IIHF expresses growing concern over Russia’s Olympic hockey status

International Ice Hockey Federation President Rene Fasel answers a question during a news conference. (Mark Humphrey/AP)

The words themselves didn’t so much tell you how uncertain the International Ice Hockey Federation is feeling about the upcoming Pyeongchang Olympics.

It’s the fact they felt the need to say them at all.

The IIHF had previously kept a stiff upper lip amid growing speculation that the International Olympic Committee might bar Russian athletes – and therefore the men’s and women’s hockey teams – from participating in South Korea.

That changed following two days of IIHF Council meetings in Zurich.

“We wanted to outline our position clearly to the IOC, that we are against a collective punishment approach that would unfairly punish many Russian athletes that had nothing to do with doping,” IIHF president Rene Fasel said Tuesday.

The timing here is significant.

The IOC’s executive board is slated to make a Dec. 5 decision on allegations that Russia ran a massive, state-sponsored doping program in the run up to the 2014 Sochi Games. The range of possible punishments runs from removing the Russian flag, anthem and emblems from the upcoming Olympics to potentially issuing a complete ban on all athletes from that country.

While the hockey tournaments comprise one small part of a much larger conversation, the IIHF points to the fact that no athletes from the sport were implicated in the 2016 McLaren Report, which included testimony and notes from former Russian doping chief Grigory Rodchenkov.

“Although we recognize the need to confront doping in sport, Olympic participation should not be used to sanction the many for the actions of the few,” read the IIHF statement. “In addition, the extent to which the IOC is seeking punitive measures in the case of Russia is putting the health of ice hockey at risk.

“Russia’s role in the growth and development of ice hockey cannot be understated. This country forms a pillar on which our sport’s legacy rests upon.”

Losing the Russian players would be a huge blow to a tournament already severely weakened by the NHL’s decision to cease participation. That country is considered a huge favourite on the men’s side to claim gold for the first time since 1992 in Albertville, when Russian athletes completed under a unified flag after the fall of the Soviet Union.

There’s also a secondary issue of what happens to KHL players from other countries should Russia be banned.

The country’s State Duma, the lower house of parliament, has reportedly started drafting a bill that would prevent them from going to the Olympics. That prompted representatives from Hockey Canada and the Swedish, Finnish and Czech federations to send a letter to the KHL last week urging the league to release its players.

In the IIHF’s eyes, there is an easy way to avoid all the looming trouble – allow the Russians to play in Pyeongchang. It assisted that country’s national federation in establishing a drug-testing program for the KHL, MHL and WHL starting in December 2016 and has screened more than 400 players since.

“To this effect, the IIHF Council reiterates its position that clean athletes from all qualified federations should be permitted to go to the 2018 Olympic Winter Games and represent their countries.”

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