The business of the game

Hockey Forum looks at relationships... and making money


Kevin Gilmore, the Chief Operating Officer (COO) of the Montreal Canadiens, talks about how to run a sustainable hockey business. Photo: Martin Merk

BARCELONA – The first afternoon session of the Hockey Forum started with a talk from Thomas Grimm and good governance, followed by Christian Feichtinger, President of Hockey Europe, and finishing with Kevin Gilmore from the Montreal Canadiens.

Thomas Grimm, a consultant, was the President of the Swiss football league for a decade and was also involved in FIFA and UEFA projects and committees. His message: “You can only succeed as a team.”

To this end, he believes there are certain qualities of good governance: responsibility, leadership, trust, respect, knowledge. For this to work, there must be sport governing bodies and they must ensure all voices are heard in the decision-making process, from the player to the club, league, and federation, and with a general assembly and the ability to find the right balance.

“There’s no standard model for governance, only tailor-made solutions,” said Grimm, who believes that the traditional one nation, one vote principle has no future in international sport bodies as the national associations are of different sizes and should have different weights.

Christian Feichtinger, the President of Hockey Europe, spoke about his organization and its relevance to club competition. Hockey Europe was founded in 2008 and now represents seven leagues in Europe (a total of 88 teams) which attracted nearly 14 million fans last year alone. It includes Sweden, Finland, Switzerland, Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia and the Austria-based multinational EBEL league, but not the Russia-based KHL.

It consists of general managers and team representatives with four to five annual meetings and deals with everything to do with making those leagues succeed at every level, from how the game is played to international efforts with the IIHF, NHL, and KHL.

Some of the issues Hockey Europe hopes to address with the IIHF include: ensuring the World Championship doesn’t start before 1st May (8th May in Olympic years); move the international transfer deadline to 15th February; an earlier deadline for the Olympic qualification with 20 months prior to the Olympic Games; lost-salary insurance for players participating with national teams (“some national associations have solutions, some don’t”); more representation of European leagues in the IIHF’s decision-making bodies and relevant committees.

Feichtinger expressed a desire to bring Hockey Europe and the IIHF together. Like many others, he favours a parallel format for incorporating international club competition into the structure of national leagues.

In reference to the current trends in the KHL, Feichtinger said Hockey Europe does not support taking away clubs from existing leagues or the creation of artificial clubs in the regions where national leagues are present.

The organization doesn’t want to compete with the IIHF, but it does expect a voice within the IIHF given that it represents the top leagues in Europe.

“The Hockey Forum is a sign of positive progression towards the future growth of hockey,” Feichtinger said. “Hockey Europe is prepared to work within the current IIHF structures.”

IIHF President René Fasel spoke on the matter of a May 1 starting time for the Worlds: “The NHL regular season ends April 7 or so, and now we are supposed to ask the Canadian and American players to wait nearly one month to play another ten games in 17 days. This isn’t possible. It just goes to show how many people we need to consider when we make decisions.”

Some of Feichtinger’s sentiments were also shared in the ensuing panel discussion by Gernot Tripcke, the General Manager of the German top league DEL, who was accompanied by Franz Reindl, the counterpart of the German Ice Hockey Association.

Both organizations have had emotional discussions about governance at the national level in the past two decades. Their common conclusion for the global perspective was that the International Ice Hockey Federation is the right body to address ongoing issues in European hockey also at league and club level.

“It doesn’t need new organizations like in football. That’s not necessary in hockey,” Tripcke said. “I think we are closer to each other than in football or handball. But what needs to be done is to change the governance structure. Leagues and clubs must get a stronger voice within the IIHF.”

How do you make money in hockey? Kevin Gilmore, the new COO of the Montreal Canadiens, tried to give some answers on the matter. “We deal with very emotional human beings,” he started. “Rational people don’t spend the money they spend on season tickets. They are fans, not spectators, who are detached. We are in the business of selling emotions, of selling passion. It’s about creating a strong emotional bond. It is different from selling a product based on quality.”

The business model changed entirely, though, in the late 1990s when the Forum was replaced by the Bell Centre and capacity went from 16,000 to 21,273. All of a sudden, the team had to make an effort to sell those extra seats. Tradition and history were no longer enough.

The team then established a dedicated sales staff of some 60 employees, all of whom specialized in a particular area (single seats, season tickets, luxury boxes, etc.). The Habs continued to market their rich history, from distant past to the present, and sales increased over the years to the point where the new building is now, after several slow years, sold out every night again.

What Gilmore made clear was that while the Habs today have a great advantage over so many sports teams because of its success and history, maintaining that success in the 21st century requires hard work.


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