Alex Ovechkin says the PutinTeam movement he announced on Instagram this month was his idea. (photo- Ria Novosti:Reuters)
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THE NHL’S OVECHKIN PROBLEM By Andrew Kulyk and Peter Farrell

Pro Ukraine sentiment flourishing through the hockey world

Fans have seen the outpouring of love and support for embattled Ukraine as Vladimir Putin’s war of terror and genocide continues to cost lives and property across a great swath of that country.

At NHL arenas across the United States and Canada, the blue and yellow colors and flags symbolizing an independent Ukraine have been displayed and unfurled. Anthems have been played and sung. Players on the ice have worn a flag patch on their jerseys. There have been demonstrations and signs and flag waving in the stands.  Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk, himself born of Ukrainian immigrants, announced that the Ukrainian national anthem, “Ukraine Has Not Yet Perished”, will be performed at each of the remaining Senators’ home games.

Amidst all this backdrop stands one of hockey’s most visible superstars, the Washington Capitals’ Alexander Ovechkin. The same Ovechkin who is slated and on pace to shatter all scoring records and when all is said and take his place as one of the greatest hockey players to ever play the game,

But there is a dark side to the famed Ovechkin, and it is causing tensions and divide within the Capitals organization, amongst the larger hockey world, and lighting up controversies wherever the Capitals play on the road.

Alexander Ovechkin, now 36 years old, was the first-round draft pick, and first pick overall, in the 2004 NHL entry draft, and has played his entire NHL career with the Washington Capitals, where to date he has amassed 766 goals and 1391 points in his storied career. Prior to arriving in North America, he played in the junior program with the Dynamo Moscow hockey organization and also has been a participant on Russian national teams in international competitions and the Winter Olympic Games.

Along the way, Russia’s most prolific star of the 21st century met Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who also fancies himself as a hockey athlete, albeit a somewhat dodgy one at age 70 plus. As darkness has descended across the Russian Federation and their country tries to turn the clock back to the days of Soviet imperialism and all the horrors that come with it, Ovechkin has not only been fine with his nationalist roots but in full-throated support of his leader’s policies.

“Let’s not be ashamed to openly state our views. Don’t be bashful about being seen as not trendy. I am for Putin! Putin Team!”
-Alexander Ovechkin, 2017

A few years ago Ovechkin formed an online portal and named it “Team Putin”. When Putin invaded and annexed Crimea and then funded and armed separatist insurgents in the eastern part of Ukraine, Ovechkin’s support did not waver. Destruction, horror, and genocide in Georgia? In Aleppo? In Transnistria? In the Central African Republic? Nothing to see here folks.  Friend Vlad is up for re-election in 2018. Vote early and often!

The war in Ukraine, however, is the breaking point for the western world, and one that poses unique problems for the NHL, for minor league hockey, the junior circuits, and the international federations governing the sport.

To begin with, no fewer than 38 Russian players are currently on NHL rosters, the most famous being of course Ovechkin and Pittsburgh’s Evgeny Malkin. 

To date, only two players have made any sort of public statements about the war. Just a few days into the Russian incursion into Ukraine, the Capitals called a press conference, where a stilted and wooden Alexander Ovechkin faced the press, was lobbed softball questions by an adoring and compliant press (or more likely, afraid to question too forcefully and place their accreditation status with the team in jeopardy), and listened to Ovechkin utter statements like, “Please. No more war” and “I am not in politics. I am an athlete.”  

Ovechkin was not asked, not once, not even once, why he cheered on his friend and leader and his government while people were dying by the thousands in the Donbas region in Ukraine and many more fled their homes and left their lives behind. Donetsk’s gleaming $2-billion international airport, built for the UEFA Euro 2012 soccer competition, lays in ruins. Countless towns and villages were flattened and destroyed. No one. No one in that room asked Ovechkin the question.

The only other player to speak out was Calgary Flames (and former Buffalo Sabres) defenseman Nikita Zadorov, who posted a Ukrainian flag and the words “STOP IT!” and “No war!” on his Instagram page the day after Russia’s invasion began.

For many of the Russian players on NHL, minor league, and even junior rosters, their troubles have been twofold. With the last vestiges of free speech in their homeland quickly collapsing and arrests routinely occurring for even minor statements of dissent, there are fears for the well-being of loved ones back home for speaking truths.

Meanwhile, these same players are facing the anger and wrath of the fans here in North America, with social media accounts packed with messages such as “fascists”, “baby killers”, “go back to Russia you murderers”. Several players have had to disable their accounts.

