The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

From death threats to corporate backlash, Russian NHL players ‘in a very difficult spot’

Alex Ovechkin, with John Carlson before a March 3 game, has come under scrutiny for his relationship with Vladimir Putin. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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Alex Ovechkin bolted out of the tunnel for pregame warmups Thursday night, the first Washington Capitals player onto the ice. The usual complement of No. 8 jerseys bearing his name dotted the crowd, and in a few hours that crowd would chant his name. If Ovechkin peered across the ice and into the corner, he would have seen a small Ukrainian flag pressed against the glass, next to a placard with Vladimir Putin’s face superimposed over an image of Adolf Hitler.

Amid the churn of the NHL season, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been inescapable for the league’s several dozen Russian players, including some of the top athletes in the sport, headlined by Ovechkin. They have faced online threats and alleged verbal abuse, prompting the NHL and some teams — including the Capitals — to bolster security. Sponsors have backed away from their connection to the players, while lower leagues have limited Russians’ participation.

Across the world, athletes and federations have ostracized Russian athletes, part of a global push to isolate Russia and Putin. FIFA suspended Russia from international competition. Facing pressure from athletes from other nations, the International Paralympic Committee banned Russian and Belarusian athletes from the Paralympics. Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich said he would sell celebrated London soccer club Chelsea FC. Droves of leagues and federations have excluded Russian teams and athletes.

The bans have made Russian NHL players at once some of the most visible Russians in North America and some of the only Russian athletes competing on a major stage. While under immense, implicit pressure from the Russian government, they have faced backlash in arenas, on social media and in cities where they play.

“My clients have been receiving death threats,” agent Daniel Milstein, who represents more than two dozen Russian players, said Tuesday in a phone conversation. “My clients’ babies on Instagram have been called Nazis. My clients on the streets in different towns, on the road or at home, have been told to get the F out of the country and go back to Russia. And this is all in the last six days.”

Alex Ovechkin, the Russian star of the Capitals, says, ‘Please, no more war’

Milstein has felt a distinct emotional toll. He is a Ukrainian Jew who fled Kyiv for the United States in December 1991, during the final days of the Soviet Union’s existence. He immigrated, he said, with one suitcase and 17 cents to his name. As his heart breaks for Ukraine, he is also speaking up for Russians who may lack the wherewithal to speak out for themselves.

“Most of them are in a tough spot because they can’t publicly speak,” Milstein said. “Some of them are concerned for the well-being of their family members who are still at home. And so I can tell you one thing: Nobody wants war. With that said, they’re in a very difficult spot. One of the guys who said ‘no war’ publicly, his family was one of the families that has gotten ill wishes and death threats, too. Even he got it.”

In a statement last week, the NHL condemned Russia’s attack on Ukraine and announced it had suspended all business relationships in Russia and shut down its Russian-language media outlets. It also acknowledged the challenge Russian players face.

“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,” the statement read. “We understand they and their families are being placed in an extremely difficult position.”

“There’s stress,” said Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan, whose 23-man roster includes four Russians. “They’re constantly thinking about the situation back home and here. There are conversations with family, conversations with people they know in both countries. They have relationships with Ukrainian people, too. I think they’re just trying to process that.”

Many Russian players — including stars such as Pittsburgh’s Evgeny Malkin and St. Louis’s Vladimir Tarasenko — have offered no public comment as their country cracks down on dissent. Calgary Flames defenseman Nikita Zadorov is a notable exception. As the invasion began, Zadorov posted an Instagram photo consisting solely of the words “NO WAR” above his caption: “Stop it!”

Zadorov posted the image knowing it probably meant he would never play for Russia’s national team again, understanding it could endanger family members.

Sports organizations are benching Russian teams over the invasion of Ukraine

New York Rangers star Artemi Panarin, a vocal critic of Putin and supporter of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, took a leave of absence last year after a former Russian coach made accusations, printed in a Russian newspaper, that Panarin assaulted an 18-year-old woman in 2011. The Rangers called the allegation “clearly an intimidation tactic being used against him for being outspoken on recent political events.” It perhaps shouldn’t be surprising that most Russian players have avoided political commentary since then.

