Ovechkin and son. Image - ABC News video screenshot
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Sabres’ Hall of Fame goaltender speaks, and speaks, and speaks

By Andrew Kulyk

The ugly and horrific war in Ukraine, which is almost a year into the Russian terrorist invasion which started last February 24, has many warriors and participants. Not all of them appear on the battlefield, carrying weapons to the front line. 

One noted warrior in this fight is none other than Dominik Hasek, beloved former goaltender for the Buffalo Sabres. His fight on behalf of the Ukrainian cause has wielded immense power, and that voice has even reached into the corporate offices of the NHL and the Czech government.

This war has spilled over into the world of hockey, and the NHL in particular, a league that has a particular public relations problem, with its much heralded superstar Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, seemingly on a date with destiny as Wayne Gretzky’s scoring record is clearly in his sights.

In normal times this would be an achievement which would receive universal attention and support. Flip over to the NBA, the Los Angeles Lakers, and LeBron James. Just this past week, James passed the total point scoring record, held for over forty years by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. They literally stopped the game at Crypto.com Arena when the record was broken, and a raucous on court celebration ensued, with teammates, celebrities, family members and even NBA Commissioner Adam Silver on hand to frame the moment. It was a momentous occasion for the sport and was viewed globally.

But back in the NHL, these aren’t normal times. Their superstar Ovechkin has gone on record as a full throated supporter of Vladimir Putin and his murderous regime. Even as his leader was leading rampages through Georgia, Syria, the Central African Republic, and the regions of Crimea and the Donbass in Ukraine spreading death and destruction, Ovechkin lended his support. In 2017 he organized “Putin Team” as a means for his countrymen to support their president. When asked last year about the war in Ukraine, Ovechkin offered a weak statement of “no more war” while maintaining his photograph of himself and Putin smiling together on his social media profile page.

What!? [Ovechkin] a chicken shit, but also a liar,” said Hasek via his Twitter. “Every adult in Europe knows well, that Putin is a mad killer and that Russia is waging an offensive war against the free country and its people.” Image via Hockeyfeed.com

Enter Dominik Hasek

To understand the very DNA that comprises most ethnic Czechs, a brief history lesson is in order. His home country of what was then Czechoslovakia fell under the sphere of Soviet influence following World War II, and became a part of the Warsaw Pact alliance on the wrong side of the iron curtain. Life for Czechs was grim… the structured Communist economy was a shambles, religion and free speech was repressed, that “knock on the door” from the secret police was something all citizens feared.

Freedom loving Czechs nonetheless fought back. Reform leader Alexander Dubcek organized the citizens in 1968, a revolution of ideas named “Prague Spring” took to the streets and demanded basic freedoms and relief from repression.

The Russians responded with an invasion in August of that year, brutally cracking down on the Czech citizens. Tanks rolled in the streets of Prague, many died or were sent to prison, and the grimness of the “Russian World” and Soviet life in Czechoslovakia just got that much worse. The dream of a free and independent Czechia did not come until 1989, when Vaclav Havel’s “Velvet Revolution” ushered in a great new era for their peoples, this all happening as the Soviet empire and Russian control crumbled all across eastern Europe.

Hasek was just a toddler when the Russian tanks ran over his neighbors and destroyed lives and families and property. But stories and memorials and remembrances of that awful era are visible all across Czechia and Slovakia. They are seared into everyone’s consciousness. And the mantra which reverberates across the entire countryside, and into neighboring countries and right now especially Ukraine, is “never again”.

Realize that Hasek and his platform carry enormous weight in his home country. During his playing days his NHL career, spanning three teams including nine seasons in Buffalo, and eventual Stanley Cup ring in Detroit, he earned constant attention in his homeland. In 1998, he catapulted the Czech men’s hockey team to a gold medal in the Winter Olympic Games in Nagano. That accomplishment and all that he contributed to leading that effort earned the honor of having his image placed on a commemorative postage stamp. 

Even as a player here in Buffalo, Hasek raised concerns about his desire to have his two children raised and schooled back in Czechia, and to embrace their home grown culture. Put all this together and even today Hasek is revered amongst his countrymen.

So when the NHL announced plans in spring to host two games this fall in O2 Arena in Prague between the Nashville Predators and San Jose Sharks, Hasek minced no words. He met with government officials in the Parliament, the Senate and the Foreign Ministry to plead the case,, trying to encourage the banning of issuance of visas to any of the players of Russian nationality on the two rosters. “If the NHL wants to allow any Russian player to play in this match, I will consider it an inexcusable act,” wrote Hasek on his Twitter account.

By late September, the Foreign Ministry did in fact inform the two teams that the Russian players were not welcome in their country. (Three players were affected).  This led to a bit of brinksmanship between Czech officials, the participating teams and even got NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly involved. Ultimately the games went on with the full roster compliment, including the Russians.

Yet even though Hasek’s foray into political activism on this issue did not go as he had intended, he has remained a steadfast supporter of Ukraine and its plight as image after image of death, destruction, rape, murder, intentional bombing of civilians and utility infrastructure, has filled the news cycle throughout 2022 and into this year. His home town of Pardubice sits roughly 330 miles west of the Ukrainian border, and just witnessing the parade of refugees from Ukraine and hearing their heartbreaking stories has given him and his neighbors a front row seat to the scale of this human tragedy. And the dark realization that it would take just one maniacal decision of President Putin to put Czechia into the same throes of Russian invasion.

