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Already Reeling From Loss Of NHL, Olympic Hockey Anxiously Awaits Russia's KHL

Aleksandr Medvedev is a member of the KHL board, which says it favors participation by its teams' players as 'neutrals' in the Winter Olympics.
Aleksandr Medvedev is a member of the KHL board, which says it favors participation by its teams' players as 'neutrals' in the Winter Olympics.

Did the International Olympic Committee (IOC) inadvertently score on its own goal when it banned Russia from the 2018 Winter Olympics? Many officials from ice hockey's superpowers are worried that may be the case.

The fear stems from rumors that Russia's Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) might retaliate against the IOC's ban of Russian athletes from the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, by refusing to release players to join their national teams. Many Olympic squads, already reeling from the North American National Hockey League's (NHL) decision not to allow its players to compete in the Olympics, are depending heavily on players who compete in the KHL.

Talk of a boycott by the KHL, arguably the world's second-best professional ice-hockey league, started last month when Aleksandr Medvedev, a KHL board member, was quoted by TASS as saying that "contracted players won't be able to go anywhere" if the IOC followed through on a Russian ban.

The IOC indeed did just that on December 5, banning Russia from the games, which start on February 9, for systemic doping.

The KHL has yet to comment since the IOC announcement, but if the league makes good on Medvedev's words, it would be a decision that reaches far beyond Russia's borders.

"The puck is in Russia's end," says Martin Urban, secretary of the Czech Ice Hockey Federation. "I hope the KHL will respect the rules, which are anchored by a pledge that players are released to play when called upon."

A KHL boycott would devastate the Czechs, who used 13 players from the Russian league last month in an Olympic tune-up tournament.

And the reverberations wouldn't stop there.

Sweden and Canada, who have won five of the last six Olympic tournaments and are already denied access to their large stables of NHL talent, would also be severely hit by a KHL boycott as the opening ceremonies quickly approach.

More than half of the 26 players on Canada's roster for the Karjala Cup last month -- a pre-Olympic tournament used to evaluate players ahead of the games -- were on KHL teams.

If KHL players aren't available for the reigning two-time Olympic champions, officials may have to dip as far down as junior players to fill out the roster.

"Legally, Russia can't keep non-Russians from competing in the Olympics," the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation quoted an unidentified Hockey Canada source as saying. "But when you're dealing with Russia, it's so unpredictable."

For its part, the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) -- international hockey's governing body -- has said it expects the KHL to release players. The Russian league has long planned a halt to activities during the Olympics to allow players to participate in the event.

Unlike the NHL, the KHL falls under the auspices of the IIHF, and would face sanctions if it broke the rules by forbidding its players from competing in Pyeongchang.

No OARs?

Even Russian ice-hockey players could be impacted by a KHL decision to opt out of an Olympic break.

The pre-Olympic Russian roster for tournaments was comprised solely of KHL players. While Russia cannot field a team under its flag, the IOC left open the possibility that Russian athletes could participate in the games under an Olympic flag and with the designation of "Olympic athlete from Russia (OAR)."

In theory, that means that Russian ice-hockey players who are cleared could form a team.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and other officials have all denied any state involvement in the string of doping cases that has led to numerous individual bans over the past two years and, ultimately, the IOC's decision to deny Team Russia the right to compete in South Korea.

But the Kremlin has said it won't prevent Russian athletes designated by the IOC as "clean" from competing.

The IIHF is confident that KHL players of all nationalities, including Russians, are drug free and would be eligible to participate.

"The IIHF, in full cooperation with the Russian Ice Hockey Federation and the Kontinental Hockey League, initiated a highly structured testing program for the KHL, MHL, and WHL, which went into operation in December 2016 and up to the present has tested nearly 400 Russian players," the federation said in a statement prior to the IOC ban on Russia.

Russia's Ilya Kovalchuk celebrates his goal against Finland in the Sochi Olympics in February 2014.
Russia's Ilya Kovalchuk celebrates his goal against Finland in the Sochi Olympics in February 2014.

Olympics Or Bust

One Russian closely watching the outcome is Ilya Kovalchuk.

The 34-year-old was considering a return to the NHL this season before one factor ultimately led him to stay at home. And it wasn't money, nor the thought of a grueling season overseas.

In the end, it was the North American professional league's decision not to free its players to participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Instead, he opted to stay in his homeland for another year of play in the KHL to allow him the chance to be an Olympic athlete for the fifth time.

Kovalchuk, and several other Russian players, including defenseman Andrei Markov, who could have played in the NHL but stayed away to have a chance at an Olympic medal, have said they would still take part in the tournament even if they have to do so under the OAR designation.

"Going to the Olympics is a must. Refusal means surrender," Kovalchuk told reporters after the IOC decision.

"The Olympics is a significant event in ice hockey, in any case," he added. "I can't say that we hold any sort of grudge. Rather, it's a lack of understanding. After all, we are just athletes who train every day, practice our craft, and dream about representing our country."

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