The demonstrations and flag-waving reached a fever pitch in Alberta this past week when the Capitals visited the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames. The province is home to the largest Ukrainian community in North America, with tens of thousands calling themselves Ukrainian-Canadian, and churches, social clubs, restaurants, and sports organizations with Ukrainian pedigree all over those two cities. Step into Edmonton’s Rogers Place (and even as far as Bell MTS Place in Winnipeg, Manitoba) and you will find a “Uke platter” amongst the concession fare, offering a dish of varenyky (pierogi dumplings), holubtschi (cabbage rolls), and kielbasa (sausage). 

Sensing the mood, the Capitals released a statement of support for Ukraine. “We join the National Hockey League in condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the loss of innocent life.”

No matter. Edmontonians came out in force. To sing the anthem. To wave the colors. Ovechkin was loudly booed each time he touched the puck and did not score. 

Over in Washington, however, it is a completely different dynamic. The Capitals organization has gone to extreme lengths to suppress any demonstration or support for Ukraine by fans at their home games. Their guidelines released on March 4 specifically state “No Ukraine/Russia signs. 

Who in their right mind would ever appear in public flashing the white/blue/red of the Russian Federation? (Unless of course, you are a failed Erie County politician heading off to do an appearance on Tucker Carlson’s rancid show on Fox, but that is a story for another day).

The Washington Capitals’ dilemma is just a microcosm of the bigger picture here, that being the importance of the Russian presence and imprint on their product.

The NHL and some of its marketing partners are severing ties with Anything Russia. Manufacturer of hockey equipment CCM has said they would stop involving Ovechkin and other players in their marketing campaigns. The league has cut ties with Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League (the KHL), which in recent days their social media department has gone on a rampage blocking anyone who has the temerity to discuss the Russian war or any geopolitical issues. Seen at KHL games just this past week was the playing of the anthem of the Russian Federation accompanied by the display of the infamous “Z” logo, which is emblazoned on all Russian war machinery.

The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), which has brought the World Juniors to Buffalo twice this past decade, has banned Russia from participating in any international tournaments.

The league has also quietly started beefing up security at their games, fearing threats and reprisals not only against Ovechkin but also involving other Russian hockey players.

And that brings us to Buffalo.

The Buffalo Sabres have been silent relating to any matters involving Ukraine. There are no Russian players on Buffalo’s roster. But everyone has Friday, March 25 circled on their calendars, as that is the day Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals come to town to face the Buffalo Sabres.

Will the Sabres choose that day to put on a full display of support for the people of Ukraine? There is a substantial Ukrainian/American presence right here in Western New York, with five church parishes and two social clubs and thousands of members. All are in overdrive at the moment raising funds and spearheading relief efforts for their families, friends, and ordinary Ukrainians in the war zone.

Yet Buffalo, one of only two NHL teams to happen to wear the same colors as the Ukrainian flag (the other being St. Louis), are in a perfect position to join many of their NHL peers in commemorating the suffering in Ukraine, with Ovechkin a captive audience as he was in Alberta this past week.

Will it happen?

This past Sunday, Ukrainian-born player Arthur Cholach, a defenseman for the OHL’s Barrie Colts, was given the honor of participating in the ceremonial faceoff between the Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs at the annual Heritage Classic. As Cholach approached the faceoff circle, he peeled off his Barrie jersey to reveal the other jersey he was wearing, that of Team Ukraine. The gesture earned a huge roar of applause from the over 26,000 in attendance in Hamilton.

Mind you, though, even though this was technically a Sabres “home game”, the game optics and entertainment aspect of the event was distinctly a hometown Hamilton thing.

Sadly, team president Kim Pegula seems to have a tin ear when it comes to reading the room and possibly getting a full understanding of the dynamics of this war, how it affects the team, the league, and where her fan base stands on all this.

A couple of weeks ago, Pegula made the incredulous remark that there is not a substantial crossover between Sabres fans and Bills fans. This past week, when Bills lineman Dion Dawkins showed up at the Sabres/Vegas game, with the “Shout!” song blaring and him leading the “Let’s Go Buffalo” chant complete with Sabretooth’s drum, Pegula was excoriated on social media. Post after sarcastic post asking what was Dawkins doing at a Sabres game, no crossover. How those in attendance didn’t know who Dawkins even was, given that Sabres fans for the most part aren’t Bills fans. Funny stuff, but then it gets serious and people wonder what is their hockey team’s president thinking.

Maybe Pegula will listen. Maybe she will do her homework, and her team will go big.

As for the fans, many are finally returning to KeyBank Center to embrace a team that is showing some promise for greatness and soon (it only took seven years and Eichel leaving for fans to get in the game). Please come to the game in your blue and yellow and bring everything you can muster in extra blue and yellow swag. Sing loud and boo Ovechkin even louder.

People are dying in Ukraine. Children and mothers and senior citizens and babies are being slaughtered. Your words have power. Your cheers have power. You can make a difference. Be there.

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