Russia is reported to be set to replace its entire ice hockey team for an under-18 world championship. This comes after more than half of the team's players tested positive for the performance-enhancing drug meldonium.
According to Canadian sports television network "TSN" and "The Hockey News", the Russian ice hockey federation took the decision not to send the country's under-18 team to the IIHF World Under-18 Men's World Championship which begins next week in Grand Forks, North Dakota as a direct result of the positive drug tests.
Instead, it appears Russia is to set to send its under-17 team to the tournament. Both reports cited a story posted on the Russian website allhockey.ru. There has been no confirmation of the report from the Russian ice hockey federation.
Russian hockey reporter Slava Malamud told "TSN" on Thursday that he and other journalists were still trying to get confirmation, but that so far, the federation was on "lockdown mode."
"A very unpleasant situation has occurred," Malamud quoted Vitali Prokhorov, the under-18 coach, as saying. "No futher comments," added Prokhorov, who told Russian sports agency "R-Sport" that he had been relieved of his duties.
The Russian under-18 team had been scheduled to fly to the United States to make their final preparations for the tournament this Thursday. Their first game is in a week's time and they have until 24 hours before the opening face-off to name their final roster. The positive tests reportedly came at an under-18 evaluation camp, where 30 players were competing for places in the squad.
If confirmed, this would be the biggest doping scandal in the history of ice hockey.
Meldonium is the same substance that Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova tested positive for at the Australian Open back in January. The drug, which is widely available in the eastern bloc, is used to treat diabetes, heart conditions and low magnesium. Sharapova said she had been taking meldonium for years, but a World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) ban on the drug came into effect on January 1, 2016.
Russia's minister of sport, Vitaly Mutko was quoted by the Interfax news agency on Thursday as saying that several hundreds of the country's athletes had used the drug before it was banned.
The country's athletics program is under severe pressure over doping allegations after the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) banned its athletes from competition late last year, following a WADA-commissioned report brought to light state-sponsored doping practices.