When Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, it changed a lot of things. Certainly, many more important things have been impacted. However, the hockey world was not left unscathed. For starters, one of its renowned participants was suddenly toxic. Russia’s national teams were banned from tournaments, and the scheduled world junior tournament was relocated. Yet, European hockey also will be disrupted.
Jokerit and Dynamo Riga immediately withdrew from the KHL. Their home countries of Finland and Latvia have had their own tiffs with Russia over the years. So, theirs was an easy choice to side with their peers in the European Union and NATO. Dynamo was rarely a threat in the league, but Jokerit consistently was one of the top teams. For one of its top players, former Yale standout Brian O’Neill, reality changed quickly. O’Neill had just finished his own attempts at a medal in Beijing. He was a new father. Now, he was going to need a new home.
“When I got back from the Olympics, I had three practices, and then it was canceled. It kind of happened all of a sudden for me,” O’Neill, now 34, said.
It was not the first time Jokerit had pulled itself out of the KHL playoffs. As COVID was shutting the world down, the KHL decided to power through and finish its postseason. Jokerit skipped. However, it was quickly clear this time would be different. After six stellar seasons in the Finnish capital, O’Neill became an unexpected free agent.
“Once a couple weeks pass, you get that sense that it was going to be the last time Jokerit would be in the KHL. I think that’s where it started to set in. It’s kind of a delayed grieving period,” he said.