Saturday , July 2 2022

The impact of hockey’s Russian backlash, and what’s next

Andrei Svechnikov has two locations listed in his Instagram bio. One is Raleigh, North Carolina, where the Carolina Hurricanes star has played for the past four seasons. The other is Kazan, the Russian city where his family lived after stops in Moscow and Siberia.

Svechnikov is Russian, a designation that’s taken on a different context over the past two weeks after Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his army to invade Ukraine. The NHL, never known for emphatic political stances, released a statement that “condemns Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and urges a peaceful resolution as quickly as possible.”

It also expressed concern for the well-being of players, like Svechnikov, “who play in the NHL on behalf of their NHL clubs, and not on behalf of Russia,” acknowledging the players and their families “are being placed in an extremely difficult position.”

For some Russian players, that’s meant online harassment and public disparagement since the war began. The NHL has offered security resources to its teams, and the teams have beefed up their own security to protect these players.

Their teammates also are looking out for them, as Svechnikov’s teammate Jordan Martinook explained on Tuesday.

“It’s not anything that Svech can control. It’s out of his hands. Obviously, you want to support him. You’ve seen it with other players in the league. People are getting some criticism,” Martinook said. “If anybody tries to make him feel bad about the situation, then he’s got 23 brothers who will stick up for him.”

Dan Milstein believes the treatment of Russian players now is tantamount to discrimination. In some ways, he isn’t wrong.

Milstein is Ukrainian. Proudly Ukrainian. He is a political refugee who escaped the Soviet Union on the last day of its existence and has lived in Kyiv. He has watched, from afar, as Russia invaded Ukraine. He said his heart has broken many times over. When he talks with his friends back in Ukraine, he hears bombs exploding in the background.

“I’m sick. The building that I lived in for the first 16 years of my life is under attack right at this moment,” he said. “But I’m a Ukrainian, defending innocent people. I feel if I don’t defend Russians, who will?”

Milstein is known in hockey circles for the substantial number of Russian players represented by his agency, Gold Star Sports Management. Among his clients are some of the most popular players on their NHL teams: Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning; Ilya Sorokin of the New York Islanders; and Ilya Mikheyev of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Milstein also represents Calgary Flames defenseman Nikita Zadorov, who posted a graphic with “no war” written on his Instagram. Milstein said it sparked a torrent of derogatory messages directed toward the defenseman.

“Most Russian people that I know, and especially hockey players, want world peace. Nobody likes the war,” the agent said. “They’re being discriminated against right now because they’re Russian. Their lives are being threatened.”


Response from the hockey world

It’s been staggering to see how swiftly the hockey world has responded to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The International Ice Hockey Federation has pulled events from that nation and banned both Russia and Belarus from participating in any IIHF events. The now-canceled world junior tournament was scheduled for December 2022 and January 2023 with Russian cities Novosibirsk and Omsk, both in Siberia, as the hosts. Novosibirsk was constructing a new arena facility specifically for the event.

“The IIHF is not a political entity and cannot influence the decisions being taken over the war in Ukraine,” IIHF president Luc Tardif said. “We nevertheless have a duty of care to all of our members and participants and must therefore do all we can to ensure that we are able to operate our events in a safe environment for all teams taking part in the IIHF World Championship program.”

Tardif’s predecessor as IIHF president was Rene Fasel, who is known for his friendly relationship with Russian hockey. Fasel told Russian media that the IIHF’s actions were “a sad moment” for the organization.

“Even during the Cold War, the Soviet Union played with the United States and with Canada. Even in such a tense situation as today, sport must carry the message of peace and united people,” he said.

This is usually the kind of utopian naivety you might expect from the International Olympic Committee, which prides its events as being apolitical — except when it comes to Russian aggression in Ukraine, apparently. While a facile Fasel is asking for campfire singalongs with Russia, the IOC executive board recommended to each member nation’s governing sports bodies that they “not invite or allow the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes and officials in international competitions.”

