IIHF suspends Russia and Belarus from international play amid Ukraine invasion

Elliotte Friedman breaks down the IIHF's decision to exclude Russia and Belarus from upcoming IIHF events over the next year, along with follow-up statements from Hockey Canada and the NHL.

The International Ice Hockey Federation has suspended Russia and Belarus from every age category in international play until further notice, the governing body said Monday, marking one of the most resounding sports-related sanctions levied against Russia and its allies since the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine began.

The 2023 World Junior Hockey Championship, which was slated to be played in Novosibirsk and Omsk, will also be pulled out of Russia, the IIHF said, though a new location has not been determined.

“The IIHF is not a political entity and cannot influence the decisions being taken over the war in Ukraine,” Luc Tardiff, the IIHF’s president, said in a statement. “We nevertheless have a duty of care to all of our members and participants and must do all we can to ensure we are able to operate our events in a safe environment for all teams taking part in the IIHF World Championship program.”

The IIHF said it has “not left out the possibility” of further actions impacting other events, but that it hoped for “a swift and peaceful resolution to the war.”

The decision currently impacts the following events:

• 2022 IIHF Continental Cup
• 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship
• 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship
• 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Women’s World Championship
• 2022 IIHF World Junior Championship
• 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship

Following the IIHF’s announcement, Hockey Canada released a statement in support of the decision and took it one step further by not allowing Belarus or Russia’s “participation in events held in Canada that do not fall under the IIHF’s jurisdiction.”

The IIHF’s decision comes as sporting bodies and athletes around the world have attempted to navigate the ongoing crisis, issuing restrictions and condemnations that have varied in their intensity.

After FIFA, the highest governing body of soccer in the world, drew swift backlash from European nations for its initial response to Russia’s invasion, it changed course on Monday, banning Russian teams from international competition “until further notice” in a joint statement made with UEFA.

“Football is fully united here and in full solidarity with all the people affected in Ukraine,” FIFA said in its statement. “Both Presidents hope that the situation in Ukraine will improve significantly and rapidly so that football can again be a vector for unity and peace amongst people.”

Earlier on Monday, the International Olympic Committee’s executive board urged sports federations and event organizers to bar Russian and Belarusian athletes and officials from competitions. The recommendation came mere days before the Paralympics are set to begin on March 4. When doing so wasn’t possible for “organizational or logistical” reasons, the IOC said everything in an organizer’s power should be done to ensure that “no athlete or sports official from Russia or Belarus be allowed to take part under the name of Russia or Belarus.”

According to the International Paralympic Committee, most of Russia’s 71 athletes are set to compete and will have arrived in Beijing by Tuesday.

Russia and Belarus continuing to participate in the Paralympics comes despite an open letter from Ukrainian athletes calling for the two countries to be banned from international sport, stemming from a “clear breach of the Olympic and Paralympic Charters” that “must be met with strong sanctions.”

The IOC also withdrew the Olympic Order — the highest award it can give, recognizing efforts worthy of merit in the cause of sport — from “all persons who currently have an important function in the government of the Russian Federation,” including president Vladimir Putin.

Some high-profile athletes, from Russia and elsewhere in the world, have weighed in on the conflict as well.

Canadian hockey legend Hayley Wickenheiser posted a picture on Twitter of a woman holding up a middle finger and wrote “this pretty much sums up how the world feels about your sanctions.” and to “Get out of bed with Putin and lead!”

Alexander Ovechkin, perhaps the most globally recognizable Russian athlete, called for “no more war” in his first public comments since the invasion began, though he stopped short of anything approaching a rebuke of Putin’s hostility.

“It’s a hard situation. I have family back in Russia and it is scary moments,” Ovechkin said. “But we can’t do anything. We just hope it going to be end soon and everything is going to be all right.”

Ovechkin’s prior advocacy for Putin has been well-documented. In 2017, he was part of a social media movement to support the Russian president, saying that to be part of his team was “a privilege” while posting a photo of him being embraced by the Russian leader. Ovechkin’s current profile picture on Instagram at the time of this story’s publication is still of him and Putin.

For Russian athletes, public critique of Putin is not without risk. New York Rangers star Artemi Panarin has been a vocal critic of the Russian president and has indicated his support for Alexei Navalny, the opposition leader in Russia, on social media.

After Panarin’s comments supporting Navalny, a Russian tabloid printed allegations from a former coach that he attacked a woman in Latvia almost a decade ago, which he denied. The Rangers called it a fabricated story designed to intimidate Panarin for his political views. Andrei Nazarov, a former NHL enforcer who coached Panarin in the Kontinental Hockey League, said he was motivated to speak about the alleged incident because he disagreed with Panarin’s repeated criticism of the Russian government.

Still, other Russian athletes took visible anti-war stances. Andrey Rublev, a tennis player, wrote on a TV camera lens after sealing his spot in the Dubai Tennis Championships final “No more war please” last Thursday as the conflict in Ukraine escalated, and added further emphasis to his thoughts in his post-match comments.

“In these moments, you realize that my match is not important. It’s not about my match, how it affects me,” Rublev said. “What’s happening is much more terrible. You realize how important [it] is to have peace in the world and to respect each other no matter what, to be united. It’s about that. We should take care of our earth and of each other. This is the most important thing.”

The IIHF’s removal of Russia and Belarus comes as the dire conflict in Ukraine stretches into its fifth day. The crisis began on Feb. 23, when president Putin of Russia declared the start of a “special military operation” in Ukraine, signalling the beginning of a conflict many had feared would arrive for months as Russia amassed a military presence near the Ukrainian border.

Belarus has been a launching point for troops throughout the baseless military operation, and is an ally of Russia in the invasion. Aleksandr Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, has said he sees Russia and Belarus as not only neighbours and allies, but a single nation with the shared aim of warding off Western influence in former Soviet lands.

On Monday, Lukashenko hosted the first face-to-face talks between Russian and Ukrainian officials since the start of the invasion, though president Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine has said he was not hopeful the meeting would lead to an end to the conflict.

“This is not just Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” Zelensky said. “This is the beginning of a war against Europe, against European structures, against democracy, against basic human rights, against a global order of law, rules and peaceful coexistence.”

The people of Ukraine have waged a fierce defence of their country, slowing the Russian forces as they bear down on Kyiev, the capital of Ukraine. As of Sunday, at least 352 civilians, including 14 children, have been killed since the invasion began, according to the Ukraine Interior Ministry.

“We were incredibly shocked to see the images that have come out of Ukraine,” added Tardif. “I have been in close contact with members of the Ice Hockey Federation of Ukraine and we hope for all Ukrainians that this conflict can be resolved in a peaceful way and without the need for further violence.”

Comments are turned off for this story.