Women’s Hockey Update: December 12th, 2017
An update this time around with really only one story: the Oswald Commission’s decision on the Russian women’s national team came down today. Six players from the 2014 Olympic squad, of the seven under investigation, have been convicted of doping offenses at the 2014 Olympic Games, and have received life-time bans from the Olympic Games. The six are: Inna Dyubanok, Yekaterina Lebedeva, Yekaterina Pashkevich, Anna Shibanova, Galina Skiba, and Yekaterina Smolentseva. The seventh player in the group, Anna Shokhina, was cleared of any wrong-doing. The Oswald Commission also annulled Team Russia’s sixth-place finish at the 2014 games.
Read on, for some thoughts and quotes.
So it was something of a sad day for those of us who follow Russian women’s hockey, although our feelings no doubt pale in comparison with what the players themselves are going through (it could, mind you, have been worse, and we’ll get to that in a bit). The Russian Hockey Federation issued a statement in the wake of the verdicts condemning the decision and promising an appeal:
“Note that in the course of the proceedings banned substances were not found in the players’ samples. The FHR considers the Commission’s verdict with regards to the suspended athletes to be unfounded and the evidence to be insufficient, and will provide complete support and assistance to the players in challenging these decisions. “
Smolentseva, a 20-year-veteran of the national team who retired this summer at 35, also stated her plans to launch an appeal to the Switzerland-based Court of Arbitration for Sport:
“I’m in shock; this is a nightmare. Obviously, we do not agree, we will file an appeal with the CAS… I hope for a positive outcome; we are confident in our conduct. They found nothing implicating us, just some scratches [on drug-sample test-tubes from the Sochi Games]. “
“I’m happy that the IOC made such a decision in my case, and did not suspend me. However, I am worried about the rest of the girls and the whole national team if we are not allowed at the Olympics. The girls will appeal the IOC’s decision to the [CAS]. We discussed this with them. Obviously, we must fight to the end.”
And that brings us to the next questions, which basically boil down to: “what happens next?” Obviously, there will be appeals to the CAS for the six players suspended, although when we may expect a decision there is yet unknown. As for the team’s participation in the 2018 Games, the FHR has said that it “remains an open question.” Russian athletes today voted unanimously to attend the 2018 Games under the “neutral team” conditions that the IOC laid out last week. The Russian Olympic Committee and the IOC will sit down in the next few days to work out the requirements for admission to the games for the individual athletes, and we wait to see what comes of that.
The International Ice Hockey Federation, meanwhile, has not yet responded to today’s verdicts, and it is not a given that they will follow the IOC’s lead in suspending the players, at least not right away. The world hockey body has been very critical over the past couple of years of a number of aspects of the whole 2014 doping investigation (most notably the drive for collective punishment), and as recently as last month IIHF President Rene Fasel stated that there was “no serious evidence” that the seven accused players had done anything wrong. The IOC suspension applies to the Olympic Games only; a decision on the players’ general international hockey futures will likely not come at least until the Olympic body has provided detailed reasoning for today’s verdicts, which will reportedly happen “in due course.” The IIHF may also chose to wait until the CAS hears the players’ appeals before taking any action of its own. In any case, there can be no doubt at all that the IIHF wishes to see the Russian women’s team take part in the Olympics.
So, after all this, whither the Russian women’s national team? The ray of sunshine in today’s decisions, of course, was the acquittal of Shokhina, the 20-year-old Tornado Moscow Oblast star and defending Women’s Hockey League scoring champion. The tremendous line of Shokhina, Yelena Dergachyova, and Alevtina Shtaryova can remain intact for both club and country, and that is a good thing. It was also something of a happy surprise; of the three dozen or so cases on which Oswald has so far rendered a decision, only Shokhina and figure-skater Adelina Sotnikova have been cleared.
The clearing of her name may have a further benefit for Shokhina, who has been a bit off-form this season; after scoring 2.25 points per game for Tornado last season, she has just nine points in ten Women’s Hockey League matches this season, and in her last three games had accumulated 26 penalty minutes, matching her previous career high for an entire season. We do have to wonder about the psychological stress of being under investigation by Oswald (on the other had, Shokhina has been spectacular for the national team in 2017-18, so perhaps not), and it will be interesting to see how she fares from here on out.
That is not to say that were not some grievous losses from today’s verdict. Forwards Pashkevich and Smolentseva, both now retired, had played for the first Russian national team to attend a Women’s World Championship, in 1997, and had acquired tremendous stature in Russian women’s hockey. The other four suspended players are all still active (Skiba plays for Tornado, while the other three play for Agidel Ufa), and were in consideration for the 2018 Olympic team. Forwards Skiba, Lebedeva, and Dyubanok all have international resumes stretching back at least a decade, and while defender Shibanova is still just 23, she played her first World Championship in 2013 and has not missed one since. If the Court of Arbitration for Sport does not overturn the Oswald Commission’s decision, the Russian national team will have some holes to fill in future rosters.
However, in the long run, and probably in the medium and short runs as well, Russian women’s hockey should be fine. The women’s game in Russia has seen some tremendous development in recent years, with a slow but steady increase in interest in the Women’s Hockey League (and that league’s “adoption” by the KHL a couple of seasons ago), the formation of the national amateur championship, and the establishment of girls’ hockey programs in a number of cities that had not had them before. And the national teams, both senior and U18, have established themselves as solid perennial contenders for bronze medals at their respective World Championships, even if the ultimate goal of overtaking the North American squads is yet unattained. Today’s verdicts, in other words, represent a blow, but not a mortal one.
Whatever is to happen in the days and weeks to come, the Russian women’s national team has little time to ponder it. The squad is in Finland this week to take part in a five-nation pre-Olympic tournament (Finland, Russia, Japan, Sweden, and Germany are the participants). The competition actually got underway today, but Russia’s first game will be on Wednesday, against the Germans. You can see the Team Russia roster here (link is a PDF); it includes three of the suspended players (Skiba, Shibanova, and Dyubanok) along with the acquitted Shokhina, and would in normal circumstances provide something of a preview of the Olympic squad. Once again, we wait to see what comes.
The next women’s hockey update will be on this coming Monday — any further news of Olympic developments will be included, of course. However, there will also be talk of happier things: there is some amateur hockey action this coming weekend, a look at the Women’s Hockey League all-stars, and a recap of this week’s international tournament in Finland. Thank you for reading!