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At another hockey worlds, European support of Russia ban holds firm

Written by on May 28, 2024

PRAGUE, Czechia — With three men’s world championships now played since the International Ice Hockey Federation banned Russian athletes, the global hockey community appears to have completely moved on without one of the sport’s most decorated countries.

This year’s IIHF World Hockey Championship was a success by any measure, smashing the previous attendance record while delivering a compelling competition and memorable gold-medal final.

There was certainly no feeling on the ground that anything was lacking or missing.

From the European nations, in particular, there continues to be heavy support for the IIHF’s ban of Russia and Belarus. Those two countries have been excluded from all international hockey competitions since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022.

Asked by The Athletic during the world championship if he felt those sanctions were still appropriate, Finnish coach Jukka Jalonen said: “Yeah, sure. No doubt about that.”

“I think given the circumstances it’s pretty reasonable,” said Finnish forward Ahti Oksanen, who played four years at Boston University before carving out a pro career closer to home. “I know the situation in North America is a little different than here in Europe because in Europe we’re really close to Russia and dealing with them all the time. Right now I think it’s reasonable.”


Finland coach Jukka Jalonen reacts during a preliminary round game against Canada in Prague. (Robert Hradil / RvS.Media / Getty Images)

There is no end in sight to the ban with the Ukraine invasion continuing.

In fact, the possibility of Russia returning for the 2026 Milan Olympics grows dimmer with each passing day the conflict continues.

In February, the IIHF extended its ban on Russia and Belarus through events in 2025, citing safety concerns. A decision that covers the first Olympic tournament featuring NHL players in more than a decade will be reached next winter, IIHF President Luc Tardif told reporters Sunday at a press conference in Prague to close the world championship.

“We will make a decision next February, as we always do,” Tardif said. “It doesn’t matter what the International Olympic Committee decides. This is how we have acted before, and we have not waited for the Olympic Committee’s decision, although of course we talked with them.”

A limited number of Russian and Belarusian athletes will be permitted to participate in this summer’s Paris Olympics, although they’ll be required to compete without their flag as individual neutral athletes and must pass a vetting process that ensures they’ve not actively supported the war in Ukraine.

No Russian or Belarusian teams were allowed to qualify for the Paris Games.

While the topic remains a somewhat sensitive one to discuss publicly among hockey players and executives — many of whom continue to work with individuals from those countries in the NHL, or elsewhere — the national federations they played for spoke loudly with their actions at the world championships.

Kazakhstan was the only country of the 16 in the competition to bring a player from the Russian-based KHL.

Sweden, Finland, Czechia, Latvia and France have explicitly banned those who remain in the KHL from being eligible for national team duty since after the Ukraine invasion began in 2022. Slovakia joined them ahead of this year’s world championship, ruling in April that those employed in the KHL wouldn’t be eligible because they hadn’t played or practiced with the national team all season.

The Swedish Ice Hockey Federation was much more direct than that when issuing its indefinite national team ban on KHL players in August 2022, with chairman Anders Larsson saying in a statement that it sent an important message to the hockey world because, “it is about our fundamental values.”

Russia last competed in the 2021 world championship, losing to Canada in the quarterfinals during a tournament played under bubble-like conditions in Latvia because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Overall, the country has won 27 world championship golds in men’s hockey — second only to Canada’s 28 — while traditionally being one of its top draws. The tournament was so important to Russians that they would almost always produce a star-studded roster, with top players willing to jump on a trans-Atlantic flight immediately after being eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs even if it meant only getting a game or two in at the worlds.

However, international competition is a privilege, not a right, and it’s hard to see anyone welcoming a Russian team back before the war in Ukraine is over.

“I think the whole situation has to calm down,” Oksanen said. “They need to stop whatever they’re doing. After that, we can rethink the situation, the whole hockey world can rethink everything. Then hopefully they can come back after.”

Added Jalonen: “The war has to be stopped and then maybe it takes some time to get them involved again.”

It took eight years after the end of the Second World War before Germany was permitted to return to an international hockey competition at the 1953 world championship, where it competed as West Germany.

How to handle Russia is particularly front of mind right now in Finland, a country that endured the Winter War in 1939 when the Soviet Union invaded its territory. Those countries share a land border that stretches 1,289 kilometers from north to south.

“They are our neighbors,” Jalonen said. “We have more than 1,000 kilometers together with them. Of course, we have to be ready because anything can happen. I don’t think we are afraid, but we are ready for anything.”

(Top photo: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)

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