Russian hockey already on its knees – Hockeyarchives
As a result of its invasion of Ukraine, Russia faces heavy sanctions and significant repercussions. Hockey, a discipline which has great value in the eyes of Vladimir Putin, is no exception, in the first place the IIHF tournaments from which Russia is now excluded, just like the Belarusian accomplice. Let’s take stock of the initiatives taken since last Thursday and the start of the conflict.
This Monday is a day to mark with a white stone. Following an extraordinary meeting, the IIHF took a series of strong actions:
– move the 2023 Junior World Cup, initially planned to Novosibirsk and Omsk
– Russia and Belarus (the Belarusian nation that allowed Russian troops access to northern Ukraine) will be excluded from the international hockey federation from August
– the various national teams, as well as the clubs, of these two countries will not play in the next international competitions
It should be noted that, in this press release, the conditional was used, the IIHF leaving an open door in the event of the withdrawal of Russian troops on Ukrainian territory. Probably unthinkable under the mandate of the predecessor René Fasel, who quickly communicated his disappointment with these sanctions, if they were to be confirmed, they would be unique in the history of hockey. During the Prague Spring in 1968 and the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, the 1969 world championship was moved from the Czechoslovak capital to Stockholm, where the USSR had still participated and won the gold medal. The decision taken by the IIHF on Monday is absolutely unprecedented.
Interviewed by France Info, Luc Tardif does not rule out a second salvo of sanctions, withdrawing the 2023 World Cup scheduled for Saint Petersburg – the organization would then go to Switzerland – and suspending certain Russian leaders. Pavel Bure, the Russian member of the council, was also not authorized to attend this meeting for conflict of interest.
Recommended by the IOC, the prohibition of international competitions in Russia and Belarus as well as the exclusion of all their national teams, these were in every respect the wishes expressed by several national federations which had coordinated, in particular Czechia, Switzerland, Finland and Latvia to name but a few. Hockey Canada and USA Hockey supported the decisions of the IIHF when they were published. An approach also shared by legend Wayne Gretzky – whose grandmother Maria was a native of Pidhaitsi in Ukraine – who pleaded for an exclusion from the Russian team of the World Junior 2022 which was rescheduled this summer.
It is still too early to know what impact these measures will have on the French teams, we promise it will be clearer in the coming weeks. If France and Austria were automatically promoted, the most delicate subject could then be a potential relegation of Russia and Belarus. Will they be sent down the world scale? One certainty: like a house of cards, all Russian hockey is collapsing.
The joker symbol
If there is a club that embodies the deep crisis between the Western world and Russia, it is that of the Jokerit in Helsinki. The club from the Finnish capital has been playing in the big KHL since 2014, but the Russian influence does not stop there. Since 2019, the former glory of Finnish hockey Jari Kurri has been the majority shareholder of the club thanks to his company Jack Promotions in which the mining company Norilsk Nickel Harjavalta holds a large share and therefore a good part of the Jokers. This mining company is part of a group whose main owner is Russian oligarch Vladimir Potanin, one of the richest people in Russia.
The Hartwall Arena, which hosts the Jokerit, has been made up of Russian funds since 2013. The arena is owned by the Helsinki Halli company with Arena Events as majority shareholder. The chairman of the board of directors is businessman Roman Rotenberg, his compatriot Gennady Timchenko is also one of the main owners of the arena, both are Russian-Finnish. We therefore understand why, last Friday, the Finnish federation decided to withdraw the jerseys (Koivu, Lehtinen, Selänne, Timonen, etc.) and the championship pennants which had until then been hoisted at the top of the arena. In addition, the Hartwall company is currently taking steps to end its partnership which has linked it to the ice rink since 1997, its name was removed from its facade yesterday. It’s hard to imagine the Jokerit currently evolving in this arena, and even less the nations that will compete in the next World Championship in Helsinki and Tampere. In the absence of Hartwall Arena and new owners, matches could take place in the former Helsingin Jäähalli or in Espoo.
Roman Rotenberg, his father Boris, his uncle Arkady and Timchenko are close to Vladimir Putin and under international sanctions. As for Potanine, the main funder of the Jokerit, numerous money laundering reports have implicated its companies since 2020. According to the Finnish media Yle, the suspicious transfers are estimated at several tens of billions of euros.
In reaction to the war started by Russia, the main association of supporters of the Jokerit, Eteläpääty had demanded a departure from the KHL by threatening to boycott. In 2020, they had already banged their fists on the table when Lukashenko was re-elected as the leader of Belarus thanks to fraudulent votes. At the last moment before this meeting against Dinamo, their favorites had not then embarked for Minsk, infuriating the Russian leaders including the president of the hockey federation Vladislav Tretiak. The Jokerit were therefore warned by their influential supporters association, as well as by several sponsors who turned away from the Helsinki club, including the major partner Barona, which notably manages the employees of the club and the Hartwall Arena.
