It may have taken a while – but the International Ice Hockey Federation has officially stripped Belarus of co-hosting duties for the upcoming IIHF World Championship scheduled for late May and early June.
Originally slated to co-host alongside Latvia, Belarus has been under intense scrutiny from the international hockey community due to the actions of president Alexander Lukashenko, who has held onto power for 26 years and was recently accused of benefitting from a rigged election in the summer.
Because of the election results, masses of citizens have been protesting in Belarus and have often been met by heavy-handed tactics from law enforcement and the army. With no sign of the aggression abating, it seemed odd that the IIHF would attempt to host one of its marquee events in such an environment, but bureaucracy slowed any quick progress on the matter.
At one point, there was an offer by Russia to take over for Belarus, but that was quashed when sanctions related to prior doping violations prevented Russia from doing so. The idea of Latvia hosting by itself was originally dismissed, as IIHF president Rene Fasel told The Hockey News that the nation didn’t have a second rink that met the tournament’s specifications.
Now, however, the IIHF is at least re-considering the idea of a single-venue format that would also aid in the safety of participants due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Whether or not Riga, Latvia can be that city is a matter for the IIHF to decide – but with the tournament coming up in just four months, it’s a decision that will have to be made rather quickly.
The fact Fasel and the IIHF council decided to strip Belarus of hosting duties is rather remarkable for the organization, which is loath to get involved in political matters. Recently, Fasel drew the ire of many when he was photographed hugging Lukashenko during an in-person meeting, but obviously that friendship didn’t save Lukashenko’s bid to keep the tournament in Minsk: the man sometimes called ‘Europe’s Last Dictator’ is a huge hockey fan, too.
The World Championship is a very prestigious event in Europe, so losing the tournament is a big blow to the Lukashenko regime. But political forces from many countries had been weighing in on the issue and the pressure was on the IIHF’s voting members to do something about it.
While Europe loves the worlds, the tourney doesn’t have as much of a following in North America since it typically takes place during the Stanley Cup playoffs. Because of that, Canada and the U.S. can only send players who have either missed the post-season or play on teams that get the boot early on. Even then, not every star is in shape to jet over to Europe to play another two weeks of high-paced hockey. For countries like Russia however, going for gold is a big deal and superstars such as Alex Ovechkin have often gone straight from the NHL playoffs to the tournament, even if the worlds had already begun.
There are still a number of hurdles to get over for the 2021 worlds to get over before the tournament can be called a success – will it have to be in a bubble, for instance, or will it happen at all? – but in reassessing the decision to have a country in the midst of a bloody crisis as co-host, the IIHF made the right call.