Hockey Canada hopeful Canadian KHLers will be available for Olympics
By IIHF rules Russia must allow it, but organization knows Putin et al can be 'unpredictable'
Hockey Canada officials believe national team members playing in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League will be allowed to perform at the 2018 Olympics, even if Russian parliament or the league attempts to prohibit all KHL players from participating for their respective countries at the Pyeongchang Games.
The KHL boycott threat is a possibility after the International Olympic Committee banned Russian athletes from competing in Pyeongchang unless they can prove they are clean and are willing to compete under a neutral flag.
- IOC bans Russia from 2018 Olympics
- Canadian Olympians laud Russian Olympic ban
- Russia won't quietly walk away
The IOC's decision was made on Tuesday after an extensive investigation into allegations of Russian state-sponsored doping at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.
Immediately, there was plenty of speculation on what this means for the men's hockey tournament in Pyeongchang, already tarnished with the decision by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to prohibit the world's best to play in the Olympics after the league participated in the previous five Winter Games.
The Russian Olympic Committee or KHL officials have yet to react to the IOC's decision. It may take a day or two or more for a decision as to whether there will be a Russian boycott or whether Russia will allow athletes to compete under a neutral flag.
'Russia is unpredictable'
What we do know is that Canadian national team officials believe that under the International Ice Hockey Federation transfer agreement, players have to be released to play for their countries if called upon for IIHF-sanctioned events like the Karjala Cup in Helsinki last month, the Channel One Cup in Moscow next week and the Pyeongchang Olympics in February.
"Legally, Russia can't keep non-Russians from competing in the Olympics," a Hockey Canada source said. "But when you're dealing with Russia, it's so unpredictable."
However, all Hockey Canada said publicly on Tuesday was the following statement: "Hockey Canada believes in clean sport and a level playing field for all athletes. We trust that the IOC and IIHF will continue to ensure that all athletes compete on an equal playing field."
IOC president Thomas Bach urged clean Russian athletes to compete in Pyeongchang.
"An Olympic boycott has never accomplished anything," Bach said. "I don't see any reason for a boycott for the Russian athletes because we have allowed the clean Russian athletes to participate."
But how clean are Russian hockey players? The IIHF claimed in a statement two weeks, "the IIHF in full cooperation with the Russian Ice Hockey Federation and the Kontinental Hockey League initiated a highly structured testing program for the KHL, MHL, and WHL, which went into operation in December 2016 and up to the present has tested nearly 400 Russian players."
Russian left wing Danis Zaripov tested positive for unnamed substances, including a stimulant, a banned diuretic and masking agent and as a result was banned by the IIHF until May 2019.
The KHL also banned Russian defenceman Andrei Konev and Canadian defenceman Derek Smith until September 2018 for failed tests for stimulants.
There has been speculation that Russian president Vladimir Putin would make the decision for his country and boycott Pyeongchang. But on Monday, his spokesperson said that is unlikely to happen.
"No, it is not under consideration," Dmitry Peskov told Russia's official state news agency TASS.
'Groundless violations of rights'
"We oppose the violation of our athletes' rights, we are against groundless violations of rights, but at the same time, Russia remains committed to the Olympic ideas, as President Putin said, it is his decision."
Without NHLers, the Russians are considered the favourites, even if they will compete under a neutral flag. But do Russian players have a say? Russian Sport-Express hockey reporter Igor Eronko reported on Tuesday that members of the national team have sent a letter to Putin asking to allow them to play in Pyeongchang.
Ilya Kovalchuk, who decided against returning to the NHL in the offseason in order to stay at home and compete in another Olympics, was one of the first Russian players to make a public statement in support of such a move.
"We all perfectly understand that the IOC decision is pure politics and we understand against whom it is directed," Kovalchuk told the Russia's R-Sport news agency.
"It was clear that there would be such a decision. But if the athletes go there, it will unite the country. All clean athletes must go."