In what has been a bizarre year, the KHL began their 2020-21 season on time yesterday, helping restore a sense of normalcy to the international hockey landscape. With that, three Nashville Predators prospects were slated to begin their seasons this week, including Eeli Tolvanen and Vladislav Yeryomenko.
Tolvanen’s season opener with Jokerit was scheduled for today at 11:10 AM CT against Yeryomenko’s Dynamo Minsk team. However, international tensions finally came to a head this morning, resulting in a Jokerit forfeit. Here’s how the KHL got to this point:
Unrest in Belarus
For the past several weeks, Belarus has been plagued by political unrest. President Alexander Lukashenko—in power since 1994—has been denounced nationwide for his poor response to COVID-19 and his authoritarian regime, among other things. Heading towards an August 9 election day, two opposition candidates were jailed and a third fled the country, leading to widespread dissatisfaction among voters. A fourth candidate emerged as a popular alternative but was dominated by Lukashenko in an election contested as rigged and riddled with irregularities, including a near-week long internet blackout around the vote.
Since then, the opposition candidate has fled the country after contesting the election. Police have arrested thousands in Minsk and other cities and attacked protesters with tear gas, rubber bullets, stun grenades, and, according to some reports, live bullets too.
Cities like Minsk have hosted the largest protests in Belarus history, with over 100,000 people joining some days. High-profile government officials have resigned, state TV workers have walked off the job, secret police have been seen dragging protesters off, and over a dozen journalists have been stripped of their accreditation.
On August 26, Jokerit’s fan club announced they were boycotting their team’s season opener, standing in solidarity with Minsk fans who have called for the game to be postponed amidst the unrest.
NEW: Jokerit Helsinki Fans Join Forces with Dinamo Minsk Fans— Aivis Kalniņš (@aiviskalnins) August 26, 2020
“In such a situation, Dinamo Minsk should at least be able to postpone the match to another time.”https://t.co/G2IDedG4UV
Minsk fans have demanded the club condemn the violence and oppression ongoing in Belarus.
As attempts by Jokerit to postpone the game continued, the KHL announced puck drop would be moved up one hour to allow Jokerit to leave Belarus immediately after the game due to COVID-19 regulations and the persistent unrest.
Jokerit’s fan club doubled down on their ask of the club, stating they would boycott Jokerit home games if the team went ahead to Belarus. There have been unconfirmed reports the team was working with Minsk to postpone the game, but the Belorussians refused to do so.
Helsinki Jokerit's supporter club states that they will boycott their favorite club's home games if Jokerit goes ahead and plays their KHL-opener in Minsk, Belarus tomorrow. Club president Jari Kurri insists that team will play at Minsk. Via @svenska_yle https://t.co/Oqq1ZfGAq1— Szymon Szemberg (@Sz1909_Szemberg) September 2, 2020
This morning, we woke up to the news that the game between Jokerit and Minsk had been postponed and has since been forfeited.
Jokerit’s team plane never left the ground in Finland, and reports indicate it was the players who initiated the boycott and refused to play. There are rumors that players were receiving death threats. It’s unclear from who or where these death threats were coming.
New reporting indicates that the league told Jokerit the match was cancelled (hence announcing the postponement), but has since changed their tune and issued Jokerit a forfeit loss for failing to show in Minsk.
Jokerit’s next game is scheduled for 9:00 AM CT on Saturday, September 5 at Dinamo Riga.
Minsk’s next game is scheduled for 9:10 AM CT on September 5 against Barys Astana.