All talk, likely no action at World Hockey Summit



TORONTO — No sport is so obsessed with itself, and with alternately fixing and/or papering over its imperfections, as hockey, at least in this country. And so in Canada, we manage to never stop talking about the game, one way or another.

No, really. Between the NHL and the Olympics and the playoffs and free agency and Ilya Kovalchuk’s contract drama and Tomas Kaberle’s trade window and Olli Jokinen’s return to Calgary — so funny that even Michael Buble has made fun of it — we have managed to fill almost every gap in the 2010 calendar with hockey talk. Frankly, we should all probably take a week or two, and maybe more, to think about something else. Like, say, the census.

Or our mothers. Anything, really.

Not this week, though, as the World Hockey Summit convenes in Toronto. Four days of delving into the issues that afflict the game, with stakeholders from all over hockey assembled in one place to solve some problems. Or, um, not.

Either way, there will be plenty of talk. There will be question-and-answer sessions and panel discussions — there were four Monday night — and more panel discussions, and quite a few continental breakfasts. They will talk about the state of the game, the potentially pernicious effect of agents on some young players, and relations between the NHL and Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League. They will review the 2010 Olympics, and whether a World Cup can and should be shoehorned into the global schedule. (Answer: As long as the NHL allows its players to participate in the Olympics, why bother?)

But like the game itself, this summit could use some fixing. It’s great that they are going to discuss things, even if it’s more likely that any progress will be fuelled by healthy debate over a few beers after the panels are over than it will during the panels themselves. Putting everybody in the same room is usually a good thing, unless it is the NHL and its players negotiating a CBA, or the players trying to choose a leader.

But this Hockey Summit is not a United Nations of hockey, with binding resolutions. It’s talk. It’s a show. Yes, the various distinguished panellists involved are probably here with pure intent and so forth, but there is a reason it costs $450 for a four-day pass, or $150 for Monday night’s four panels.

We care far too much about hockey sometimes. And that two-week break should be legislated, as soon as they fix that census thing.

When you examine the guts of this summit, you find plenty missing, and plenty that could be improved. What are the most pressing issues in hockey?

Here’s one list: head injuries; fighting; the continued participation of NHL players in the Olympics; relations between the NHL and the KHL; the spectre of performance-enhancing drugs; the increasing difficulty in getting kids to play; the difficulties in growing the game globally; the battle for players between the NCAA and junior hockey in Canada; and while we’re at it, the fact that more than one NHL franchise is billowing financial smoke, under which you are likely to find a stack of money being metaphorically set on fire.

Of those issues — the last of which is NHL-centric, yes, but which is likely to have a great effect on the world’s best players, and the most important league in the world — the NHL-KHL issue will be discussed. There will be talk of why the competitive level of the men’s game seems to be declining internationally.

But the rest won’t make the agenda except by happenstance, or as part of a bigger issue. The NCAA’s big men were not even invited. Fighting and head shots are afterthoughts. They are going to spend the final day of the summit discussing the future of women’s hockey after the 2010 Olympics, during which International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge suggested on the day of the gold-medal game that the sport could be dropped due to the lopsided nature of the international game.

Well, the panellists on the subject hail from Canada (gold medal), the United States (silver medal), Finland (bronze medal), and Sweden (fourth place). Solid metaphor, that.

No, it feels more like something cooked up to talk about the non-threatening parts of the game, the transactions and the architecture and the business, with sponsorship by Molson, while selling tickets and operating a trade show on the side.

Maybe we just have hopes that are too high; maybe we expect the United Nations, and get the G-8 instead. The people in charge are in charge for a reason, and the problems with hockey are problems for a reason. It’s nice that they are going to get together and talk, and maybe all that talk will produce a germ of a solution, the first few feet of a smoother road.

But don’t expect too much. At the last such summit in 1999, convened in the wake of Canada’s disaster in Nagano, keynote speaker Ken Dryden said, “This is the kind of event that only really happens when there’s an excuse for it to happen, and the excuse is that we have come to the end of the century, and it’s a great opportunity to look at where we’ve been, where we are and where we think we’re going next.”

There’s no such excuse here, no such common cause. There is just the game, and the selling of the game, and some non-binding discussion. The last summit was about finding the beginning of a new era. This one, it seems, is the extension of the current one. That’s fine, and all. It’s just not the start, or the end, of the world.

National Post

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