National hockey teams ‘thrown off plane in mask row’
Russian players and staff were not allowed to take a flight because outraged Canadian passengers complained that they were not wearing masks, an official caught up in the alleged incident has said.
Otakar Cerny, the team manager of the Czech side, who were also due to take the flight from Calgary following the cancelation of the Junior World Championships due to Covid, said alcohol "probably played a role" in the version of events he described.
Russian players sat at the bar, members of their party smoked on their way to the flight and organizers asked both teams to leave the scheduled departure to Frankfurt as a result of onboard misdemeanors, Cerny claimed.
"We arrived at Calgary Airport about three hours in advance," Cerny told iSport after rumors of the ejection were initially spread by a reporter who said she was on the plane in the early hours of Saturday.
"Our players went to buy souvenirs from Canada and some of the players called their families at home... we saw Russian players sitting at the bar.
"I warned all our boys in advance that they should wear masks throughout their stay at the airport and observe social distancing.
"Then we got on a plane and, it should be noted, at that moment we noticed that some members of the Russian expedition obviously did not follow the hygienic rules – and alcohol probably played a role in that.
"One of the members of the Russian implementation team even smoked in the tunnel before boarding the plane.
"Some of the passengers then complained about the Russians' behavior, and the crew therefore had the entire plane evacuated."
The outlet said that the Finnish team had been allowed to travel and suggested that flight attendants had confused the Russian and Czech teams because they were wearing similar sportswear.
"Unfortunately, the Czech ones look exactly the same as the Russian ones, with the only difference that the sweatshirts of our players have the inscription 'Czech Republic' and the Russian ones 'Russia'," Cerny said of the purported confusion.
"And practically only for that reason, they threw us into the same [category] as the Russians and told us that the entire Czech and Russian expeditions could no longer board the plane.
"Although we explained to the Air Canada representatives for about 30 minutes that our players had not violated anything, their decision could not be reversed.
"One slightly bizarre aspect about the whole situation is that after the plane took off without us, Air Canada representatives apologized to us and, at their expense, arranged a hotel and a flight to Frankfurt at the same time a day later.
"They also assured us that we would not fly on the same flight as the Russian hockey players."
Mask-wearing in public has been a topic of frequent controversy since the pandemic began.
In December, NBA legend Dennis Rodman was reportedly met by authorities after landing because he had allegedly taken his mask off in order to be able to breathe properly.
Dr Anthony Fauci, US president Joe Biden's medical advisor, recently warned that masks could be required on public transport indefinitely, and Canada has some of the strictest rules in the world around public health guidelines related to Covid.
Marie Lehmann, a reporter for Swedish channel SVT, said on Twitter that "drunkenness, smoking and refusal to wear a face mask" were among the reasons for the alleged decision by airline officials.
"Far from all Czech and Russian players misbehaved, it should be added," she told her followers.
"Imagine sitting here on a plane in Calgary on New Year's Eve and not leaving. And missing, as thanks for the inconvenience, your connecting flight in Frankfurt.
"Half an hour ago we were finally ready to fly. We had all boarded the flight. We waited and waited.
"Now we have been forced to step down and take our hand luggage. Full force with police and security personnel."
Cerny called the alleged fiasco "another complication" of the botched trip but said the situation had been resolved and his team would only have to remain in Canada for an extra 24 hours.
"We have a clear conscience and I am convinced that our players did not break any rules," he added.
"None of them were even warned by the flight attendants about a poorly fitted mask.
"On the contrary, some Russians didn't even have a mask, which outraged some Canadian fellow passengers who complained to the flight attendants."
The head coach of the Russian team, Sergei Zubov, confirmed to Iz that the teams had been removed from the flight because of a "violation of the mask regime" as a result of "very strict rules".
IZ quoted a source as saying that Zubov had smoked in the tunnel, but Match TV quoted the coach as dismissing that suggestion and downplaying the incident.
“What cigarette? I quit smoking three years ago," the channel's Telegram account quoted Zubov as saying.
"There was such a scandal around this story. Someone probably really wants to exaggerate what actually happened. Many guys from both teams were wearing masks incorrectly."
The Russian and Czech teams and Air Canada had not made any official public response to the claims around 12 hours after the flight had been due to leave.