exchange of ideas and concepts? Completely.
But you can't have it all.
And in a month where hockey talk usually lies dormant, the World Hockey Summit was a cool plunge into the cottage lake on a hot summers day.
Some thoughts from the past four days
Dominating discussion in the media workroom Thursday was the impending hiring of Donald Fehr as new executive director of the NHL Players Association.
Plenty of theories thrown around about what the CBA landscape will look like once Fehr meets with everyone and starts to put together a bargaining strategy. One high ranking official I spoke with had a supreme idea for the Players Association as they head into the expiration of the CBA and the inevitable battles that come with creating a new one: Hire Wayne Gretzky as the face of the union.
Although unlikely to happen, it does make a lot of sense. Let Fehr do all the heavy lifting while Gretzky gets in front of the camera and takes on the NHL publicly over key issues. The optics of Gary Bettman disagreeing with Gretzky over key issues would not look great for the commissioner and is losing battle. The one thing the NHL did exceedingly well was garner fan support for their position during the lockout of 2004-'05 while the PA floundered. With Fehr feeding Gretzky the lines this would be the PR win the players lacked during the last lockout.
Bettman did receive high praise all around from just about everyone I spoke to for his victory in the Ilya Kovalchuk grievance. When it comes to a court battle, Bettman is the 1976 Canadiens. The guy doesn't lose.
Brendan Shanahan was a star on day two when talking about skill development. While lamenting that kids hockey now is far too structured Shanahan asked, "when was the last time you heard kids talk about playing shinny?" He's right, so much of the game now at the youth level is about practice, structure and systems but if you ask any of the greats they'll tell you they learned the most about hockey just by playing all day at a local rink or pond. No officials, no equipment, no coaches, no offsides, no neutral zone trap. Just throw your sticks in the middle and skate until you drop.
I had a good conversation about kids practice with Sherry Bassin, the GM of the Erie Otters, who was there as a delegate. Considering the premium on ice time, the lack of it and how expensive it is, Bassin cringes when he sees practice start with a couple of laps and then five minutes of stretching. Columbus assistant coach Bob Boughner agrees and maintains that warm up, plus stretching, should be done before hitting the ice. And drills should never be described while the practice is in session - they should all be explained beforehand so time isn't wasted. Boughner says between the 10-minute flood, warm up laps on the ice, stretching and description of drills you've taken a sixty minute practice and chopped it in half.
The attrition rate among American-born hockey players raised some eyebrows on day two. More than a few jaws hit the floor when it was pointed out that 44 per cent of American kids drop out of hockey at the age of 9.
I was disappointed that more NHLers didn't attend the event, as players such as Daniel Alfredsson and Jamie Langenbrunner who did show up carried a huge amount of weight at the Summit. It also would have been a strong indication that players care about the future of the game that affords them a living. Having a local player like Sam Gagner, John Tavares, Trevor Daley, Darcy Tucker, Wayne Simmonds or whomever would have sent a strong message.
John Shannon of Sporstnet did an excellent job moderating the panel on women's hockey Thursday morning. Shannon could have asked softball questions to produce feel-good answers but instead asked questions to the panel like, "why do you think people would support a professional women's hockey league if the calibre of play is at the midget AAA level?" It's a tough question but it's probing like this that allows the sport to grow.
Speaking of the women's game, I think we were all impressed by the passionate way in which both Hayley Wickenheiser and Angelo Ruggeiro spoke about the game and made the case for greater support systems for women's hockey, specifically in Europe.
Wickenheiser went right after the Russian Ice Hockey Federation asking how they can consider themselves a hockey nation when there are only six rinks where women play while the country provides zero by way of funding for the women's game.
Women's hockey on both sides of the border is in good shape with both of them as ambassadors.