The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) has granted sole hosting rights for its 2021 World Championship to Riga, stating the decision would grant it the flexibility to establish plans for a bubble concept in the Latvian capital and fan attendance, if required.

Riga had been due to host the national team tournament alongside neighbouring Minsk in Belarus from May 21 to June 6, with games to be split between the Minsk Arena and Arena Riga. However, the IIHF last month stripped the Belarusian capital of its co-hosting rights due to safety and security issues the governing body stated were beyond its control.

Belarus’ ability to host the event had been placed into doubt in recent months due to political instability in the country. Doubts surrounding Belarus’ ability to host the event first arose following the re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko back in August.

The convincing victory of Lukashenko, who is also president of the country’s National Olympic Committee, was met with wide protests in Belarus, with supporters of popular opponent Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya claiming the vote was rigged.

IIHF president René Fasel had previously insisted that the federation was committed to hosting the event in Belarus, if certain commitments were made by local organisers. However, pressure intensified after high-profile sponsors such as Skoda and Liqui Moly said they would withdraw their support if Belarus remained as host.

Belarus and Latvia were originally awarded hosting rights to the tournament in May 2017. Latvia had previously said it should be able to host the World Championship with another country if Belarus was stripped of its rights.

The IIHF Council has now voted to confirm Riga as the sole host for the 2021 World Championship, citing the ongoing challenges placed by COVID-19, together with various technical reasons, for its decision to keep the tournament in one city.

With continued uncertainty surrounding international travel restrictions, the Council said it believes that keeping all teams in Riga throughout the tournament and avoiding travel between two host countries is the safest and most cost-effective way to operate the event.

Under the new hosting plan, the 2021 World Championship’s main venue will be the Arena Riga (right of picture), which will host Group B, two quarter-final games, the semi-final round and the medal round. The second venue will be the Olympic Sports Centre (left of picture), which will be converted into a 6,000-capacity ice rink and will host Group A and two quarter-final games.

The Daugava Ice Rink, approximately 10 minutes from Arena Riga, will serve as the practice arena with two ice sheets. The arena is currently under construction and scheduled to be finished by the end of March.

All 16 participating teams will be housed in one hotel. With teams housed in one location and the Arena Riga and Olympic Sports Centre competition venues located approximately 150 metres away from each other, the IIHF said it would be able to implement a bubble concept if needed. 

Should the COVID-19 situation in Latvia improve to the point that spectators would be allowed to watch games, the IIHF, together with the Local Organising Committee, said it would be prepared to initiate a ticketing offer within three-days’ notice of government approval to host fans in the venues. 

The IIHF said its decision to choose Riga as the sole host comes after it examined other hosting offers from Bratislava, Slovakia; and Herning, Denmark. “I would like to thank our members from Denmark and Slovakia for their willingness to assume hosting duties for the World Championship on such short notice,” said Fasel.

“But ultimately the Council believes that keeping the whole tournament in one country allows us to be flexible. We can find cost-effective solutions to implement a bubble concept, but also we can put ourselves in a ready position to welcome fans to the World Championship, if it is safe to do so.”

Image: Local Organising Committee