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Report: 'A chance' KHL could stop players from going to Olympics if Russia banned

Investigations by the International Olympic Committee could result in sanctions against Russia ahead of the 2018 Olympics. And if Russia can't compete under its flag, there's reportedly "a chance" that the KHL won't send players to Pyeongchang.

Olympic rosters were delivered a blow earlier this year when it was announced the NHL had decided not to send players to Pyeongchang, but the potential for a similar decision by the KHL could force national teams to dig deeper into their ranks to assemble the best possible roster for the Pyeongchang tournament.

On Friday, amidst the news that two Russian skiers have been handed lifetime bans by the International Olympic Committee, Sport-Express’ Igor Eronko reported there is “a chance KHL won't let its players to go to the Olympics” in the event the IOC decides that Team Russia is disqualified from competition as a result of the mass doping scandal that took place at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.

At present, the IOC is awaiting the results of two probes into the doping scandal which, according the McLaren Report, involved upwards of 1,000 Russian athletes at the 2014 Olympic games. The two-part McLaren Report, released in July and December 2016, resulted in the IOC putting into motion two separate investigations, the Oswald Commission and Schmid Commission, into the doping scandal, both of which are expected to wrap up at some point in November. The investigations will be a topic of discussion when the IOC’s executive committee meets from Dec. 5-7, at which time it’s expected Russia’s participation in Pyeongchang and possible sanctions against Russia will be discussed. That includes the possibility of a complete ban.

This isn’t the first time the doping scandal had led to talks of a ban at the Olympics, however. Some, including the World Anti-Doping Agency, called for Russia to be denied participation at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. A complete ban did not come to pass, though, and 271 Russian athletes were eventually given clearance to compete at the Games.

That said, in the event the findings of the commissions result in a ban of Russia from Pyeongchang, it would leave open the option for athletes to enter into competition under a so-called neutral flag. However, KHL Board of Directors and vice-president of the Russian Olympic Committee Gennady Timchenko said no team would be sent to play under a neutral flag, according to R-Sport. In an interview with Eronko, International Ice Hockey Federation president Rene Fasel said he would support Russia’s decision if that comes to pass and no team would be added to the tournament to replace Russia.

When it comes to the potential for the KHL to prevent its players from leaving were Russia banned, though, Fasel told Eronko he hadn’t heard of the possibility but hoped the primarily Russian league wouldn’t punish players of other nationalities. “If such an intention exists, it is worth rethinking it,” Fasel told Eronko, per a translation. “Because the interests of athletes are more important. In the KHL are not only Russian hockey players…and the refusal of the (KHL) to let players out to the Olympics is not the best choice.”

If the Karjala Cup and Deutschland Cup are any indication, the potential impact of such a decision by the KHL in the face of a Russian ban from the Olympics would be widespread, too, as the national team rosters assembled for the pre-Olympic tournaments are dotted with KHL talent. For instance, the Canada's team at the Karjala Cup boasts 16 KHL players, including forwards Wojtek Wolski and Linden Vey and goaltender Ben Scrivens, while the American team assembled for the Deutschland Cup features six KHL talents, including goaltender Ryan Zapolski, forward Brian O’Neill and defenseman Matt Gilroy.

It’s not only the North American sides that will impacted, either. At the Karjala Cup, Sweden’s roster features 11 KHL players, Czech Republic has nine players from the league and Finland is set to bring along 13 players from KHL clubs. Slovakia, who will ice a team for the Deutschland Cup, and Slovenia also have potential Olympians playing for KHL teams.

If the KHL were to decide against sending players in the event Russia is barred from competing in Pyeongchang, the solution for the remaining national teams would be an increased focus on players from other top European leagues. 

The top leagues in Switzerland, Sweden, Finland and Germany have all been tapped for talent for the national teams competing in the Karjala Cup and Deutschland Cup, and certain countries – especially Canada, Finland, Sweden and the Czech Republic, who are all relying heavily on players suiting up in the KHL – would be all but certain to fill empty spots with the next-best players from each league. The Canadian and American teams could also look at bringing along more players from the minor leagues or college ranks. There are a number of Canadian and American AHL players on one-way contracts who would be eligible to compete in Pyeongchang, while Canada has already deciding to pull from the NCAA, bringing along Dylan Sikura and Zach Whitecloud for the Karjala Cup.

The hope for all involved, however, is that rosters will only need minor tweaks and alterations from here on out and that, no matter the IOC’s decision come December, no one playing in the KHL will be restricted from participating in the 2018 Olympics.

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