By Dan Burns
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (Reuters) – The men’s ice hockey tournament at the Pyeongchang Games might not have turned out to be a gourmet meal so far with the absence of NHL players, but it has not entirely been without flavor, the International Ice Hockey Federation chief said on Saturday.
The fact that Sunday’s gold medal game will feature the one elite team in the tournament – the Olympic Athletes from Russia – playing a surprise finalist in Germany rather than another hockey powerhouse like Canada or Sweden only adds to the unique nature of this year’s Games, IIHF President Rene Fasel said.
“You don’t need caviar every day. I mean you can also live with leberkase and weisswurst, and yesterday was a day like this,” Fasel said of Germany’s semi-final upset over Canada to reach the final.
Last year the International Olympic Committee and NHL failed to broker a deal to send the world’s top players to the Games, leaving men’s hockey as arguably the only event at this year’s Winter Olympics not to feature the best-of-the-best in its sport.
Aside from the team from Russia, stacked with the top players from the best sides in their local Kontinental Hockey League and several ex-NHL all stars, most of the other 11 countries had to form teams from a collection of journeyman pros and a handful of recent NHL retirees.
“Not having the NHL is still a disappointment but actually with the result yesterday, Germany going to the final, and the interest, I would say that in Germany nobody cares that the NHL is here or not,” Fasel said at a news conference.
“But what can we do? We have to do the best that we can do and promote the game of hockey and yesterday the German-Canada game was something very unique and special.”
Asked if the IIHF would allow players from heavily favored Russia to bear their country’s flag on the ice should they win the gold medal, Fasel said hockey officials would not vary from the IOC’s guidelines.
The Russians are banned from playing in their national uniforms or bearing their flag because of doping violations stemming from the Sochi games they hosted four years ago.
The IOC is due to decide before the hockey final whether to lift its ban on Russians marching under their flag for the closing ceremony Sunday night, but the Russians’ case for lifting the ban has been hurt by another doping charge against a Russian bobsleigh racer.
“We will fully respect the decision made by the IOC, so if (the ban is not lifted) they will not be allowed to have the flag or the anthem. We will respect that,” Fasel said.
“I know that the Russian team, the Olympic Athletes from Russia, will follow that decision. We are fully in the hands of the IOC. We will fully support that.”
The game is still expected to be heavily attended by Russian fans who have come to most of the team’s games with the country’s flags.
“The fans we cannot control them,” Fasel said. “I think there will be many, many Russians inside the arena. And we will do everything possible that we keep the balance there.
“It will be a challenge for sure but we will do everything to respect the rules.”
(Reporting By Dan Burns; editing by Sudipto Ganguly)