Just over a mile from the United Nations, where Russia’s war in Ukraine is front and center, the Madison Square Garden crowd chanted the name of goalkeeper Igor Shesterkin in the dying moments of a victory in the playoffs.
Similar scenes unfolded in the nation’s capital during the first round when Washington Capitals fans serenaded longtime captain Alex Ovechkin with chants of “Ovi! Ovi!” Ovechkin has long been linked to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who ordered the invasion.
The National Hockey League’s postseason has inadvertently become a crossroads of sport and politics, with Russians playing on North American ice against the backdrop of Europe’s biggest military conflict since World War II. While their compatriots in sports from soccer to tennis have been banned from competition, Russians in the NHL have played while keeping a low profile away from the rink.
“Everyone is doing their best under incredibly difficult circumstances,” commissioner Gary Bettman told The Associated Press in a recent interview. “Our players are playing for their NHL teams, no matter where they come from. At this very moment, Russian players are in an impossible situation.”
A total of 56 Russians skated in the NHL during the regular season, about 5% of the total number of players, of which 29 made the playoffs, or just under 8%. Some are the best the game has to offer, from Shesterkin backing the New York Rangers through to the second round to Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy pushing the Lightning to their fourth Eastern Conference Finals in five years. in a bid to secure a third consecutive Stanley. Cup Championship.
The NHL never seriously considered a Wimbledon-like ban imposed on players from Russia and Belarus, which contributed to the invasion. He issued a statement condemning the war, ended business operations and partnerships in Russia, and stopped posting on social and digital media sites in Russian.
Individual players born there, whether in the days of the Soviet Union or the Russian Federation, have continued to take to the ice since Putin’s forces invaded Ukraine on February 24. The NHL expressed concern for the well-being of the Russian players, adding, “We understand that they and their families are placed in an extremely difficult position.”
Ovie pleads for peace
“It’s a quagmire and there’s no easy way out,” said Stefan Szymanski, professor of sports management at the University of Michigan. “The clearest answers are to say, ‘We won’t ban any athletes’ or ‘We’re just going to ban all athletes’, and anything in between will be caught in those gray areas.”
Russian players have been largely silent on what Putin considered a “special military operation,” which can result in jail time at home for anyone calling it a war. Ovechkin, who campaigned for Putin in 2017, appealed for peace, Calgary defender Nikita Zadorov posted ‘NO WAR’ on Instagram and Carolina forward Andrei Svechnikov called the situation a “hard”.
When you play, you forget everything.— Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin on Russia’s war in Ukraine
Agent Dan Milstein, a Ukrainian native who represents 14 Russian NHL contract players, including Kucherov and Vasilevskiy, told the AP in March that talking about the war in any way was a concern because family members back home. He and several other NHLPA-certified agents who have Russian clients have since declined to comment or failed to respond to messages seeking comment.
Russia’s top players largely try to stay off the radar while focusing on their jobs at the most important time of the year. The success on the ice is unquestionable, as the Russians have scored 41 goals – 8.3% of the playoff total – and 21 of 71 wins among goaltenders through Sunday.
“When you play, you forget everything,” said Pittsburgh star Evgeni Malkin. “It’s the best time to walk on the ice and do what you’ve been doing all your life.”
Whether they should be on the ice while their country is at war within a neighbor’s borders has become a matter of debate in the far reaches of the hockey community. Retired Hall of Fame goaltender Dominik Hasek, a Czech, called on the NHL to suspend the contracts of all Russian players and said the public participation of Russian athletes is “a huge advertisement for the Russian country and his actions”.
Szymanski sees the Olympic truce in ancient Greece as an argument for a general ban on Russian athletes.
“Citizens of countries that are involved in war cannot participate in sport,” he said. “It’s meant to be a celebration of the human spirit, not a means of indirectly waging war.”
Hockey taken from Russia
This of course includes sport as a form of propaganda and nationalist achievement, with the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany a familiar example. Brendan Dwyer, director of research and distance education at the Virginia Commonwealth Center for Sport Leadership, said any ban on Russian hockey players would be a blow to the Kremlin.
“Putin puts these athletes on a pedestal more than football, more than tennis,” Dwyer said. “The only thing I keep saying is how important sport is to this regime. It goes back beyond this regime to communism, in general, and the USSR and how they use sport as a way to show their power at the international level and hockey more than any other sport.”
Hockey has already been taken away from Russia.
The NHL has stopped considering hosting future games there, and the International Ice Hockey Federation has banned players from the Russian and Belarusian national teams from its competitions. The IIHF also stripped Russia of its 2023 World Junior Tournament and Men’s World Championship host duties while Sweden said anyone playing in the Russia-based KHL would not be eligible to play for their national team. .
Still, the NHL continues to import Russian talent, like Nashville signing top goalie prospect Yarsolav Askarov. Or Philadelphia getting goalkeeper Ivan Fedotov under contract several months after supporting the “ROC” team for a silver medal at the Beijing Olympics when Russia was not allowed to compete under its own flag due to sanctions for doping in several sports.
Bettman said the league in no way hides or downplays the Russians’ play, whether it’s Ovechkin chasing Wayne Gretzky’s career scoring record or Minnesota’s Kucherov and Kirill Kaprizov lighting it up in the playoffs.
“We’re not running away from that,” Bettman said. “Their performances are celebrated, just like Alex walking towards the immortality of the goal. We celebrate that and we celebrate every player’s accomplishments because they perform in the NHL for their NHL team for the NHL fans .”
Szymanski drew parallels with South Africa during apartheid when national teams were banned, while individual tennis and golf athletes were allowed to continue participating in sports. He and Dwyer agree there are no easy answers to this conundrum, especially for a league like the NHL that has thrived on the infusion of Russian talent over the past few decades.
“I don’t know if there’s a better way to get through it,” Dwyer said. “It’s a very, very complicated situation.”