Today the NHL announced in a packed statement that they would be suspending all operations and sponsorships with Russian businesses and placing a moratorium on NHL social media and digital platforms in the Russian language. Alongside these business sanctions, the NHL will be freezing out Russia from any possible consideration for NHL events in the near future, with no date provided for if/when the suspension will lift. It also came with a condemnation of the Russian Federation’s incursion into Ukraine that officially began four days ago, while also cautioning any attempted reprisal against their own players.
This comes off a mass exodus of support for the Russian Federation in pretty much all aspects of life, business and sport, but just focusing down on hockey specifically; the IIHF has pulled every relevant tourney out of Russia and effectively banned the country from participating (as well as close Russian ally Belarus), and the Russian-led KHL has taken some big hits; Finland-based Jokerit has called their season early even as they were in a playoff position, and Latvia-based Dinamo Riga has actively pulled out of the KHL altogether.
The response to such measures has largely been positive since, well, Russia has invaded a neighboring country, and I’m sure we’re treating this completely normally and frankly on the main page from the sports perspecti-
...Okay. Cool. Thanks James.
Okay, let’s unpack why this headline on main page happened, and why it’s not so simple as “cowardice” when it comes to Russia and its athletes.
The awkward reality of being a political sports figure by way of simply having a passport
The average Russian NHLer is in a bizarre place right now. For one thing, the NHL is probably the biggest spotlight for any kind of Russian Athlete™ in North America — the average observer’s easiest look into what an athlete from Russia is like without the Olympic Rings being involved. And right now much of North America is kind of appalled with how Russia is handling itself in all aspects of life.
It’s doubly frustrating because Russians in the NHL sometimes get a bad rap. It’s come from years of mythologizing and demonizing the Red Army hockey team back when Russia used to have the prefix “Soviet”, and the only time you ever saw Russian hockey players was every four years on the dot...where aside from a couple of miracle years, they were often a hard beat. That, or when somebody defected.
This led to all sorts of stereotypes of their character and their play that plague them up to this very day. This is, of course, mostly the kind of rehashed and reheated Cold War-era xenophobia that only barely applies, but it’s a good way to understand where a lot of Russian players are starting; whether or not you think “Here is Klim Kostin, he’s a hockey player and he plays in St. Louis”, a lot of people are seeing the “Penza Oblast, Russia” part first before anything else.
No monoliths in Moscow
It should then be made abundantly clear in case it wasn’t bleedingly obvious that the Russian populace is not a monolith; as multiple 1,000+ person protests across Moscow have shown for the past few days, as well as hundreds of dissidents and critics throughout the Federation, and dozens of ex-pats have shown throughout the years, and that goes for its hockey players.
Regarding current events, many Russian hockey players are themselves divided on whether or not they support the Kremlin’s aims. Most famously, the two big examples of this are Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin, and Rangers star Artemi Panarin. Ovechkin has been a long-time supporter of Vladimir Putin, to the point that his meeting with the Russian President is his profile picture on social media. The other side of the coin here is Panarin, who has been openly critical of his country’s leader and an ardent supporter of the Minority Opposition’s leader in the country. To say he’s had to pay his pound of flesh for the matter is putting it mildly.
The importance of careful interviewing
All that said, I’m not necessarily going to cape for Ovechkin. Where the meat of that inflammatory headline has it correct is that Ovechkin by all accounts has shown open support for Putin’s time as President of the Russian Federation and has created a group called PutinTeam that has supported him as...I guess soft power ambassadors? It’s difficult to say what exactly they do other than exist as celebrity endorsements for the Russian President.
In fact, I would love to hear journalists interview Ovechkin on whether or not his close relationship with Putin either started this particular group of athletes organically, or if he gets uncomfortable and waffles about the realities of why it came to be.
But they would have to be careful on the questions they ask. I can’t imagine Ovechkin or Evgeni Malkin will have much to say on the matter given the money tied up in all this. I can’t imagine they would think it would be a good idea to make too much noise. After all, it got Panarin into a boatload of trouble that caused him to miss months of the season. Malkin himself had to become a missing person just to get to the United States.
We just cannot recognize the danger in the same way they do.
In spite of their distance, Russian players can still get got in the place that hurts the most.
The reality as North Americans is that we simply cannot understand the reality of a country on the other side of the globe, nor being the most famous/wealthy person in your city/oblast/region where an outsized amount of power is held by one person who is very interested in how said country looks to the rest of the world. And a lot of us cannot fathom what it would be like to go live on the other side of the world, and know that if you talk some smack about the current administration, the government doesn’t have to go after you at all in order to keep you in line.
They can go after your mother.
Because most of the time you’re sending money back or coming back for a few months at a time. You can’t be everywhere at once. And you might never even know what happened if the house you grew up in is suddenly vacated and nobody is able to tell you why.
That, before anything else, is why it’s so hard to get anything other than vague statements out of those who aren’t already predisposed to disliking the current Russian administration: There’s simply no telling what reprisals will be given to their loved ones for doing so.
So what can we do?
First of all, the thing we as Americans have to come to terms with is that we generally do not have any skin in this game for the most part, and any skin we might have will come closer to the borders of Ukraine, and not on our shores. Further, we really can’t expect million-dollar athletes to be beacons of justice in an environment where their own families could be collateral for such a choice. Where we can best put our money and our energy is towards humanitarian aid for those affected by the crisis, like Doctors without Borders or Voices of Children. What a hockey player thinks about a political leader and whether or not he can even express it doesn’t really mean a whole lot when Kyiv is getting hammered by air strikes.
By all means, boo Ovi or Malkin or whoever else is on PutinTeam in the NHL if you think it’ll help you calm down, but right now it’s far more important to do what you can for the people on the ground. Not to look for some rich hockey player’s opinion in situations like this.
This is a bit heavy, don’t you think?
As the entire last two years have shown us, life’s generally pretty heavy and extremely complicated. Stuff we couldn’t imagine affecting our little escapes sometimes sneak in or smash through the door. The best we can do at any given time is look out for each other.
Here’s a little Davy as a reward for getting through all of this. I’ll have a big long look at the rest of the schedule for Tuesday evening. Go Kraken.