Russian NHL stars largely silent on Ukrainian war

Ice hockey players receive 'disturbing levels' of harassment and fear for retribution back home, agents say

Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin is only one of two Russian athletes in the National Hockey League to weigh in on the country's invasion of Ukraine. AFP

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Russian athletes in the National Hockey League are remaining largely silent over the country's assault on Ukraine, reportedly fearing retribution.

Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin and Calgary Flames defenceman Nikita Zadorov are the only two Russians out of the league's 41 to give their opinions on the war.

“It’s difficult for all the Russian players in the league,” said Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan.

“There’s a lot of pressure put on them to have a political opinion either way and they’re trying to balance out how they live their lives and what their political opinions are and the repercussions that could happen back home.

“It’s a difficult situation for these guys.”

Nicknamed “The Great 8", Ovechkin is Russia's most accomplished ice hockey player and arguably the country's greatest athlete ever.

He has scored 762 goals during his 17-year NHL career, been awarded MVP three times, won one Stanley Cup with the Capitals and three world championships with the Russian national team.

He has faced increasing pressure for his close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Ovechkin in 2017 launched created the “Team Putin” initiative and encouraged other Russian stars Evgeni Malkin and Ilya Kovalchuk to join the social media campaign.

“It's a hard situation,” Ovechkin said last week.

“I have family back in Russia and [there are] scary moments. But we can't do anything. We just hope it going to end soon and everything is going to be all right.

“Please, no more war.

“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.”

Ovechkin's comments drew consternation, including from Czech goaltending legend Dominik Hasek, who suggested the NHL immediately suspend contracts with Russian players.

Life insurance company MassMutual pulled an advert featuring Ovechkin and leading ice hockey equipment supplier CCM announced it would not feature Ovechkin or any other Russian athletes in global marketing promotions.

Several NHLPA-certified agents who represent Russian players spoke with The Associated Press about the challenges for their clients but would not go on the record out of concern the details could lead to negative consequences.

They said players have been told not to share opinions about Ukraine because of the political climate back home, where the Russian Parliament is considering making it a crime to spread what the government considers fake news about its military efforts in Ukraine.

Ovechkin’s wife, children and parents are in Russia. Long-time Pittsburgh rival Evgeni Malkin’s parents are also there.

New York Rangers left wing Artemi Panarin was placed on leave last year after voicing support for jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Photo: USA TODAY Sports

Ukrainian-born NHL player agent Dan Milstein told ESPN his clients are experiencing “disturbing levels” of harassment.

Zadarov, one of Milstein's clients, has been receiving derogatory messages on his Instagram account after posting a “No War” message last week.

“Hockey players have families at home. They are concerned on both sides of the ocean,” Mr Milstein said.

New York Rangers star Artemi Panarin last year was placed on leave after he was criticised for his support of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

The Rangers called a sexual assault claim against him “an intimidation tactic being used against him for being outspoken on recent political events".

Hockey players have families at home. They are concerned on both sides of the ocean
Dan Milstein, NHL player agent

In a statement condemning the Russian invasion on Ukraine, the NHL on Monday said its remains “deeply 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".

“We understand they and their families are being placed in an extremely difficult situation,” it added.

The NHL also announced it is suspending relationships with its Russian business partners and will be halting its Russian social and digital media sites.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

Updated: March 03, 2022, 8:38 PM