Since Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, many Russian-born players in the National Hockey League (NHL) have become quite the controversial topic.
The NHL publicly condemned the country when Russia broke international law with its invasion. “Effective immediately, we are suspending our relationships with our business partners in Russia,” stated NHL Public Relations back in February. “In addition, we are discontinuing any consideration of Russia as a location for any future competitions involving the NHL.”
There are at least 40 Russian-born players in the NHL this season and zero Ukrainian-born. Their presence is very important to the fan base, such as New York Rangers’ Artemi Panarin, Minnesota’s Kirill Kaprizov and Washington Capitals captain, Alex Ovechkin, who is supposed to make history on the all-time scoring chart. Calgary defenseman Nikita Zadorov has spoken out and pinned an image on his Instagram with the words “NO WAR.” In a post-practice conference, Ovechkin also weighed in about the invasion, stating “please, no more war. It doesn’t matter who’s in the war. Russia. Ukraine. Different countries. We live in a world where we have to live in peace.”
“He’s my president, but, as I said, I’m not in politics. I’m an athlete. I hope everything is going to be done soon,” he stated to NBC Sports. Ovechkin has given his vocal support for Putin in the past and still has the Russian president in his Instagram profile picture. Many speculate he has kept the picture to ensure his family’s safety back home.
The biggest concern for Russian players has been fear for their security and their families. According to ESPN sources, some teams are doing things behind the scenes to help support Russian players, including obtaining visas for family members and helping them relocate.
Last hockey season, many Russian players declined to interview with the media after the invasion. As stated by University of Nevada sociology professor Dr. Dmitri Shalin in an interview with Las Vegas Review-Journal, “speaking out publicly against Putin in today’s Russia is to risk your life.” Recently, laws were passed that criminalized criticism of the country’s war efforts, and those convicted can receive up to 15 years in prison.
Although most have remained silent, Russian players are still getting revenue-based repercussions. According to the New York Post, insurance company MassMutual decided to remove from airing its popular commercial featuring Ovechkin, and Canadian equipment brand CCM Hockey stopped using Russian players in global marketing initiatives.
The NHL also ceased communication with the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), a primarily Russian-based league with teams in Belarus, Kazakhstan and China. As stated by the Associated Press, the NHL told its teams to stop contact with “KHL counterparts and Russian-based agents as part of the suspension between the leagues.”
In a crucial meeting held on Feb. 28, 2022, the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) announced “a suspension of all Russian and Belarusian national teams and clubs from participation in every age category and all IIHF competitions.”
Although with this suspension, the NHL and the National Hockey League Players Association (NHLPA) are looking for a solution to allow Russian players to participate with their teams in the upcoming World Cup of Hockey. Originally scheduled for 2024, the event has been pushed to the year 2025 because of Russian player concerns.
According to ESPN, the organizations have proposed “having Russian athletes compete under a neutral name or flag.” Yet as NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly has previously stated, “other countries don’t view that as satisfactory and are advocating for no Russian player participation at all.”
Former Buffalo Sabres goaltender and Czech sports icon Dominik Hašek insists that the NHL is obligated to suspend Russian players. “I want the NHL to make the right decisions that benefit both it and all the people on our planet,” he said in a statement to The Athletic. “And, of course, I assume that even the most beautiful game in the world is not (worth) more than human life.”