Russia, IOC showdown leaves hockey Olympians in limbo

The composition of the teams competing in the Winter Olympics took another dramatic twist. Icon Sportswire

The consequences of Russia's Olympic athlete doping could have extraordinary ramifications for the 2018 men's ice hockey tournament in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

The International Olympic Committee is expected to issue sanctions against Russia in early December after an independent report commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency in 2016 found evidence of state-sponsored doping from 2011 to 2015. The McLaren Report revealed a systematic attempt to conceal positive drug test results involving more than 1,000 athletes in more than 30 sports. One Russian athlete -- cross-country skier Alexander Legkov -- has already had his Sochi Olympic medal stripped in a decision announced last week.

Thomas Bach, IOC president, vowed his organization would "take the toughest sanctions available against any individual or organization implicated" in the Russian doping scandal.

So, the world waits for the IOC to rule. Will it slap the Russians on the wrist with a heavy financial penalty, or will it swing the other way and ban Russia from participating in the 2018 Games? Will the IOC find middle ground and allow Russian athletes to compete in 2018 under a "neutral flag" rather than for Russia?

Everything remains on the table, which is why Russia's professional hockey league is trying to turn the tables at a critical moment.

Kontinental Hockey League president Dmitry Chernyshenko said Saturday that either of those scenarios would cause "considerable damage on the Olympic movement" and that the "KHL is ready to provide a relevant response" if either scenario plays out.

That response? KHL board member Alexander Medvedev told Russian news agency Tass that "contracted players won't be able to go anywhere" and represent their nations at the Olympics.

This would severely affect not just Team Russia but several other teams in the men's tournament. There are 15 KHL players on the Team Canada roster for the Karjala Cup tournament, which is an Olympic showcase. There are seven KHL players on the Team USA roster for the upcoming Deutschland Cup tournament.

Those players are, for now, in the dark as to what the KHL might do and its aftermath.

"I know that our schedule is already set with a monthlong break for the Olympics, so if the players don't go, we'll be sitting around for five weeks doing f--- all," one potential Canadian Olympian who is playing in the KHL told ESPN.com on Sunday. "Also, Hockey Canada already has a signed agreement with the KHL that they have to release players for tournaments. So, I really don't know how they could stop us from playing. But if I've learned anything about Russians, it's that contracts mean nothing to them."

Hockey Canada opted not to clarify the status of that agreement with ESPN.com on Monday, saying that "the organization isn't prepared to discuss what-if scenarios at this time" regarding the KHL threats and that for now "it's business as usual for our group in terms of schedule, evaluations and overall preparation" for the 2018 Games.

The KHL has a huge hole in its schedule later this season, shutting down from Jan. 29 to Feb. 26 so its players can compete in the Olympics. Stitching up that hole in the schedule might seem rather impossible logistically, but that's what the KHL is threatening.

"If Russia isn't taking part in the games, then there's no sense in having a break" in the KHL season, Medvedev said.

According to journalist Pavel Lysenkov of Sovetsky Sport, this is more than an idle threat.

"The KHL will have time to change the schedule. This is not the rumors but official statement of KHL president Dmitry Chernyshenko," he told ESPN.com on Monday. "If Russia is not admitted to the Olympics for doping reasons, the KHL will cancel the pause window in one month, which is now in the regular season. It's logical: What to do for a whole month without hockey? Foreign players have contracts, and they will have to work them out. This is also logical. This is not a threat but an obvious fact."

Chances are that Russia won't be outright banned from the 2018 Olympics by the IOC, especially now that the Association of National Olympic Committees has put out a blanket statement opposing that option. But the severity of the IOC's sanctions remains a point of debate. The New York Times on Monday reported that the penalties range from not having the Russian anthem played and barring its delegation from the opening and closing ceremonies, to "having Russian athletes compete under a neutral flag at the Pyeongchang Games or wear neutral uniforms."

The hockey world, including nearly two dozen North American expats, waits to see what the decision is and how Russia reacts to it.