Although he never played the game, John "Bunny" Ahearne played a major role in international hockey. A cheerful Irishman who lived most of his life in England, Ahearne was a travel agent whose efficiency and organizational skills guided him up through the ranks of the British Ice Hockey Association.
He was appointed secretary of the BIHA in 1933, a position he held for 40 years. He also served as Britain's delegate to the International Ice Hockey Federation from 1934 until the start of World War II in 1939. But among Olympic hockey fans, he's best known for managing the British national team to an improbable gold medal victory over Canada at the 1936 Winter Games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany.
In 1947, with the war safely over, Ahearne traveled to Canada and the United States as a member of the IIHF delegation that successfully negotiated the return of both countries to active membership in the organization. On the strength of his ambassadorial skills, IIHF officials elected him vice-president in 1955, and he became president two years later. He continued to serve in both capacities until he retired 20 years later. During his tenure, he was also active in transforming the World Championships from an underappreciated competition into a major sporting event.
In 1969 Ahearne was at the center of an international hockey controversy that would have important implications for world hockey for years to come. That year the IIHF approved the use of nine professional players by any team in a world hockey tournament, provided they hadn't played in the National Hockey League that same season. But Ahearne wanted to make it clear that no other country besides Canada could use this rule to its advantage. In response to Russian claims that Canada would "find loopholes for professionals" in the 1970 World Championships--to be held in Montreal and Winnipeg--Ahearne said that he'd never allow this to happen. "Canada must fill its roster with 11 amateur players who have never been professional," he declared. "This is the agreement I made with the Canadians and that is the way it's going to be."
The International Olympic Committee refused to back Ahearne's plan, and Canada withdrew from the World Championships. The Canadians would refuse to field a team in the tournament until 1977.
Ahearne was an early advocate of the involvement of television in sports. He played a major role in securing profitable broadcasting rights to international games, while also popularizing the idea of selling advertising space on the boards in arenas. Much of the revenue produced by these promotional avenues helped finance the growth of international hockey as a whole.
In 1977 Bunny Ahearne was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in the Builders category.