By Lassi Jyrkkiö
With the 2011 World Championship in Slovakia kicking off in a little more than two weeks, a controversy surrounding the 2014 tournament has erupted.
In the summer of 2009 the International Ice Hockey Federation awarded, for the first time, the 2014 championship to Belarus. The decision stirred little controversy at the time, but that changed in December during the country’s presidential elections.
Often dubbed the “last dictatorship in Europe,” Belarus has been ruled throughout its 20-year independence by one man, president Alexander Lukashenko.
In the December elections, Lukashenko officially received a whopping 79 percent of the vote. Some observers claimed the vote count was suspicious (though most agree Lukashenko would have won, anyway), triggering large protests. The regime responded with a harsh crackdown: hundreds of protesters were jailed, including most of the other nine presidential candidates.
An international outcry ensued and both the U.S. Senate and European Parliament passed resolutions that called for the suspension of the tournament. Recently, assistant U.S. Senate majority leader Dick Durbin (D-Ill) and congressman Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) as well as NHL Hall of Famer and current member of the European Parliament, Peter Stastny, sent a letter to the IIHF urging them to suspend the 2014 worlds until all political prisoners are freed or move it to another location.
Stastny, who famously defected from Czechoslovakia to Canada in the late 1970s and represented three countries in international tournaments, has been vocal in his opposition to the tournament being held in Belarus, saying relocation - not a boycott or cancelation, which would hurt the game - is “an inexpensive means with a potentially big impact.”
“The only victim would be the Lukashenko regime,” Stastny said of a move. “Integrity of the game and the event would remain intact.”
As far as Stastny is concerned “the IIHF has made a mistake that can and should be corrected.”
The IIHF isn’t about to make a hasty turnabout, however. In a statement, they pointed to a section of their statute that states, “The IIHF observes strict political, racial and religious neutrality. No discrimination is permitted against a member national association or person on political, racial or religious grounds.
The 2014 tournament is sure to be a hot topic during the next IIHF congress, held during this year’s championship (April 29-May 15), where any member will have an opportunity to raise the issue. Afterward, it will be up to the congress to make a decision.
Politics aside, Belarus provides an indisputably hockey-friendly zone. Lukashenko, a player himself, is puck-obsessed and, as a result, facilities in Minsk, the capital, are first-class. The state-owned and state-of-the-art Minsk Arena had its inaugural puck drop performed by Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier last year. The complex, which fits 15,000, is home to the Kontinental League’s Dinamo Minsk and attracts the world tours of pop stars such as Elton John and Shakira. Lukashenko also organizes and plays in a prestigious annual tournament, the Christmas Cup, for veteran players from different countries.
The recent demands have stirred a passionate discussion on the website of Charter 97, a prominent anti-Lukashenko organization.
The majority of the commentators, despite some being passionate hockey fans, are delighted about a relocation scenario. One opposition leader has prepared a template letter to enable individual Belarusians to easily convey their thoughts to the IIHF.
Whether the pressure from the public and politicians will have any impact will be revealed in May.