Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has led to a large condemnation of his war crimes and Russia is paying the price with economic sanctions, travel restrictions and this week, the sports world began punishing the country.
The National Hockey League condemning Russia by suspending relationships with business partners in the country and also pausing the NHL’s Russian-language social and digital media sites.
The NHL, compared to the other major sports leagues in North America, has a lot of Russian-born players, some of which are the best in the game.
Since the invasion, there have been accounts of those players being threatened, with many not speaking out about the situation, with an agent representing Russian-born players saying they are scared to say anything. Just look at Artemi Panarin of the New York Rangers, who has been a vocal critic of Putin.
Washington Capitals captain Alexander Ovechkin has been targeted due to his support for Putin during his 2017 re-election campaign. Ovechkin is just one of two Russians in the NHL to comment on the invasion, simply saying “Please, no more war” while also calling Putin “my president” adding that “it’s a hard situation right now for both sides.”
Hall of Fame goaltender Dominik Hasek, born in Czechoslovakia while under Soviet-rule, called Ovechkin “chickenshit” and tweeted that the NHL should suspend the contracts of Russian-born players in response to Putin’s actions in Ukraine.
While that is extreme, Hasek likely has a strong resentment of Russia after growing up behind the Iron Curtain. The Czech Republic beating Russia in the gold medal game of the 1998 Winter Olympics, the first games in which NHL players took part, was a big moment for Hasek, who kept the Russians off the board in a 1-0 win and just five years after the Czech Republic was formed following the Cold War.
Hasek, like a lot of people in Eastern Europe who are old enough to remember being under the rule of the Soviet Union and finally seeing their countries become independent have to be horrified watching Putin order Russian troops into Ukraine with a desire to restore the old Soviet bloc piece-by-piece.
For these Russian-born players, their job is to play hockey. While they work in the United States or Canada, they have family that still live back in Russia who will suffer because of Putin’s actions. Speaking out against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine comes with a fear that they may put their families in danger. Thousands of Russians have been arrested for taking to the streets of Moscow, St. Petersburg and other cities in the country to protest the invasion. With many questioning Putin’s state of mind, who knows what he and the Kremlin may do to those people who are speaking out.
As nations and sports leagues move to further isolate Russia from the rest of the world, those NHL players have to feel an even deeper emotional and psychological isolation as anti-Russian sentiment ramps up here and elsewhere.
Like their fellow citizens back home, they are paying the price for an autocrat’s actions.