On his first day as the Grand Poobah of Hockey Canada, Tom Renney wasn’t exactly enamoured with our request to speculate about the worst-case scenario of an Olympic Games without National Hockey League players.
So it’s darned handy, then, that we are more than able to speculate on Renney’s behalf.
Of course, there is a lengthy list of priorities for Renney, as he fronts Hockey Canada as their new president and chief executive officer. Conveniently, with lucrative, back-to-back world junior tournaments upcoming to be shared by Montreal and Toronto, there will be scads of money with which to execute that list.
One crucial initiative is how to stop the game from spiraling out of the financial capabilities of the average Canadian family. Minor hockey has become so expensive, so time consuming, that it’s scaring families away. New Canadians can scarcely afford the cost of equipment in many cases, let alone registration and the shuttling of kids to and from distant practice arenas.
We’ve not enough column inches here to take that topic on today, however. But what we did want to discuss with Renney was, if NHLers don’t go to Pyeongchang, Korea in 2018, how does he go about resurrecting the old Canadian national team program that he first coached back in Lillehammer, where Canada won silver in 1994 with the last non-NHL Canadian Olympic roster?
"I’ve had some experience with that, and I feel comfortable with it. I would feel more comfortable if we continued to play best on best," Renney, 59, said on a media conference call Tuesday. "Far be it from me to speculate … but I’d feel comfortable with that mandate if it were to come to pass. But it’s so speculative, I don’t want to go much further than that."
What we’re willing to say is, Renney is the perfect man for this job should the international hockey community reach the point where they’re hammering out a new men’s Olympic hockey landscape. With his hockey experience, above average intelligence, patience and calm demeanour, Renney gives Canada a well-rounded leader to take part in those international discussions. And that is whom it will take when you consider the questions that will be on the table:
• In a non-NHL Olympics, which players are eligible to participate? If Canada can use players currently playing in Europe, and the Finns can use players from their Elite League, then we’ll assume KHL players are also eligible? That could give Russia a major advantage.
• Will Hockey Canada attempt to centralize a men’s national team in Calgary, the way they once did? How can they expect to entice a Micki DuPont or a Byron Ritchie to turn down big bucks playing in Europe, to live in a dorm in Calgary for the entire season? Then again, how can they expect to cobble together a Spengler Cup-type roster in 2018 and defend Canada’s Olympic gold medal?
• If the NHL pulls out and all of the hockey nations go back to the amateur model, what other tournaments will they participate in to keep their programs relevant? Do we go back to the days when our national team had a standing reservation at the Swedish Games, the Izvestia tournament, and the Spengler Cup?
"Ultimately we’re talking about a lot of partners here, the other federations around the world," Renney said Tuesday. "I can conclude what might and might not work, but the bottom line is we have other federations that we have to pay attention to and work with. Who’s to know what they might bring forward?"
For now he will wait and see what the winds bring. NHL owners weren’t wild about the exposure received in Sochi, where games played out early on North American time, and in Pyeongchang a 7 p.m. local start would mean a 6 a.m. puck drop in Toronto and New York, or 3 a.m. on the west coast.
Then there’s the International Olympic Committee’s proprietary grasp on all things Olympics. NHL owners — and the NHLPA — supply the product, yet the IOC makes the lion’s share of the profits and holds tightly to all the rights. Thus the concept of a World Cup, in which the NHL and NHLPA would share in the proceeds, is appetizing to owners and players both.
And the NHL wouldn’t have to interrupt its season in February to take part.
That’s a problem Renney may have to deal with later on. For now, he’s just happy to be home at Hockey Canada, where it all started for him back in the ‘90s.
"It’s like coming back and giving back to your family," he said. "I’m a product of my environment and experiences, and for the most part they started with the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association.
"In lots of ways, it’s (like) coming home for me."