The International Olympic Committee's decision to ban Russia from the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, promises to further dilute a men's ice hockey tournament that is already missing NHL talent.
The IOC ban, announced on Tuesday, followed the completion of its investigation into a state-sponsored athlete doping program by Russia, specifically during the 2014 Sochi Games. Russian athletes who receive a dispensation to compete in South Korea will do so under a "neutral flag"; any medals they win or records they set will not be credited to Russia.
From a hockey perspective, the news has several major consequences.
The foremost: whether a Russian team competes in the hockey tournament at all. If it does, it would do so under a neutral flag.
There has already been chatter in Russia that the country would boycott the Games if a ban was handed down. "If the International Olympic Committee decides to ban the performance of the Russian national anthem at the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, or participate in our opening ceremony, our country is unlikely to go to the Olympics," said Olympic speedskating champion Svetlana Zhurova, now deputy head of the International Affairs committee in the Russian parliament's lower house.
But Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Monday, via Tass, that no boycott was being considered. "We oppose the violation of our athletes' rights, we are against groundless violations of rights, but at the same time, Russia remains committed to the Olympic ideas, as President Putin said, it is his decision," the Kremlin spokesman said.
Said IOC president Thomas Bach on Tuesday: "An Olympic boycott has never accomplished anything. I don't see any reason for a boycott for the Russian athletes, because we allowed the clean Russian athletes to participate. To show that there are clean athletes in Russia.
Then there's the Kontinental Hockey League issue.
If the Russians do participate in the hockey tournament, the majority of the team's players will be from the KHL. Here's a look at the roster for the Channel One Cup, for example:
- KHL (@khl_eng) December 5, 2017
Will the KHL allow its players to compete in Pyeongchang?
The KHL already has an Olympic break (from Jan. 29 to Feb. 26) built into its schedule. But Pavel Lysenkov of Sovietsky Sport told ESPN last month that the KHL would eliminate the break if Russia was banned. "If Russia is not admitted to the Olympics for doping reasons, the KHL will cancel the pause window in one month, which is now in the regular season," he said.
KHL board member Alexander Medvedev told Tass last month that "contracted players won't be able to go anywhere" should the IOC ban Russia from the 2018 Games. There was also talk that the Russian parliament was preparing a bill that would ban KHL players from leaving for the Games.
That decision would send ripples through several countries. There were 15 KHL players on the Team Canada roster for the Karjala Cup tournament, which is an Olympic showcase. There were seven KHL players on the Team USA roster for the upcoming Deutschland Cup tournament.
Some of the former NHL players who could be kept out of the Olympics if the KHL restricts them: Goalie Ben Scrivens, forward Wojtek Wolski, forward Gilbert Brule and forward Matt Frattin of Canada; defenseman Matt Gilroy, defenseman Mike Lundin, forward Dan Sexton and goalie Ryan Stoa for the U.S.; and, of course, stars like Ilya Kovalchuk from Russia.
What this will all come down to: If the KHL will send players to the Olympics, competing on a "neutral" team and for their member countries; or, if the league doesn't participate, whether the International Ice Hockey Federation sides with the other member nations and demands that KHL players be allowed to represent their countries in the games if asked.
The IIHF contends those requests supersede any KHL decisions. The Olympics are sanctioned by the IIHF, and Russia's hockey federation is a member of the IIHF.
The players involved in this tug-of-war contend that there are already agreements in place that should allow them to participate.
"Hockey Canada already has a signed agreement with the KHL that they have to release players for tournaments. So, I really don't know how they could stop us from playing," one potential Canadian Olympian who is playing in the KHL told ESPN before the ban. "But if I've learned anything about Russians, it's that contracts mean nothing to them."
Worst-case scenario for the hockey tournament: The KHL opts out like the NHL, which announced in April that it would not allow any players under contract to participate in the 2018 Games. That could make the 2018 men's hockey tournament one of the most unpredictable in Olympic history.