Scheduled to open their NHL seasons in Prague next month, the Nashville Predators and San Jose Sharks were told their Russian players cannot enter the Czech Republic to participate because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
"We can confirm that the Czech Foreign Ministry has sent a letter to the NHL to point out that, at this moment, the Czech Republic or any other state in the [visa-free] Schengen zone should not issue visas to the Russian players to enter our territory," Czech Deputy Foreign Minister Martin Smolek said in a statement to the Associated Press.
Nashville and San Jose are scheduled to begin their regular seasons at Prague's O2 Arena on Oct. 7 and 8 in what will be the NHL's first games played outside North America since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Although travel rosters are not set, Predators forward Yakov Trenin and Sharks forward Evgeny Svechnikov could be affected by the Czech policy, which NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly downplayed in comments to the AP on Thursday, saying he has "no concern" with players traveling to Prague or taking the ice.
The Czech Republic was one of the first European countries to stop issuing visas to most Russian citizens after the Russian invasion began in February. Later that month, the Czech football association said its national soccer team would not play Russia if both teams met in a World Cup playoff - before Russia was later expelled from the tournament. Since the upcoming NHL games were announced in April, Czech goaltending legend Dominik Hasek has led opposition to Russian players coming to Prague, reportedly approaching the upper house of Parliament, the Senate and the Foreign Ministry about the matter.
"It's very important for the support of our Ukrainian ally and safety of our citizens," Hasek told Czech media.
The Czech Republic's initial protest against Russian participation mirrored a broader effort to ban Russian teams and athletes from some major sports and competitions around the world. Some bans also extended to Belarusian athletes because of their country's support of Russia.
Russian federations and athletes filed appeals to oppose the bans in sports including soccer, gymnastics, rugby and biathlon, and in April, a Russian ban in luge was overturned. Other bans have been reaffirmed, including that of World Athletics, which maintained its stance ahead of this summer's track and field world championships.
But as the Czech Foreign Ministry asserts its position against Russian hockey players, the International Olympic Committee appears open to reversing its February recommendation that sports federations ban Russian and Belarusian athletes from competition.
In a conference call last week, US Olympic & Paralympic Committee chair Susanne Lyons said: “We know that the IOC is beginning to think about whether there’s a pathway back for the Russian athletes. They are beginning to reach out to all of their stakeholders to get input on that topic.”
Lyons framed the IOC's reconsideration as an issue of fairness, adding, "I think all of us feel at some point in time individual athletes should not be the victims of whatever their government politics or other tensions there are around the world.
“I think inevitably there will be a desire to see athletes that happen to reside in Russia come back and be part of competition, but the timing and what that looks like is to be determined.”