The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

They support Ukraine. So they can’t support Alex Ovechkin.

While fans still fill the seats at Capital One Arena to cheer the Capitals' Alex Ovechkin, the star's support for Russian President Vladimir Putin has left some feeling conflicted and others to stop following the team. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
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Lynn Kessler began attending Washington Capitals games in the 1970s, growing to love her hometown team more with each passing year. The 58-year-old has rooted for generations of Capitals players and has turned many of her friends into die-hard followers of the franchise, at one point splitting a season ticket package with some of them. Rooms in her home are lined with memorabilia, and her Facebook page is a shrine to recent players.

But when the Capitals hit the ice to begin the Stanley Cup playoffs Tuesday at the Florida Panthers, Kessler won’t be watching. She has not watched a Capitals game since February, when Russia invaded Ukraine.

Her husband’s family is from Ukraine, and Kessler is conflicted about rooting for the team because of its Russian captain, Alex Ovechkin. Like other fans from Ukraine or with ties to the country interviewed for this story, Kessler is angry about Ovechkin’s support for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“I still love the Caps, but I don’t love Alex Ovechkin,” Kessler said. “It’s going to be really strange to not watch the playoffs, but I don’t think I can do it.”

The vast majority of Capitals fans appear to still support Ovechkin and seem to be empathetic to the position the war has placed him and his family in. As the face of the franchise for more than a decade, Ovechkin still brings undeniable star power to every game — there are far more No. 8 jerseys worn by fans at home games than those of any other Capitals player, and fans frequently chant his name after he scores. At the Capitals’ regular season home finale last week, the crowd gave him a standing ovation to celebrate a historic season in which he rose to No. 3 on the NHL’s all-time goal list. The ceremony included messages from his parents, wife and children, who appeared via video from Russia.

But some Ukrainians living in the D.C. area have felt their voices drowned out by the organization they once rooted for. Some have used Capital One Arena as a place of protest, waving Ukrainian flags. Others have signed an online petition demanding the Capitals cut ties with Ovechkin. Some, such as Kessler, have boycotted the team, believing Ovechkin and the Capitals have not gone far enough to condemn the war.

Ovechkin was booed during games in March at Calgary and Edmonton, which have large Ukrainian populations. Ovechkin has made the most extensive public comments on the war of the roughly 40 Russian players in the NHL, many of whom have been kept away from the media by their teams. Russian athletes in other sports largely have been considered pariahs, including at major events — Wimbledon will prohibit players from Russia and Belarus from its upcoming tournament, and FIFA banned Russia from international competition, which kept it out of this year’s World Cup.

But perhaps no player has faced as much scrutiny as Ovechkin, one of Russia’s most prominent athletes who has fallen into the crosshairs of public outrage because of his close relationship with Putin.

“I was a Caps fan for a long time,” said Maryna Baydyuk, a Ukrainian who is president of United Help Ukraine, a Washington nonprofit. “In sports especially, and in this case with Alex Ovechkin being a supporter of Putin, it just really ruins the sense of community that really wants to support a team, a local team here that is doing well. We’ve seen the Caps fail, and we’ve seen them win … and we’re always rooting for them. It takes away from the entire community, because now we’re divided. We have fans that say that Ovechkin needs to leave the team. We have fans that are now saying, ‘We don’t know.’ We have fans that are saying we support Ovechkin and the team. Now you have this division.”

The Capitals declined to make Ovechkin or owner Ted Leonsis available for interviews and declined to comment for this story. The team condemned the war in Ukraine in a March statement.

“Monumental Sports & Entertainment and the Washington Capitals join the National Hockey League in condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the loss of innocent life,” the Capitals said in the statement. “We urge and hope for a peaceful resolution as quickly as possible. The Capitals also stand in full support of our Russian players and their families overseas. We realize they are being put in a difficult situation and stand by to offer our assistance to them and their families.”

Ovechkin took a pro-Kremlin stance following the invasion and annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, and he received a wedding gift from Putin in 2017. That year, the Capitals star launched an online social media movement called PutinTeam to support the Russian leader. Though he hasn’t posted since the invasion, Ovechkin’s Instagram profile picture still depicts him alongside Putin.

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

In Ovechkin’s only public comments on the invasion in February, he pleaded for “no more war.” When asked whether he still supported Putin, Ovechkin replied, “Well, he is my president.

“But … I am not in politics,” the 36-year-old continued. “I am an athlete, and, you know, how I said, I hope everything is going to be done soon. It’s hard situation right now for both sides and everything, like how I said, everything I hope is going to be end. I’m not in control of this situation.”

The Capitals faced backlash in early March after a fan, Margaryta Suvorova, reported on social media that she was not allowed into the arena for a home game because she was carrying a Ukrainian flag. “I wasn’t even wearing the flag; I was just holding it like a scarf. The security people told me I couldn’t bring the flag into the stadium,” said Suvorova, a Ukrainian who lives and works in D.C. and has attended several Capitals games over the past few years. “And then I went to Ovechkin’s [Instagram] profile and saw that he still has a profile picture with Putin. So I was like, ‘Okay, it makes sense.’ … He still supports Putin, so they don’t want all this conflict, and they don’t want to see Ukrainian and Russian flags.”

