Jokerit facing backlash over Belarus game decision

The Helsinki club plays in Minsk on the opening night of KHL's season - but critics say the team is helping the regime normalise brutal violence against pro-democracy activists.

Jokerit plays pre-season friendly against Dinamo Riiga, 27th August 2020 / Credit: Jokerit

Helsinki ice hockey club Jokerit are facing a backlash over their decision to go ahead with a game in the Belarus capital Minsk on Thursday, which critics say helps normalise the regime of President Lukashenko, and undermines support for human rights.

The game against Dinamo Minsk marks the opening match of this year’s KHL season, but it comes after weeks of protests over rigged presidential elections in Belarus, a crackdown by regime authorities against pro-democracy protesters, and horrific accounts of torture and abuse meted out by police.

In a brief statement, Jokerit’s General Manager Jari Kurri confirms Thursday’s game will go ahead as scheduled, and says “we hope that Belarus will find peaceful solutions to its political situation.”

The club has apparently tried to postpone the game, but the request was turned down by Dinamo Minsk – and even Jokerit’s official fan club have said they support a forfeit if it’s not possible to postpone, and they’re backing a boycott of Minsk games by Dinamo’s official fan club too.

“Conceding the game, that’s not an option for us” says Jokerit Communications Manage Iiro Keurulainen.

“Of course we all have followed the news and are generally aware what’s going on in Minsk […] we have been in constant contact with Dinamo and it is safe to go there and play in Minsk” he tells News Now Finland, adding that a number of international football fixtures have also gone ahead in the Belarus capital recently.

Keurulainen says however that players haven’t expressed their concerns about the optics of seeming to normalise the situation in Minsk by traveling there. In January 2019 a Finnish footballer Riku Riski refused to attend a national team training camp in Qatar because of the human rights situation in that country.

“We haven’t had any kind of pressure from the players” says Keurulainen. “We haven’t had any message from the players concerning that.”

Jokerit will limit their time in Belarus flying on Thursday directly to Minsk, and returning back to Helsinki immediately after the game.

File picture of Jokerit vs Dinamo Minsk, at Hartwall Arena Helsinki, October 11th 2019 / Credit: Jokerit

Media criticism about the fixture

One of the media outlets which has been outspoken about Jokerit’s Belarus trip is the Swedish-language newspaper Hufvudstadsbladet.

Sports Editor Filip Saxén says this is not a question of ice hockey, but a question of human rights.

“Hockey is sports and entertainment, and it’s not important in the big scheme of the world. And now Jokerit are saying all they’re thinking of is hockey” says Saxén.

“We’ve all seen, we’ve all read what is happening in Belarus. People are getting tortured, raped, murdered, people are fleeing the country. And here’s a Finnish hockey team going there as if nothing’s happening. Which in a sense is support for [Belarus President] Lukashenko” he tells News Now Finland.

Jokerit would reportedly face a 5-0 loss and a fine between €11,000 and €30,000 if they don’t play the game. But Saxén argues there’s much more at stake for the KHL, strongly backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Jokerit’s Russian owners have strong ties to the Kremlin which for the KHL it’s really important that the game is played in Minsk. Especially now” says HBL Sports Editor Filip Saxén.

“Jokerit is the only Western team, and KHL needs them to play because it sends a strong signal both from Russia and from Belarus that everything is under control. That’s what Russia and Belarus want the world to see” he adds.

“Going there, Jokerit is enabling them to show that. It makes it a really political statement to play there.”