Publishers Note: Pucks and Politics

With the 2021 World Championship in Belarus, what will Hockey Canada's position be?
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Photos courtesy of W. Graeme Roustan

Photos courtesy of W. Graeme Roustan

Belarus is one of the most beautiful countries in the world, and I should know as I have been there many times and travelled extensively throughout the world. The city of Minsk is breathtaking as the architecture has everything from the classic USSR look to the ultra-modern. However, the best part of Belarus is not its cities, countryside or culture, rather it’s the citizens who are as friendly as you will find anywhere in the world. Many of its citizens are friends of mine after having played in president Alexander Lukashenko’s hockey tournaments in Minsk since 2008 on its IIHF, Canada and USA teams.

According to a Canadian Press story published Sept. 29, “Canada and Britain have levelled sanctions on the president of Belarus, his son and various government officials over what they say was a fraudulent election and abuse of those who have taken to the streets to protest it.” With the IIHF World Championship scheduled to be co-hosted by Belarus and Latvia in May 2021, what will Hockey Canada’s position be?

Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau has levied sanctions on Lukashenko and 10 others in Belarus. Is Hockey Canada at odds with Trudeau and the Canadian government’s position by bolstering Lukashenko on the world (hockey) stage, resulting from sending its citizen-players, coaches and staff representing Canada?

Does Hockey Canada CEO Tom Renney and his board of directors choose pucks and play hockey or politics and boycott the IIHF tournament to back up Canada’s foreign affairs minister Francois-Philippe Champagne, who stated, “Canada will not stand by silently as the government of Belarus continues to commit systematic human-rights violations and shows no indication of being genuinely committed to finding a negotiated solution with opposition groups.” Champagne added, “Canada will continue to stand with the people of Belarus and we will work with our international partners to ensure that their voices are heard and that those responsible for undermining democracy and for brutal actions against protestors are held to account.”

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Some Canadians may be confused as to how the government of Canada can condemn Lukashenko, but Hockey Canada will share a platform with him when they more than likely have a medal placed around the players’ and coaches’ necks by him. That confusion would be somewhat understandable, and Renney needs to explain to Canadians if Hockey Canada is going to play the puck or support the politics of Trudeau and the Canadian government.

Canadians should ask why Hockey Canada will or will not participate in the World Championship in Belarus in May 2021 and for that matter, the Winter Olympics in China just months later in February 2022. Do questions of human rights abuses in Belarus and in China cause Hockey Canada and the IIHF to play the puck or consider the politics of human rights?

Canadians should also hear what Bob Nicholson, chairman of the Edmonton Oilers and vice-president of the IIHF, thinks Hockey Canada and the IIHF should do. Nicholson, you’ll recall, was also CEO of Hockey Canada, from 1998 through 2014.

Perhaps the issue will not have to be addressed to Canadians by Renney and Nicholson if the World Championship are cancelled due to COVID-19 health concerns, but that just inevitably kicks the puck and politics of the human right abuses question down the ice to China. Either way, they should be transparent and clearly state their positions since they represent Hockey Canada and the IIHF respectively.

These debates on pucks and politics date back to 1972 when Belarus was part of the USSR and they played against Canada in the Summit Series. The big difference between 1972 and 2021 is the internet, and although Canadians heard, primarily in newspapers, about how bad human rights abuses were in the USSR, no one saw any negative images on TV coming out of the USSR.

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Today, you simply cannot keep up with all the video that is coming out of Belarus and you cannot hide behind ignorance like in 1972. Today, you need to take a position and defend it, one way or another, and Hockey Canada and the IIHF will make their statements either verbally or by their action or inaction. History will be the judge of whether or not they did the right thing.

As a 12-year-old watching the Summit Series, I instantly became a proponent of international hockey as I was amazed by the skills of the USSR players, and I believed right then that the North American style of hockey would evolve, and, thankfully, it did. Some would also say, including myself, that the Summit Series brought the East and the West a bit closer at a time of rising political tensions.

As the debate whether pucks and politics are independent or co-dependent continues, the one thing that everyone might agree on is how pucks bring citizens from around the world together and help create lasting friendships. I am proof of that being true.

I’m convinced that had the 1972 Summit Series not occurred, I would have never made so many new international friends and played hockey in Red Square on a line with Igor Larionov playing against members of the 1972 USSR Summit Series team, 37 years after watching them on TV, or travelled to Ufa, Russia, with its goalie Vladimir Tretiak, along with Slava Fetisov and Alex Medvedev for the first ever KHL game.

As for Belarus, I admit my bias as I have so many friends in and from this great country, and I want the very best for all of them, whatever the great people of Belarus legitimately determine that to be. I want people from around the world to visit Belarus, and I encourage you to put a visit to Belarus on your bucket list if you haven’t already been there. The beauty of the country is worth the trip alone, but the friendships you will make with Belarusian people will have a positive impact on your life forever. It has for me.

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