The NHL, meanwhile, has discontinued “any consideration of Russia as a location for any future competitions,” while also pausing its business relationships with a Russian sports wagering company and Yandex, one of Europe’s largest internet companies that streams the league’s games in Russia.

There’s additional fallout in media and sponsorship. EA Sports announced that because the IIHF has suspended Russian and Belarusian teams, it will be removing those teams from “NHL 22” because “we stand with the people of Ukraine.”

CCM Hockey vowed not to use any Russian players in its global marketing for the time being. That includes Alex Ovechkin, whose commercial with MassMutual — one of the funniest NHL-adjacent ads ever, featuring him and Nicklas Backstrom eating cereal and discussing their on-ice partnership — has been pulled from U.S. television.


Alex Ovechkin

No player has had his reputation tarnished by the Russian invasion more than Ovechkin. Overnight, it seemed like the conversion turned from the Wayne Gretzky record chase and potential MVP honors to his support of Vladimir Putin.

Ovechkin, 36, has been an ardent supporter of Putin over the years. In 2017, he campaigned on behalf of Putin by starting a social media movement called Putin Team, writing, “I never made a secret of my attitude toward our president, always openly supporting him.” He has actively recruited other players to the cause.

He also has supported Russian military action in the past. In 2014, when Russia invaded and subsequently annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine, Ovechkin posted a photo to Instagram holding a sign that read “Save Children From Fascism,” writing that “our Grandparents have seen all the horrors of fascism! We will not allow it in our time!”

It says a lot about the reaction to his association with Putin when Ovechkin — the most marketable NHL star since Gretzky — is persona non grata in marketing campaigns. Ovechkin didn’t help himself during his news conference on Russia’s invasion last week. Sure, he grabbed some headlines for his plea for peace. But he didn’t mention Ukraine. Didn’t mention Ukrainians. And certainly didn’t condemn Russia’s attack on that nation.

And Ovechkin, with sponsors running away from him, still has a photo of himself with Putin as his Instagram avatar. Some have speculated that Ovechkin is in a bind, fearing for friends and family in Russia. Others have speculated that he is simply a Putin fan — who is in turn an Ovechkin fan — and supports the military action.

Ovechkin critics from the beforetime have seized on this moment. The New York Post’s Larry Brooks and Damien Cox of the Toronto Star have, respectively, called for his merchandise to be pulled from NHL retail stores and for him to be suspended by the league. The situation has led to journalists outside the hockey bubble criticizing him and fans doing so, as well.

Ovechkin has earned some condemnation after years of supporting a politician while simultaneously claiming the support wasn’t political; it’s going to be fascinating to see the reaction when the Washington Capitals hit the road next week for visits to Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver.

But what about other Russian players, the ones who weren’t fronting “Putin Team”?


Impact on Russian NHL players — present and future

If you’re a hockey fan and harassing a player for simply being Russian or Belarusian, please stop. You don’t know what their personal considerations are in speaking or not speaking, which could range from the safety of family to their future in international hockey to potentially breaking Russian law. Rick Westhead of TSN reported on Wednesday that agents are advising their players to be careful because “Russian parliament is considering a new law that could mean up to 15 years in prison for spreading ‘fake news’ about the war.” That is what’s on the table for these players.

They don’t owe you explanation or condemnation any more than an American player owed one when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003.

Remember when Montreal Canadiens fans booed “The Star-Spangled Banner” in protest of the war? As one member of the New York Islanders, their opponents that night, put it: “I’m sure there are a lot of people against the war, but some things people can’t control.”

That player was Russian-born Alexei Yashin, by the way.

These current Russian players certainly don’t deserve to be threatened for the actions of their country of origin. As Martinook said of Svechnikov: “I just think it’s totally out of his control. When you’re trying to bring politics into hockey, it’s hard for guys to really have a stance on it when it’s out of their control.”

