<
>

Why summit team could make impact

Anyone who has ever spent any time in Canada knows there is nothing Canadians love more than a good meeting.

Call it what you want -- an inquiry, think tank, summit, royal commission, thing-a-ma-bob -- doesn't matter, as long as there is a lot of blue-skying and brainstorming, Canadians are happy.

That's why we rolled our eyes while at a news conference in Vancouver during the Olympics when it was announced the World Hockey Summit would be held Aug. 23-26 in Toronto. More people in suits justifying their existence while eating day-old Tim Hortons' Timbits, we figured.

But we will admit to unrolling our eyes a little Wednesday, when the leadership team for the WHS was announced: Daniel Alfredsson (Ottawa Senators captain, Olympic gold medalist and one of the top European players of all time), Toronto Maple Leafs president and GM Brian Burke (his U.S. team won a silver in Vancouver while throwing the scare of a lifetime into the Canadians), four-time Stanley Cup champion Steve Yzerman (new Tampa Bay GM, architect of the 2010 gold-medal-winning Canadian team and member of the 2002 Canadian team that won gold in Salt Lake City) and Hayley Wickenheiser (one of the top women's hockey players of all time).

This group gives the gathering instant credibility and suggests it will produce more than just hot air.

"I'm really looking forward to this. It's a lot of people with a lot of experience," Alfredsson said Wednesday.

Surely, all four have better things to do in late August than hang around some conference rooms in Toronto, especially Yzerman, who recently accepted the job with the Lightning. But Yzerman said Wednesday he believed he owed a debt of gratitude to Hockey Canada and decided to willingly take part when asked by Bob Nicholson, the head of Hockey Canada.

"It's an opportunity for us to take the international game to a higher level and the game in general," said Yzerman, who cut his managerial teeth building World Championship teams for Canada in 2007 and 2008 after ending his Hall of Fame NHL career.

The summit will include representation from Hockey Canada, USA Hockey, the International Ice Hockey Federation, NHL, the NHL Players' Association and the Canadian Hockey League, which governs the three major junior leagues.

These groups have often operated at cross-purposes in the past. Just last month, NHL officials, including Burke, blasted the IIHF for comments made during the World Championships that criticized NHL players for not taking part in the tournament. The summit will force those competing interests to get beyond old grudges and agendas.

The major topics to be discussed include: skill development; an assessment of the Vancouver Olympics; establishing a long-term international event agenda to deal with events like the World Cup of Hockey, World Championships and other club events; the future of women's hockey (and specifically the disparity between the North American and European national programs); junior hockey development and how the North American model differs from the European model; and worldwide hockey participation.

Alfredsson, for instance, said he believed Swedish hockey development had slipped in recent years and that he would be meeting with Swedish hockey officials before the summit to see what reasons there might be for such slippage. "I've got a lot of work to do before the meeting," he said.

Burke said he figures the key goal of the summit has to be addressing opening up the game to as wide a spectrum of the population as possible, whether it's in North America or beyond.

"I believe that hockey programs have to be designed to develop hockey fans for life," he said.

That means thinking outside the box to make the game as affordable as possible. If that means having ice rinks for part of the year and roller rinks for part of the year to reduce costs and increase participation, so be it, he said. Hockey is the hardest, most expensive game in the world to play, Burke said. "We've got to keep our eyes on that," he said.

He noted the demographic of his adopted home in Toronto, historically a hotbed of hockey development, has changed dramatically with immigrants from around the world who may not fit into the traditional hockey model.

Usually a meeting of the minds such as this one would be prompted by some sort of hockey calamity. The last one held in Canada (the Open Ice Summit) came out of the country's disappointing showing in Nagano at the 1998 Olympics. But the WHS comes at a time when hockey is enjoying a renaissance on many fronts.

The Vancouver Olympics were a huge success, especially in North America, with record television audiences following the U.S./Canada gold-medal game. The NHL, notwithstanding issues with specific franchises like Atlanta, Long Island and Phoenix, is coming off a record-setting postseason with audience interest on the rise in many markets, both traditional and non-traditional.

This fall, the NHL will send six teams to start the NHL season in Europe, up from four the past two seasons, and will play exhibition games in Russia, Latvia and Northern Ireland.

But in some ways that's what makes this summer's get-together even more compelling, the fact it's not driven by panic but out of some sense there is no better time than in times of plenty to push the game even further.

At least that's the feeling one gets from listening to a group of leaders whose voice will be heard loud and clear throughout the hockey world this summer.