No Russian player has faced harsher scrutiny in North America than Ovechkin. The Capitals have added security personnel for Ovechkin, who long has supported Putin in public. In 2017, Russia built a “social movement” called “PutinTeam” around Ovechkin. “I never hid my relationship with our president, always openly supported him,” Ovechkin wrote in announcing PutinTeam.

Ovechkin was criticized after a news conference last Friday in which he called Putin “my president.” Despite his history of promoting Putin, Ovechkin insisted he was only an athlete and asked for peace.

“Please, no more war,” Ovechkin said. “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.”

Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin spoke to reporters on Feb. 25 as Russia, his home country, continued to advance in Ukraine. (Video: Washington Capitals)

The profile picture on Ovechkin’s Instagram page remains him smiling and posing next to Putin, flashing a peace sign. One Capitals official asked rhetorically what would happen if Ovechkin — who lives with his family in Russia in the offseason and whose wife, two sons and parents were in Russia as he spoke to the media last week — replaced the profile photo.

“He’s been put under an incredible amount of pressure,” MacLellan said. “Because of his status, he’s put in a hard situation to probably handle the situation that I’m not sure he’s fully thought out. It’s hard for him. We talk to him. He gets pressured from all sides — from North America, from Russia, from family, from a lot of different people. He tries to sort it out how he can handle it. We try to support him.”

Paralympics reverses course and bans Russian and Belarusian athletes following outcry

Carolina Hurricanes forward Andrei Svechnikov, 21, grew up in Barnaul, Russia. Coach Rod Brind’Amour said he and Svechnikov have shared “one little conversation” about the pressures associated with the war. Brind’Amour said Svechinkov has not let the situation affect him on the ice, using the hockey rink as a bubble.

Svechnikov, though, has considered his public stance carefully. He planned to make his first public comments since the invasion Thursday in Washington. He decided after a morning stake session to wait another few days, a Carolina spokesman said, so he could further gather his thoughts.

Carolina forward Jordan Martinook, an alternate captain, has noticed the criticism other Russian hockey players have received. He emphasized that Svechnikov had no control over the situation and vowed to defend him if necessary.

“We’ll support him as much as he needs,” Martinook told reporters. “If anybody tries to make him feel bad about the situation, then he’s got 23 brothers in there that will stick up for him.”

On Wednesday, the Canadian Hockey League, an elite junior league the NHL uses as a feeder system, canceled its annual Canada-Russia series and announced it had not determined a format for its 2022 import draft, a sign it was considering banning teams from drafting Russian and Belarusian players. Earlier in the week, Milstein had been taking calls from CHL owners and general managers.

“They’re basically saying, ‘We disagree,’ ” Milstein said. “When I encourage them to speak publicly, they can’t, because they feel they will be publicly [shamed]."

Russian NHL players also have faced corporate backlash. Insurance company Mass Mutual pulled a lighthearted television commercial featuring Ovechkin and longtime teammate Nicklas Backstrom off the air. Hockey equipment giant CCM said it will not feature any Russian players in its marketing as Russia’s invasion rages on.

At Capital One Arena on Thursday night, few signs of discomfort were visible. Evgeny Kuznetsov scored the night’s first goal on the power play and performed his signature bird dance. When the public address credited Ovechkin with an assist, the crowd roared. Later, Ovechkin’s wicked one-timer made it 3-0. The arena erupted as Ovechkin pumped his fist, a spotlight shining on him. “O-vi! O-vi! O-vi!” the crowd chanted.

Late in the game, veteran defenseman Dmitry Orlov became the third Russian Capital to score.

“It’s amazing with all that’s going on,” Washington Coach Peter Laviolette said. “Sometimes it’s easy to sit someone down and say, ‘Listen, try to separate.’ That’s easier said than done. It’s a bigger picture you’re talking about, family and friends.”

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