Capital One Arena reiterated its policy the following day — the stadium allows national flags as long as they don’t obstruct views or hinder fans’ experience but doesn’t allow signs that are political in nature. When Suvorova and a friend went to another game less than two weeks later, they were allowed into the arena with Ukrainian flags draped over their shoulders. One of the flags had a printout of Ovechkin’s Instagram page pinned to it, with a red box outlining his picture with the Russian leader and text below that read, “Ovechkin condemn Putin’s war.”

“They can do more, and they should do more,” said Suvorova, whose brother and grandparents are still living in Ukraine. “[Ovechkin] has millions of followers. … People, especially young people, they look up to Ovechkin. They look up to these stars. You’re in this position, you have this power to be an example, and what example does he show right now to people? He’s just not only silent. … [The Capitals] just don’t want to do anything.”

After reading about fans not being allowed into the arena, Kessler wrote to Leonsis. As a fan over the years, she had frequently written the owner to congratulate him on the team’s success or to inquire about a player, and he would often respond, she said. This letter was different. She wrote that she hoped fans would not be limited in expressing their support of Ukraine. She did not receive a response, she said.

Kevin Blackistone: Alex Ovechkin’s voice is powerful. His comments on Ukraine were a missed opportunity.

“I don’t wish anything bad on the Caps. I love the Caps. I truly do,” Kessler said. “The fact that Ovechkin’s profile photo on his Instagram is himself with Vladimir Putin, it sickens me. It really does.”

There were no protests outside Capital One Arena before the team’s final regular season home game, when scores of fans in red and blue Ovechkin jerseys lined up outside. The majority of fans still support the team, and near-capacity crowds are expected when the Capitals’ first-round playoff series moves to Washington.

Baydyuk, who is an assistant research professor at Georgetown, has taken part in protests at the White House nearly every weekend since the war began, and in March she rallied support to hold a demonstration against Ovechkin and the Capitals in front of Capital One Arena. But she and other supporters of Ukraine faced backlash online from Capitals fans, and she didn’t feel a protest before a home game would be safe. She instead launched an online petition calling on the Capitals to part ways with Ovechkin, and more than 200 people have signed it. The organization did not publicly respond to the petition.

Baydyuk has felt a sense of loss for not being able to root for her local team. She remembers the joy she felt when she and her family would attend games and how they cheered the Capitals’ Stanley Cup victory in 2018.

“All the big games, we always watched. … We’ve been Caps fans — up until now,” she said. “It just completely ruins the camaraderie of the sport, the feeling that you are excited about your team, that you cherish every player, that you support the team fully. It’s no longer there. For all of us, we lost this great feeling about having this wonderful team in our capital that we all support. It’s gone.”

As Ovechkin was preparing to play what would be his last game of the regular season (he was injured in the contest), some of the area’s Ukrainian hockey enthusiasts gathered on Orthodox Easter Sunday in Baltimore to celebrate their own NHL stars, filing into a theater on the east end of the city. They ate pierogies and drank Ukrainian beer before settling in their seats to view the documentary “UKE,” which depicts the stories of NHL players from Ukrainian immigrant families — including Ken Daneyko, Johnny Bucyk and Wayne Gretzky, who in his analyst role with TNT publicly commented on the war and the criticism Ovechkin faced in the days after the invasion.

“We all agree that this is a senseless war. … Alex isn’t driving this bus. It’s this one guy that is driving this bus,” Gretzky said on the telecast, referring to Putin. “And it’s not good.”

Volodymyr Mula, the director of “UKE,” lives in Kyiv but traveled to Baltimore for the viewing. The 32-year-old began working on the film in 2017; it took him more than two years to secure an interview with Gretzky, he said, and the pandemic interrupted the release date. But he also found it difficult to broach the subject of Russia and Ovechkin during development of the film.

“I saw that a lot of people doesn’t want to talk about political [issues]. I started to talk about Russian aggression, what they think about Ovechkin trying to support Putin,” Mula said. “And a lot of people told me, ‘Don’t ask about it.’ And that’s a big problem. I think politics and sports is not a different field.”

After showing his film, Mula received a $10,000 check from the Dnipro Ukrainian Club, which promotes Ukrainian heritage in the Mid-Atlantic, and he planned to return home and give the money to the war effort.

Back in D.C., as Ovechkin and the Capitals prepare to begin their eighth consecutive postseason appearance Tuesday, Baydyuk will be helping manage her nonprofit, which has raised more than $22 million for Ukraine. Suvorova will be attending upcoming fundraisers that bring more awareness of the war. “There’s other things — they’re more important than just the Caps,” Suvorova said. “We just have to do what we can.”

This is the most exciting time of the year to be a hockey fan, but instead Kessler feels a sense of void. She has fond memories of rooting for her favorite Capitals in the playoffs over the years — Scott Stevens, Peter Bondra and Tom Wilson among them — but she doesn’t know when she might add more.

“It’s difficult. It stinks because I love the Caps. But I just feel like I can’t support them right now in this situation,” she said. “Which makes me sad because I still love a lot of the players on the team and I want them to do well. But I just can’t.”

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