Russian players on all levels are getting swept up in this backlash. Milstein points to the Canadian Hockey League and the United States Hockey League, as rumors are rampant that teams in those junior-level leagues might opt not to select Russian and Belarusian athletes in their import drafts later this year.

“This isn’t the national team. These are 16- and 17-year-old children that you are discriminating against. That you’re denying the opportunity,” he said.

If they were banned from the draft, these players likely would then sign three-year, entry-level contracts in Russia or Belarus.

“This is exactly what the Russians want,” Milstein said. “They never want the kids to play in North America at such a young age. So you’re basically helping them.”

Milstein said that general managers from the USHL and CHL have reached out to him regarding the future of Russian and Belarusian players. He said they indicated it was unfair that public pressure could restrict them from selecting those players in their drafts but that to speak up about it would get them “put up for public execution” in the court of public opinion, given the current climate.

“We pride ourselves here in North America that we have the best league and the best players. But now you’re discriminating, just because they’re born in Russia,” Milstein said.

He believes this will extend to the 2022 NHL draft. Gold Star, Milstein’s firm, has 20 players who are projected to be taken this summer.

“The guys that are supposed to go in the middle rounds, we’re concerned that they won’t be selected,” he said. “The guys that are supposed to go in the first round? I can’t guarantee that they will anymore.”

The undrafted players will then continue their junior careers.

“And at some point in time, when Russians are back in fashion, the very same teams will be chasing those guys as free agents — and promising the golden skies to play with their North American clubs,” Milstein said. “At some point in time, everyone’s going to kiss and make up.”


What’s the real impact looking forward?

When you peel back the layers of this backlash, you can’t help but feel a sense of temporariness:

  • The IIHF notably didn’t cancel the 2023 men’s world championship in Saint Petersburg, Russia. It has left its options open to do so, but there’s too much money in an event held in a 23,000-seat arena to cancel it outright.

  • The moment the IIHF lifts its ban is the moment EA Sports flips a switch to put Russia and Belarus back in its games.

  • The NHL is “pausing” its Russian media site and has pulled its games from Yandex, which introduced a 24/7 channel covering the league this season. But fans can still watch games if they VPN in to another service.

  • CCM Hockey said it isn’t using Ovechkin “at this point.”

For many brands, there’s a sense of necessary, immediate and proactive distancing from Russian athletes because of the global reaction to the war. How long these sanctions last or when they will be quietly lifted is anyone’s guess. We’ve seen movements like this before from brands and sponsors, whether it’s during a political moment or a national tragedy. We don’t have to go back but two years to remember similar public advocacy during the Black Lives Matter protests. How emphatic that dedication to racial justice and equality was then, while brands and sponsors haven’t been nearly as forthright with their efforts or stances of late.

Also murky: how long this war will be fought. No one knows how far it’ll spread. As a result, no one knows what life could be like for Russian players next season, both in public perception and in ability to play.

Another agent I spoke with wondered if the U.S. government would revoke existing work visas for Russians in the country, which would certainly impact hockey players.

I asked Milstein if he was at all concerned about the status of his players in the NHL next season. Whether he worried they wouldn’t be in the NHL at all.

“Of course, I’m concerned. But most importantly, I’m concerned about their well-being and safety. Because right now, they’re being threatened,” he said. “My clients of Russian heritage are good and kind people. Myself and my clients pay millions of dollars in U.S. and Canadian taxes. We are huge contributors to the North American society.”

There will be anger. There will be backlash. There will be ill feelings expressed toward Russian athletes and a sense that they should shoulder a larger burden in asking for peace. Some of it is fair, such as in Alex Ovechkin’s case. Much of it is not, as Russian players who share nothing with this war outside of a birthplace are harassed or professionally impacted due to that association.

What Milstein hopes is that this energy is channeled in an entirely different, more constructive place — toward the people Russia is attacking.

“Instead of hating on each other and going to social media, donate whatever you can — food, clothing, money — to support the innocent people of Ukraine,” he said.




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