As much as possible, the hockey world does not like to get political. But the upcoming 2021 IIHF World Championship has at least forced the international community to consider the real-life consequences of its decisions, as one of the host countries is Belarus - the European nation currently on the brink of revolution.
Belarus has been in the grips of a national crisis since August's election, when President Alexander Lukashenko 'won' a victory that many claimed was rigged. Lukashenko has been the leader of Belarus for 26 years and has been called "Europe's Last Dictator" by international press. In the wake of the election results, Lukashenko's opponent has gone into exile somewhere in Lithuania, while tens of thousands - perhaps even hundreds of thousands - of citizens have taken to the streets in protest, where they have been met by riot police. There have been mass arrests and reports of torture at the hands of the cops.
Which all brings us back to hockey. Minsk, the capital of Belarus, is set to host the 2021 worlds, along with neighboring Latvia, beginning on May 21st. The IIHF board of governors is scheduled to meet next week, but from what I am hearing, the world's hockey federations are pretty much united in keeping the worlds in Belarus, despite outside political pressure.
Canada and the United Kingdom have already imposed sanctions on Lukashenko's government, while the European Union has also sided with the protestors in the matter, sanctioning some Belarussian officials but not Lukashenko specifically. The United States has not come out with an official position on the issue.
As for the hockey world, both Hockey Canada and USA Hockey declined comment on whether their federations saw any problem with Belarus hosting the upcoming worlds and this is very much in line with IIHF politics. Latvia's Prime Minister has asked for the Belarus portion of the tournament to be moved to another country, though insiders say Latvia would still host even if nothing changes.
"It is written in the IIHF’s statutes and bylaws that we cannot permit discrimination based on political association," said IIHF president Rene Fasel in an exclusive interview with The Hockey News. "The IIHF’s mission is to promote hockey throughout the world and we have to be able to work with many different countries in order to achieve this. This is why we were disappointed that the Latvian government has called on the IIHF to award the Minsk portion of the co-hosting agreement to someone else."
According to insiders, part of the issue is moral relativism on the international stage: If Belarus is unfit to host a major hockey tournament, then why is it OK for players to go to China for the 2022 Winter Olympics, when the Chinese government has been rounding up ethnic Uighurs and placing them in "re-education camps" in large numbers? A non-bureaucrat might say "don't hold a major sporting event in either country" but the International Olympic Committee in particular is never going to turn down China and that puts the IIHF in a squirmy situation - especially since NHL players were very unhappy not to participate in the most recent Olympics, held in the inoffensive nation of South Korea.
As for the 2021 worlds, the question must be asked: can you host a safe hockey tournament if police in Belarus are hurling stun grenades at citizens in the streets?
"We are not at the point where we are considering additional security measures, but it is important to remember however that the political situation is one of two major concerns that surround the 2021 World Championship, the other being Covid-19," Fasel said. "The IIHF is currently consulting with several external organizations with extensive experience in security, political, medical event-hosting, and risk management areas. This is being done to identify and evaluate any potential risks to players, staff, and spectators travelling to the 2021 World Championship."
Fasel did say, however, that a tournament could be moved if the safety of fans, players and staff was in serious jeopardy. He noted that Latvia does not have a second arena that meets the IIHF's requirements for hosting, however. Now, it's up to the IIHF to determine whether Belarus is still a viable place to hold the tournament - assuming the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic doesn't make the decision for them.