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IIHF says complete ban of Russian Olympians would put ‘health of hockey at risk’

A week before the IOC is set to convene to discuss the findings of two investigations into the Russian doping scandal at the Sochi Olympics, the IIHF has come out against a complete ban of Russian athletes.

As the sporting world and International Olympic Committee await the results of two probes into a wide-scale doping scandal which allegedly involved upwards of 1,000 Russian athletes at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, the International Ice Hockey Federation has announced it opposes a full ban of Russian athletes from the upcoming Olympics in Pyeongchang.

According to a statement released Tuesday following a meeting of the IIHF Council in Zurich, hockey’s international governing body stated that they have reached “a unanimous opinion that all clean athletes, including those from Russia, must be permitted to represent their country in the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang.” The IIHF continued by noting that banning the entire nation from Olympic participation would sanction many “for the actions of the few,” adding that the “extent to which the IOC is seeking punitive measures in the case of Russia is putting the health of ice hockey at risk.”

Following the release of the statement, IIHF president Rene Fasel echoed that sentiment. "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," said Fasel.

The IIHF’s announcement comes only days before the Dec. 5-7 meetings of the IOC Executive Board in Lausanne, Switzerland, at which time the results of the Oswald Commission and Schmid Commission will be a topic of discussion. Both commissions, put into motion by the IOC, will look into the doping scandal that was first uncovered in 2016 as part of the two-part McLaren Report. 

At the time of the McLaren Report’s release, it was said more than 1,000 Russian athletes doped at the Sochi Games, with the bombshell report leading to calls for a complete ban of Russia from Olympic competition. Some bodies, including the World Anti-Doping Agency, called for such sanctions ahead of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. No such ban was enacted, and more than 270 Russian athletes were given the green light to compete at the 2016 Summer Games. However, talk of a complete Russian ban has renewed as the IOC Executive Board meetings approach, and if that ban were to pass, it could have a sizeable impact on the men’s and women’s hockey tournaments in Pyeongchang.

In fact, the impact of a ban of Russian athletes from the upcoming Olympics could do incredible damage to the level of play at the 2018 Games, particularly when it comes to the men’s game. Given the NHL’s decision not to send its players to Pyeongchang, a significant number of players suiting up in the KHL have been targeted as potential Olympians. Countries such as the United States, Canada, Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic have pulled talent from the KHL for pre-Olympic tournaments over the past two months, but when talk of a ban began to crop up in late October and early November, there were reports that the KHL would bar the league’s players from playing in the Games in the event Russia was not allowed to participate. That doesn’t just include Russian players, either, as it was believed there was potential for players of all nationalities to be blocked from heading to Pyeongchang. 

When the matter was brought up to Fasel in early November, the IIHF president told Sport-Express’ Igor Eronko that if, “such an intention exists, it is worth rethinking it because the interests of athletes are more important. In the KHL there are not only Russian hockey players…and the refusal of the (KHL) to let players out to the Olympics is not the best choice.” That hasn’t stopped the KHL’s potential refusal to release players from remaining a concern, though.

On Nov. 20, Eronko reported that Russian parliament was aiding the KHL by preparing “a bill for the KHL so the league could forbid its players to participate in the Olympics, including import players.” At the time, Fasel spoke with Russian outlet TASS and said the KHL had no choice in the matter given they’re a member of the IIHF, adding the primarily Russian league must follow “the statutes and bylaws of the IIHF and they have to release foreign players and the national team players from other countries to play in the Olympics.” 

Even still, the threat of being without players from the KHL prompted several of hockey’s international federations to band together and ask the league to release players for Pyeongchang. Eronko, as well as Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston, reported that Hockey Canada, along with the Swedish, Finnish and Czech associations, signed the letter to the KHL. 

It’s clear that the IIHF, too, is hoping that whatever sanctions Russia may be slapped with, if any, do not further impact an Olympic tournament that is already hamstrung by the lack of NHL participation.

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