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Hockey and how it needs to address Russia and Ukraine

With the invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces, the IIHF and NHL have to respond with more than words.

Washington Capitals v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images

The images coming from cities and towns across Ukraine are deeply unsettling, and while we wish that we could keep this space free from this, the way the game of hockey is intertwined with the nations involved makes it nearly impossible, and irresponsible to do so, in my opinion.

There are currently 37 players in the NHL hailing from Russia as of January, some of them among the league’s superstars: Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov of the Washington Capitals, Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Artemi Panarin and Igor Shesterkin of the New York Rangers.

The Canucks have had a long history with Russian born players. Hall of Famers Pavel Bure and Igor Larionov, along with Alexander Mogilny and Vladimir Krutov were all part of the squad in the 90’s. Currently, only Vasily Podkolzin is under contract.

So what do you do when one of the biggest stars in the league, a guy who could quite literally break Wayne Gretzky’s goal scoring record, is also a well known and fervent supporter of the dictator who invaded a country considered to be an ally? The spotlight is brighter on Ovechkin than any other Russian NHL’er, both because of his status as a player, and well documented history of support for Vladimir Putin.

It makes sense then, that Ovechkin should be questioned about this. Despite some calls for trying to keep politics out of sports, as if the two aren’t forever intertwined, he has been pressed on it somewhat. And while he has come out publicly with a fairly passive statement as you can see here, as the biggest Russian star in the NHL, he needs to do more to address this.

It’s Feb. 28, and his Instagram profile pic is still unchanged. He has over 1.6 million followers on the app. And while many continue to call for Ovechkin, as the biggest Russian star in the NHL to come out with a statement that seems to have a little more backbone to it, it’s important to remember what is at stake for these players. While Russia is no longer the Communist nation that players like Alexander Mogilny and Pavel Bure had to defect from in order to come play in the NHL, speaking out against Russian foreign policy, and especially about Putin can place the families of players over here in North America in jeopardy.

New York Rangers star Artemi Panarin lashed out at Putin in a 2019 interview, and then had to deal with accusations from an ex-coach in the KHL, claiming the then 20 year old Panarin had assaulted a woman in 2011. The coach, former Sharks and Bruins goon Andrei Nazarov, is a well-known Putin supporter, and the claims made of a coverup of an investigation of the incident were dismissed as untrue, but it did force Panarin to leave the Rangers for a period of time in 2021 to deal with the situation. It was a reminder of the way so many Russian players had family members threatened and kidnapped, often for extorting money from the Russians who had left to play for lucrative contracts in the West.

It’s not just the NHL’s issue, but the sport itself. While there has been action from Formula 1 Racing and the sport of soccer, moving races and World Cup qualifying matches out of Russia over the invasion, the IIHF issued a statement yesterday, its only actions to date:

“The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) is saddened and deeply concerned by the recent events in Ukraine. The IIHF and its Council condemn the use of military force and urge the use of diplomatic means to solve conflicts. Our thoughts are with the people in Ukraine and the Ukrainian ice hockey family.

As the IIHF has a duty of care to all its Championship participants, the IIHF Council is reviewing and considering the implications of this conflict on our events. A Council meeting has been called for Monday late afternoon on 28 February.”

One thing that will be discussed at this meeting will be the possibility of moving the 2023 Men’s World Championships and the World Juniors. With UEFA and F1 not hesitating to move events in response to the actions of Putin, the IIHF has to follow suit and hit the Russians hard with this. There’s also the 2022 World Juniors, originally shut down just after Christmas in Edmonton and Red Deer due to COVID. The tournament is set for a do-over in August in Edmonton, and it could see the Russians barred from this tournament.

The failure to mention that another member country is the aggressor here is not a good look for them, though. I would think that a meeting of such a serious nature would have a little more urgency attached to it, not something to be kept from interfering with one’s weekend plans, but it’s still better than the International Olympic Committee.

They issued a statement Thursday, condemning Russia for breaking the ‘Olympic Truce’, that was to be in place until seven days after the closing of the Paralympic Games, which get underway Friday, March 4. There has yet to be any other meaningful action by the IOC, and nothing short of expulsion should be their response. The nation is already competing under the banner of their Olympic Committee as ‘punishment’ for years of doping infractions by Russian athletes. Allowing them to compete for even a moment further should be rejected by the other nations, and the potential blowback of a boycott could force China to pressure Putin, one would think.

Then there’s the KHL, and while it’s mostly business as usual with one notable exception, as the Finnish club Jokerit Helsinki announced it was withdrawing from the upcoming KHL playoffs in response to Russia’s illegal actions in Ukraine. And on Sunday, Dynamo Riga completely withdrew from the KHL.

It does raise an interesting question about whether the tournament will be moved to a different location, possibly because having it at a facility owned by a Russian could be a violation of international sanctions, or whether the tournament will be postponed or cancelled, depending on the severity of the conflict. Putin made threats towards Finland and Sweden this week over their support for, and potential to join NATO, as a response. It would also be unwise of Putin to think that any attack on their Scandinavian neighbours would end any differently than last time, when Joseph Stalin’s brazen attempts to expand the USSR saw them suffer heavy losses despite their eventual victory.

The international community is united in its disgust and condemnation of Putin, but the game of hockey definitely should share some of the blame for allowing Putin to get this far, thanks to the way it has allowed for glowing and positive PR for a man who is clearly a dictator. The great Szymon Szemberg has a must-read Twitter thread on this (sticktap to Robyn of Jewels From The Crown, and you will need to use the translate function on these tweets).

There was also this tweet from Dominik Hasek. And while I can appreciate the passion and fury that he displays in calling out Ovechkin, it overlooks the possible risk of speaking out for Ovechkin and his family in Russia, and the idea that the players themselves should have their contracts suspended is not the same as barring the national teams from participating in tournaments. The players play for clubs, and are not representing their nations in the NHL, so it’s not helpful, and not something any league would entertain unless it were a situation where it was shown that a player was actively participating in the war effort?


UPDATE:

This was originally written over the weekend, and today there has been a flurry of activity in response. Let’s start with the NHL, which just released a statement:

The IIHF has banned Russia and Belarus from all competitions:

Remember that in the thread above by Szymon Szemberg, he was very critical of the close relationship between former IIHF President Rene Fasel and Putin.

FIFA has come out strongly against Russia:

The Women’s World Curling Championships are set to go in Prince George, BC in March, and the World Curling Federation is in the process of removing Russia.

While information is still being tightly controlled, prominent Russian athletes are starting to speak out, and this is crucial if they hope to be able to allow the growing resistance to Putin to continue to build.


So what can we do to help? Well, as individuals I think the most important thing is that for those who can, providing support for relief organizations who are on the ground in Ukraine and the surrounding countries to help them deal with the impending humanitarian crisis caused by the flow of refugees is vital.

The Canadian Red Cross (the Canadian government is, as it has done in the past, matching donations made), or directly to the Ukranian Red Cross, as well as Doctors Without Borders and Reporters Without Borders (because accurate information is a valuable weapon against fascists like Putin. And I would like to add Voices Of Children to this list. They work to provide psychological and psychosocial support to child victims of armed conflict.