Ukraine, Russia, and Hockey

War, inflation, and refugees are at the top of everyone’s minds, but the ongoing battle between Ukraine and Russia affects even the smallest things in these times, hockey.

On the Ukrainian side of things, a former NHL player is currently in the war torn country. Ukrainian born Dmitri Khristich is on the frontlines fighting for his country. He played 811 games in the NHL scoring 569 points, more than any other Ukraine born player in history but now he and his wife are fighting for their country.

“We just want them to please leave the country, please go away, then we can negotiate or talk. But please go away so we can live in peace,” Khristich pleads.

NHL teams have been backing up Ukraine. In Nashville, Seattle, and San Jose, the Ukrainian national anthem has been sung before the U.S. national anthem to support the country. A Ukraine flag was seen draped over a fan in SAP Center in a game against the Bruins. Controversially, Capital One arena (home of the Washington Capitals) has banned Ukraine and Russian flags from their arena, the only arena to do so.

There are currently around 40 Russian born players in the NHL spread among all 32 teams. That’s around 5% of a league that’s mostly dominated by Canadian born players. With the war looming, people are turning to these 40 Russians for answers or just someone to blame for the war.

Alex Ovehckin is a veteran in the league. He’s considered by many to be the best Russian to play the game and his career proves it. Playing his whole career with the Washington Capitals, he won the Stanley Cup in 2018 but what most people talk about is his career goal totals. He has 764 goals to date, which is fourth all time for most goals scored in a career. He is only two goals behind Jaromir Jagr for third all time and what many are keeping an eye on is he’s on pace to beat Wayne Gretzky’s 894 goals for first in a couple seasons. 

Capitals captain: Alex Ovechkin

However, people’s eyes haven’t been on his accolades recently. They’ve been on his opinion of the war. Ovechkin didn’t come out right away with a statement when the war started leading to many people critiquing him. That soon changed when Ovechkin held a news conference. 

“Please, no more war. It doesn’t matter who is in the war — Russia, Ukraine, different countries — I think we live in a world, like, we have to live in peace and a great world,” Ovechkin pleaded in the interview. 

Ovechkin has been known as a supporter of Russian president Vladimir Putin in the past. Ovechkin has a picture of himself and Putin together as his profile picture on Instagram and has also announced in the past on the platform that he was organizing a movement to support the Russian President.

“Well, he is my president. But how I said, I am not in politics. I am an athlete and you know, how I said, I hope everything is going to be done soon,” the Russian hockey player said when asked about Putin.

Ovechkin came under fire for his lack of action and wording on the issue. MassMutual, a business partner with the NHL, pulled their widely popular commercial that featured Ovechkin, his wife, and teammate Nick Backstrom. Hockey company CCM followed suit in removing Ovechkin commercials as well.

Ovechkin’s critics also included NHL hall of famer and Czechia citizen Domninik Hasek. 

“What!? Not only an ablist, a chickens — t, but also a liar! Every adult in Europe knows well that Putin is a mad killer and that Russia is waging an offensive war against the free country and its people,” Hasek tweeted in response to Ovechkin’s interview.

Hasek also tweeted that Russian NHL players should be banned from the NHL temporarily while also adding he feels bad for those Russian NHL players who condemn Putin.

Ovechkin’s family lives in Russia and many assume that’s why he didn’t say much. We aren’t very far removed from when Artemi Panarin; superstar for the New York Rangers, took a leave of absence from the NHL due to his remarks about Putin.

“The mistake in our society is treating [Putin] like a superhuman … This is nonsense. How many million people live here? No question there is someone better,” Panarin said in 2019.

Panarin’s home country accused him in 2021 of beating up an 18-year-old woman in 2011. Panarin left the Rangers for a couple weeks to deal with the matter and rumor has it, to make sure his family in Russia was safe from the country.

Nikita Zadorov is the only other Russian to really be outspoken about the ongoing issue. The Calgary Flames defenseman took to social media to post a photo with two words on it. “No War.” Zadorov also wrote in the description “stop it.” People commented on his post thanking him for speaking up, some calling him a hero. 

People haven’t been so nice to those who haven’t spoken out however.

Dan Milstein is a player agent in the NHL. He represents more than a dozen Russian players currently playing in the NHL. This includes two time Stanley Cup champions Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vaseilevsky. His clients recently have been harassed with the war going on and even sent death threats. Milstein himself who was born in Ukraine has been getting the same threats.

“It has been difficult for some (players). Some guys find refuge by stepping on the ice and playing the game. … But could you imagine stepping on the ice and playing a competitive game thinking that your wife and your newborn child are at home unprotected?” Milstein told ESPN.

Milstein also added when speaking to ESPN he hasn’t slept for six days due to the difficult times. 

“People are picking on the wrong crowd. I can speak on behalf of my clients: They want world peace like everybody else. They’re not being treated like that,” said Milstein

In the Bay Area, one of Milstein’s players plays with the San Jose Sharks. Russian forward Alexander Barabanov was acquired last trade deadline from Toronto and made an immediate impact on the team with seven points in nine games. This season he has 27 points in 48 games in his first full NHL season.

Sharks head coach Bob Boughner when asked about Barabanov and Milstein’s quote said “Within our four walls of our room, we have a family kind of atmosphere and we treat each other that way. We’re all by Barbie’s side.”

Milstein has three other Russian players under contract in the Sharks organization. 

Forward Alex Barabanov
Sharks forward Alex Barabanov

“I just think in general, I know it’s crazy times, and there’s a lot of guys over here playing in our league from Russia,” Boughner added. “To hold anything against those guys, they’re over here doing something they love to do. I don’t think that should be compared to what’s going on in the rest of the world.”

The NHL put out a statement on Feb. 28 condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and suspending any Russian affiliated partnership and Russia NHL websites/social media pages indefinitely. The NHL also stated the following on behalf of their Russian players.

“We also remain concerned about the well-being of the players from Russia, who play in the NHL on behalf of their NHL Clubs, and not on behalf of Russia. We understand they and their families are being placed in an extremely difficult position.”

Other hockey related leagues and companies started to condemn Russia as well. EA Sports who produce the NHL video games series tweeted that they would be removing the Russian national team from the rosters of the game. The IIHF (International Ice Hockey Federation) announced the suspension of all Russian national hockey teams from any form of competition including the decision to change the location of the 2023 World Junior Ice Hockey Championships from Russia.

It’s not looking good for the Russians and Ukrainians in the NHL who are just trying to safely live their dreams playing professional hockey. Any action will enrage someone and could potentially harm their family. They are stuck. It’s a situation that no one would want to be in. The only thing they can do is wait.

Image courtesy of Reggie Hildred/The Sports Capito

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