Maple Leafs free agent defender Mikko Lehtonen, playing in the KHL for Jokerit, was due to play in the season opener on the road today. That game was set to take place in Minsk, Belarus, and the KHL has declared it postponed, but has offered no further explanation.
The KHL game between Dinamo Minsk and Jokerit Helsinki, due to be played in the Belarusian capital on Sep. 3, will not go ahead as planned. The league will issue a further statement about the reasons behind this decision in due course.
Belarus, and Minsk the capital city especially, has been the scene of massive protests following a disputed election on August 9.
There have been widespread reports of police violence, detentions, torture and murder. During this time, a growing movement in Europe among hockey fans has demanded that Minsk be removed as the co-host of the next Men’s World Championships. The IIHF has been unresponsive to those demands so far, but reports are they are considering moving the Minsk portion to some other country.
When the KHL season schedule revealed that Helsinki’s Jokerit team would open their season in Minsk against Dinamo, Finnish fans were unhappy and the supporters club threatened a boycott if the team went to Minsk. As late as yesterday, the word from the club was they would play, and Jari Kurri, star of Finnish hockey and owner and GM of the team was taking a lot of public heat in Finland. Many consider him to be a figurehead owner with the power held in Russia.
The head of Finland’s hockey federation said that the team had to live with their decision if they chose to go, and Kurri, at that time, stated they would go and return immediately after the game.
The Finnish culture minister wouldn’t demand the team not go to Belarus, but did say (translation) “I hope they think about what signals it gives.”
The controversy embroiled the state-owned gambling company that had not yet renewed its contract with the team, and is now delaying any decision on that, per the report linked above.
One English-language summation of the situation states that Mikko Lehtonen is the only player to make a public comment, and this was made in the context of the discussion about removing Minsk as the site of the World Championships.
I have read the news that something mellakantynkää [riots or protests] there has been. Not let it affect. Let them riot with each other, he told MTV a couple of weeks ago.
Today Jokerit’s flight to Minsk was supposed to leave at 13:00 local time, and that flight was simply announced as cancelled by Finnair. One publication is reporting that the players refused to go, and the report sites confidential sources that claim numerous death threats were made to the players.
That claim has been met with skepticism by Finns, as it allows the team to not ever decide what signals they were giving by going to Minsk in the first place.
A counter report just released claims the KHL made the decision upon request of Jokerit, who had been trying to get the match postponed, but Dinamo would not agree.
No official explanation has been provided by Jokerit at this time for why they never left Finland, but the designation of postponed seems to preclude the team forfeiting the match.
This throws all reports of KHL postponement out the window, and implies the players or the team refused to leave Finland.
Jari Kurri is telling the Finnish media that the KHL did cancel the game before they got on the plane, but while they were actually getting on the bus to go to the airport.
As of now, the KHL can claim they are supporting Minsk by issuing the forfeit, Jokerit can claim they had permission not to go, and no one at all has to take responsibility for the concept of playing hockey in the middle of the unrest in Belarus.
Jokerit was also one of two clubs that refused to continue with the playoffs in March when the KHL leadership wanted to carry on. Many Russian teams and executives were upset with those teams at the time.
Jokerit plays Dinamo Minsk once more in Finland in February. The next team to travel to Minsk is Barys Nur-Sultan from Kazakhstan.