The KHL season opener for Helsinki ice hockey team Jokerit against Dinamo Minsk in Belarus has been canceled.
The team didn’t show up at Helsinki Airport for their early afternoon flight, and shortly afterwards the club and KHL both issued brief statements confirming the cancelation, although no official reason was given.
Jokerit have faced growing pressure this week over their decision to travel to Belarus, amid an ongoing brutal crackdown against democracy protesters by regime forces.
The club’s official supporters association Eteläpääty Ry says they’re very happy with the decision to cancel Thursday night’s game, after calling for a boycott of home matches if the fixture went ahead as planned.
“Obviously that’s what we wanted, and human rights are a way more important thing than hockey” says Roope Räty from the fan group.
“We’re 100% behind the team with their decision like we have previously said. And we’re just relieved and happy that eventually they came up with the right decision at this moment” he tells News Now Finland.
Jokerit’s KHL participation
Questions have long been raised about Jokerit’s participation in the KHL, which is a pet project for several businessmen linked to Russian President Vladimir Putin. It includes clubs from countries with dubious human rights records including Belarus, Russia and China.
“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 Hufvudstadsbladet 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 […] going there, Jokerit is enabling them to show that. It makes it a really political statement to play there” Saxén adds.
Roope Räty from Eteläpääty concedes that membership of KHL is problematic for the club.
“I think there is no Jokerit fan who doesn’t condemn the actions of Russia and China. We’re standing behind our team, we’re supporting our team and if the fans quit and give up on the team then we don’t have a voice. People don’t listen to us any more. When we support the team we have a chance to say what we think.”
In an ideal world, says Räty, Jokerit would be playing again in the Finnish top flight hockey league Liiga, or in another European league that included the best teams from countries without poor human rights track records.
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