IIHF: Safety key to decision on Russia's return to worlds

HELSINKI -- The International Ice Hockey Federation said Tuesday it will prioritize safety concerns when deciding whether to allow Russian and Belarusian teams to take part in its competitions, following efforts from the International Olympic Committee to allow athletes from both countries to compete at next year's Paris Games.

The IIHF has ruled out Russia and its ally Belarus returning for this year's world championships but is set to decide by the end of May on whether to readmit them for the 2023-24 season. A decision on whether they can qualify for the 2026 Winter Olympics is expected next year.

The IOC's proposal, strongly opposed by Ukraine and several other European governments, allows each sport's international governing body some leeway to decide how and when to reintegrate Russia and Belarus.

Speaking on a visit to men's world championship co-host Finland, IIHF president Luc Tardif said the governing body would focus on the safety of players -- including those from Russia and Belarus -- and others at its events. That echoes language the IIHF used in its initial decision to exclude Russia and Belarus in February 2022, shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

"We've got the responsibility. We have to guarantee the safety of all the participants -- the staff, the players, the fans. That's our responsibility, so that's our decision," Tardif said, drawing a contrast with what he called a "little bit more open" approach from Summer Olympic organizers in his home country of France.

The IOC has signaled it favors allowing Russian and Belarusian athletes back into sports events under a neutral flag and wants to exclude individual Russians and Belarusians deemed to support the war. Tardif said he didn't know how that would work and plans to hold talks with Olympic officials next month. Enforcing that rule, he said, "will not be an easy decision, but we are not there only to take easy decisions."

Russia was originally set to host the 2023 men's world championship in St. Petersburg, but the tournament was handed to Finland and Latvia as co-hosts instead.