The most admirable path, in the eyes of most of us Americans who are watching in horror with each Russian advancement in Ukraine, would be for Alex Ovechkin to stare squarely into a camera and say, “Vladimir Putin is not my president.”
Ovechkin’s legacy as a goal scorer is forever secure and, in the wake of the 36-year-old’s ninth 50-goal season, even growing. With the Capitals’ fourth straight first-round playoff exit, his legacy of team success is at best on pause. As he heads back to Russia to reunite with his young family, his off-ice legacy is growing more complicated by the day.
Why doesn’t he forcefully denounce what Russia is doing in Ukraine?
“I’ve already said it,” Ovechkin told me in a brief exchange Sunday. “I’ve already said that. What else can I say?”
What he said in February, shortly after Russian forces invaded Ukraine, included this: “Please, no more war. It doesn’t matter who’s in a war — Russia, Ukraine, different countries. I think we live in a world, like, we have to live in peace and a great world.”
A fine sentiment. But Ovechkin also said this regarding Putin: “He’s my president, but … I’m not in politics.”
So I asked him Sunday: Can you understand, given the horrifying situation in Ukraine, why people would want you to make a more forceful stand against Putin?
“He is my president, right?” Ovechkin said. “I am Russian. What else can I say?”
If he’s not doubling down, he certainly isn’t backing down. Is that his choice based on his beliefs? It’s hard to know.
Here’s what we do know: In 2017, Ovechkin put his name and face on an online social movement to support Putin in the (sham) Russian elections the following year. His Instagram account still features a photo of a smiling Ovechkin alongside his autocratic leader. Ovechkin’s parents are deeply embedded in the Russian athletic machine, his mother a former Olympic basketball player and official with a powerful Moscow club. His wife and two young boys are in Russia.
And there are people close to Ovechkin who suspect there could be ramifications for the Capitals’ captain should he even appear to denounce Putin and his abominable actions.
“That does ring true,” said Brian Whitmore, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and assistant professor at the University of Texas Arlington. “This regime is ruthless, and Putin has shown himself to be very vindictive. Ovechkin’s family is in Russia, which could make them vulnerable. All Russian athletes, they’re in a very compromised position if they speak out.”
Still, keeping the avatar?
“That was a missed opportunity,” said Whitmore, who also hosts a weekly podcast on Russian affairs called “The Power Vertical.” “His voice means something. Russian athletes in the U.S., their voices mean something. I know a lot of Russians in different professions who are speaking out very actively.”
For anyone who wants to keep sports and unbridled aggression toward another country separate, it’s too late. Wimbledon has banned Russian and Belarusian players, which for the moment leaves second-ranked Daniil Medvedev off the grass courts. Evgeny Rylov, a gold medal-winning Olympic swimmer, was suspended for nine months and lost his sponsorship deal with Speedo after he appeared at a Russian rally wearing a jacket emblazoned with the letter “Z” — a symbol of support for the Russian operation. Putin’s actions have affected Russian athletes across sports, but the NHL has stood by its 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,” the league said in a February statement. “We understand they and their families are being placed in an extremely difficult position.”
Think of it this way: Maybe it is risky — or uncomfortable — for a figure as prominent as Ovechkin to so much as swap out a picture of himself and Putin with, say, a picture of himself with the Stanley Cup. But what the people of Ukraine face every single day is more than uncomfortable.
If Ovechkin’s family is in danger, he has the means and the infrastructure — a contract that pays him $9.5 million per year, a comfortable home in the United States — to move them. Millions of Ukrainians — in, say, Mariupol or Bucha, where mass graves have been detected by satellites, where schools and hospitals have been bombed — have no such alternative. They shelter. They fight. Ovechkin almost certainly faces political pressure, the scope of which we may not fully understand. Put those up against the day-to-day pressures faced by regular Ukrainians, whose lives are shattered. Both can be real. They don’t feel equal.
Still, what awaits Ovechkin when he returns home could be scary. Putin’s domestic propaganda campaign is aggressive, designed to convince his own people that the Ukrainians are Nazis, that they commit heinous crimes against their own people — nonsense, all of it. It doesn’t take terribly creative thinking to believe the Kremlin would push and prod Ovechkin to publicly support its cause, a hockey star used to capture hearts and minds.
“I think that will be a pretty big tell — how he acts when he’s at home,” Whitmore said.
There will be a tell, too, when he returns to the United States. This summer is longer than Ovechkin and the Capitals wanted it to be. First-round exits do that. But it’s also almost certainly not long enough for the situation in Ukraine to be resolved. Public support for Ukraine — and sentiment against Russia — is overwhelming here. A Washington Post-ABC News poll this month showed more than three-quarters of Americans support increasing humanitarian aid to Ukraine, and two-thirds support increasing sanctions on Russia. In this polarized country at this extraordinary time, those numbers are telling.
So as he toggles between these two worlds — the world in which he grew up and the world in which he makes his living — it’s hard for Ovechkin not to feel pulls in both directions. My colleague Roman Stubbs wrote a fascinating piece before the playoffs outlining the struggles that Ukrainian Caps fans were having rooting for a hockey hero who openly supports Putin. One example: Lynn Kessler, whose husband’s family is from Ukraine.
“The fact that Ovechkin’s profile photo on his Instagram is himself with Vladimir Putin, it sickens me,” she said. “It really does.”
That’s a sample. She’s not alone.
During his next training camp, preparing for his 18th season in the U.S. capital, Ovechkin will turn 37. He will be asked about his ascent up the NHL’s all-time goal-scoring list, because he now trails Gordie Howe by 21 and Wayne Gretzky by 114, and there are no more rungs on the ladder. He will be asked about the realistic chances to win another Stanley Cup, because each year he gets further from his championship and closer to the end of his career.
But he also should be asked anew about his feelings about Putin’s war and Putin himself. “He’s my president” is simply not a satisfying answer.
Alex Ovechkin has the summer to explore the heinousness of what’s going on in Ukraine. If he does, and he comes to the conclusion that his president is responsible, he could think about the impact that speaking out — even subtly — might have not just on himself and his family but also on Russians and Ukrainians. Doing so would only solidify and further his off-ice legacy in the country where he became a star.