KHL’s participation in Olympics affects more than just Russian team

Russia’s participation in the upcoming Pyeongchang hockey tournament is in question, according to well-placed sources, as the International Olympic Committee continues its ongoing doping investigation into athletes from that country.

Fears were raised in international hockey circles this week that a ban of all athletes from Russia could be forthcoming. Some IOC members and as many as 20 Western-based national anti-doping committees are believed to be pushing for it, according to sources.

We are still awaiting the fallout from the 2016 McLaren Report, which investigated allegations and evidence of Russian state-sponsored doping and manipulation of test samples around the 2014 Sochi Games.

Denis Oswald, head of the IOC’s disciplinary committee, has said that he intends to complete his investigation into the matter by the end of the month.

What this means for February’s hockey tournament is unclear. A ban of all athletes from Russia would obviously preclude the country’s participation. There’s also been a suggestion that they may instead be forced to play under a neutral flag, and the Russians have indicated an unwillingness to even consider that possibility.

Amid the growing uncertainty, the Russian-based Kontinental Hockey League went on the offensive Saturday by suggesting that it may withdraw all of its players from the Games – a decision that would keep several Canadians, Americans, Swedes and Finns from the tournament as well as the Russians.

In a statement, KHL president Dmitry Chernyshenko said the IOC “is destroying the existing world order in sports” by pursuing doping cases against Russians in other sports who are suspected of using banned substances.

At this point, the International Ice Hockey Federation is reluctant to wade into the fray publicly. IIHF president Rene Fasel politely declined an interview request on Saturday.

However, it’s something they’ve been monitoring closely behind the scenes.

The IOC’s ongoing investigation is centred on athletes in other sports – Oswald wrote last month that there is a “particular focus” on six cross-country skiers – but may come to hurt the hockey players if a universal ban is imposed.

Should that happen, the IIHF won’t stand idly by.

“What we have talked [about inside the] International Ice Hockey Federation is that we don’t accept collective punishment, you know?” IIHF vice-president Kalervo Kummola told Sportsnet this week. “Some people are talking about in Europe, that the whole team should be closed out from the Olympics and so on. …

“What I can tell you from IIHF side is that we don’t accept this kind of punishment that if you are not caught, then you can be closed out.”

An Olympic tournament already without NHL players would be severely diluted if the KHL didn’t participate. Currently, that league has scheduled a Jan. 28-Feb. 26 break in schedule and says it could simply be eliminated, keeping any player under contract from going to South Korea.

That would be a blow to Team Canada, which is sending 16 KHL players to the Karjala Cup warmup tournament in Helsinki next week. Among them are former NHLers Wojtek Wolski (Kunlun Red Star), Brandon Kozun (Lokomotiv Yaroslavl), Matt Frattin (Barys Astana), Simon Despres (HC Slovan Bratislava) and Ben Scrivens (Salavat Yulaev Ufa).

If the Russian team is banned entirely, Fasel has said they wouldn’t be replaced by another country.

For now, the national federations are awaiting word from the IOC. Even the IIHF isn’t entirely sure where this is headed.

“In practical [terms], I don’t know anything,” said Kalervo Kummola. “In theory, we were talking about in our directorate, we don’t accept that if anybody wants to close somebody out, he should have a positive test.”

With files from The Associated Press.