From a financial and logistical point of view, it had therefore become impossible for the Jokerit, second in the Western Conference after the premature end of the regular season – this one already parasitized by the covid – to continue the season, they finally forfeited for the KHL playoffs which started on Tuesday. But with a Russian base that has plagued him from within, now weakened by heavy international sanctions and extremely tense diplomatic relations, it may well be that the end of the KHL adventure is not temporary but definitive. In any case, according to the players and coach Lauri Marjamäki – who has already turned the page by joining Kärpät in Liiga – the Jokerit and KHL equation now seems impossible. La Liiga, clubs and managers, would once again welcome the Jokerit with open arms, but a realistic return to the Finnish championship could only be considered from 2023-2024.
End of the Jokerit adventure in KHL? It would not be an isolated case since Dinamo Riga beat them. Admittedly, the participation of Latvia’s number 1 club in the Russian league has been at the center of debate for several years, up to the highest political spheres. It was therefore enough to speed up the withdrawal process. Only a few hours after the start of the conflict by Vladimir Putin, Minister Anita Muižniece had announced her wish to submit a bill so that Dinamo Riga would leave the KHL. Finally, last Sunday, the president of Dinamo Juris Savickis confirmed the end of the KHL adventure after 14 seasons: in such a military and humanitarian crisis, we see no possibility of cooperation with the league“. Dinamo Riga puts an end to disputed Russian cooperation. Moreover, several European clubs have ended their cooperation with Russian sponsors, this is the case for example of EV Zug in Switzerland whose agreement with the gas pipeline company Nord Stream is now void.
Like all of Russia, the KHL is about to weaken. A lost franchise, another market about to join the movement, a crumbled economy, the Russian continental league will also lose exposure. While many media have decided to stop covering the KHL, the Discovery broadcaster network, the world’s leading pay-TV channel, will no longer broadcast, until further notice, the matches of the Russian championship in Finland, the only foreign country where Discovery held broadcast rights. The KHL and hockey in general are the first vector of sports subscription to the dedicated Discovery + channel in Finland.
Less exposure and probably fewer foreign players too, Czech hockey players have also been invited to leave Russia. In the days / weeks to come, we can expect many departures from foreign players. In the process of being dismantled, this is already the case for Jokerit, several of its players having joined the Liiga, and therefore its coach. For example, Slovak player Libor Hudáček of Dinamo Minsk indicated that he and his foreign teammates wanted to leave the KHL, a league that is closing in on itself. However, contractual and sporting obligations still hold many of them back. The fact that the European Union has closed its airspace to Russian planes makes it even more difficult to leave. Finnish goalkeeper Frans Tuohimaa, whose side Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk started the playoffs, implored the IIHF to facilitate the return of foreign players to Europe. Markus Granlund did not wait for anyone, managing to leave Ufa without commenting.
The NHL reacts
Several hockey personalities have taken a stand. Former star goalkeeper Dominik Hasek has been the most vocal, wanting the North American big league to immediately end the contracts of Russian players, even those hostile to dictator Putin. We obviously think of Artemi Panarin of the New York Rangers, truly the only player to have taken a stand by denouncing authoritarian excesses in his country. As for Alexander Ovechkin, co-founder in 2017 of the support movement for the president « Putin Team », he split a few generalities at a press conference, calling for peace in the world and that the various parties lay down their arms. Remarks finally quite smooth, severely criticized by the Dominator who recalled firmly: “ every adult in Europe knows that Russia is waging a war against a free country and its people “.
The very popular equipment manufacturer CCM has also decided to no longer use Ovechkin – who earns 500,000 dollars a year – or any other Russian player in its marketing campaigns. In addition, the anthem and colors of Ukraine were broadcast before the game in Winnipeg. The Ottawa Senators, whose owner Eugene Melnyk has Ukrainian-born parents, will play the Ukrainian anthem in every game until the end of the season.
The NHL, out of habit careful not to make waves, also announced a set of sanctions on Monday, suspending its relations with Russian commercial partners (including the sports betting platform Liga Stavok) and stopping the promotion of the league. on various platforms and social networks in Russia. This is particularly the case for the Russian portal Yandex, a partner since 2019, which is no longer authorized to broadcast NHL content and matches. The league also insisted that players’ families are in a difficult position in Russia, or even in North America since some Russian NHLers have been intimidated.
Meanwhile, the Gagarin Cup playoffs have started in a climate never seen before, where Russia does not recognize the existence of this war and its deep gravity. We play in KHL as if nothing had happened. In cooperation with the Russian Olympic Committee, the Russian Ministry of Sports is preparing a protest plan. But like the country, Russian hockey is more isolated than ever, and it will inevitably come out weakened by this rain of measures.