The Russian ice-hockey team for next week's under-18 world championship has been replaced, reportedly due to failed drug tests in what appears to be the latest case in a growing doping scandal engulfing the Russian sports world.
Gazeta.ru and the Canadian television station TSN reported that Russia will instead send its under-17 team to the tournament, which begins on March 14 in North Dakota.
An "initial roster" of the team that will travel to the United States was posted on the Russian Ice Hockey Federation website on April 7.
It does not include any of the players on the under-18 roster that was listed on the same website just hours earlier.
"The decision to change the team was agreed to by [Russian] Sports Minister [Vitaly Mutko]," Vitaly Prokhorov, the coach of the under-18 team, told Gazeta.ru on April 6. "I will not go to the United States [for the tournament]. I cannot make any other comments."
Russian Ice Hockey Federation (FKhR) President Vladislav Tretiak said in a statement on April 7 that he was "surprised by the intense rumors" being made about the under-18 team.
Tretiak, the legendary goaltender for many champion Soviet teams in the 1970s and '80s, said the selection of the national teams was "a prerogative of the [national] hockey federation."
Sergei Golubovic, the coach of Russia's under-17 team, told Sovsport.ru late on April 6 that he would not discuss "our preparations for the world championships," adding, "I now have a rush job with the team, you cannot even imagine."
Golubovic was listed by the FKhR as the coach of the team that will play in North Dakota.
TSN reported that several of the players on the under-18 team had tested positive for the drug meldonium (also known as Mildronate), which was banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) as of January 1.
More than 30 Russian athletes -- including tennis star Maria Sharapova -- have failed drug tests this year for meldonium, which increases the flow of blood and oxygen to muscles.
Russian track-and-field athletes are currently banned from competing internationally, the result of a WADA investigation presented in November that said that country's athletics federation and other officials were involved in a systematic doping program for its athletes.
Since then, dozens of other Russian athletes in many different sports have been found to have failed drug tests and have either been suspended or stripped of titles and championship medals.
Slava Malamud, a Russian hockey writer, said on April 6 that the use of meldonium was "extremely widespread in Russian hockey." He cited stories of players "routinely popping a pill or two [of meldonium] right before a game."
But Mutko, Russia's sports minister, seemed befuddled when he was asked on April 6 by Sovsport.ru if meldonium was behind the replacement of the hockey team.
"What meldonium? What are you talking about?" Mutko said.
Malamud mocked the sports minister's comments, quipping that "a really bad practice" might be behind the substitutions.
Russia has not won a medal at the under-18 world hockey championships since 2011, and finished fifth last year.
But in an effort to improve the team's performance, the core of the 2016 team was formed last year and had been playing together in Russia's Junior Hockey League, as well as traveling internationally and playing in several tournaments.
That was a major shift from the previous ritual of selecting the best players for the world championship shortly before the tournament.
The newly configured squad had been producing good results and even won a bronze medal in the prestigious Ivan Hlinka Cup, held last year in Slovakia. That under-18 team will no doubt be severely disappointed that it will not take part in the world championship in the United States.
And several Russian hockey commentators pointed out that the players on Russia's under-17 team will have a difficult time competing against teams made up of players that are one year older than them.
The dropping of the under-18 hockey team shortly before the world championship follows two similar withdrawals of Russian squads in the past week, in which doping has been suspected by several analysts as the reason for the team swaps.
On April 1, the Russian national volleyball team sent a substitute team to the Euro Cup in Berlin and, two days later, the national curling team sent -- at the last minute -- a different, unexpected five-man team of curlers to an international tournament in Switzerland while leaving the team that was expected to attend the event at home.