So Hasek has taken to Twitter, day in and day out, sharing his perspective on events, offering moral support to the people of Ukraine, retweeting and reposting stories from the war front, and holding the hockey community accountable for any complicity in the events unfolding daily in Ukraine.

Hasek’s latest breaking point happened two weeks ago, during the annual NHL All Star Game and events held this year in Sunrise, Florida.

Not surprisingly, the league and the Washington Capitals in particular have heard loud and clear from many sectors of their fan base and the public about Ovechkin’s officlal stance on Ukraine and Russia. Last year as Russia’s invasion unfolded, several teams paid tribute to Ukraine with poignant and emotional ceremonies and recognition, including playing the Ukrainian national anthem. (The Buffalo Sabres, much to their disgrace, declined to stage their own tribute. This, being one of only two NHL teams whose team colors mimic the Ukrainian blue and gold, and having a substantial Ukrainian fan base both here in the Buffalo area and in Southern Ontario).

The Capitals, took the entirely opposite tact. From what was reportedly orders from team owner Ted Leonsis himself, fans were banned from bringing into the arena any national flags and displaying them, and this ban was even printed on the team’s media notes. Patrons were warned that any such flags would be confiscated. Yes, “all flags”, but the inference was clear… the Caps would not allow any displays of Ukrainian flags, scarves, or any other demonstration of support on their turf.

So at the All Star festivities, the NHL and their media and game ops handlers put together an event that would even make Russia’s notorious propaganda arm, the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, blush.

Along with his famous father, 4 year old Sergei Ovechkin was introduced out on the ice, in full uniform and skates, wearing his Caps #8 jersey with “Ovi Jr.” on the back. He smiled, he waved, he performed a shootout drill. The fans loved it, and loved him. And why not? What’s not to like about a cute little kid performing with his superstar dad? The team’s Twitter account was breathlessly posting announcements as to when young Ovi Jr. would become NHL draft eligible. We’re assuming that the Caps social media staff were unaware that if young Ovechkin were just a bit older, he’d be eligible for a much different draft.. conscription into the Russian army, where he could participate in the rapes and murders and destruction happening in Ukraine, all on behalf of The Motherland and his dad’s “Putin Team”.

With all this unfolding, Hasek was furious, repeatedly calling out the league for their complicity in the Russian war and the deaths in Ukraine. He took to Twitter on multiple occasions where fans and other NHL players posted selfies with themselves and Ovechkin, offering admonitions such as “your actions will always be misused to support war and crimes. If you already know this and still act like this (go to an event, take a photo with, for example, AO), you too become responsible for the crimes and lost lives in Ukraine. Just as she is already responsible (NHL).” Bruins All Star David Pasternak received a similar humbling message on Twitter from Hasek, in   response to Pasternak’s posted selfie with Ovechkin.

Throughout all of this, the NHL’s suits have been silent, but on February 5, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman broke his silence and issued this terse reply, “I don’t think he (Hasek) speaks either for the Czech government or people, but he’s entitled to his opinion. Which I disagree with, by the way, just so the record is clear.”

This, after the Hasek communicated directly to the NHL following the Ovi Jr propagandafest, stating, “The NHL has sunk to rock bottom. Letting Ovechkin’s son perform on the ice at the NHL All-Star is spitting in the face of the approximately 500 killed, thousands injured and tens of thousands of kidnapped Ukrainian children. The NHL and Gary Bettman must pay for this heinous act.”

Hasek then quickly responded to the Commissioner, informing him that the majority of Czech citizens and all arms of government, including the new incoming President, recognize how Russian athletes are regularly utilized in sports competitions as pawns of Russian propaganda.

The NHL has a problem moving forward. And no, it’s a bigger problem than the recent revelations that their Pride celebrations, rainbow stick tape and “You Can Play” project have been exposed as a complete sham. This as the league, several of its teams and a number of players have been called out for their rampant homophobia.

The NHL will have to glorify and shape a message for Alexander Ovechkin’s possible triumph as the world’s most prolific scorer, while tip toeing through the politics of war and suffering going on in Ukraine. They will have to tip toe through the messaging of the approximately 50 other NHL players of Russian origin, all who have remained silent as their countrymen rein terror and murder on behalf of the Motherland. They will have to set policy for scouting and recruitment for up and coming players coming from Russia. They will have to opjne whether the IIHF should continue their ban of teams from Russia and Belarus from the World Juniors. And if Ukraine has not finished off the Russians by 2026 and Putin’s regime is still in place, then what about the NHL’s participation in the next Winter Olympics?

If Bettman and his corporate entourage hold sway, look toward the league and the sport of hockey doing its best to sweep the horrors under the rug, to try to get to business as usual, to allow a few monsters to wear their uniforms and crests. In due time, we will probably be treated to a visit by Ovechkin’s puppies at a future hockey game. Fans will cheer, social media will be packed with photos of the cute animals and t-shirts will be on sale at the team shop on NHL.com.

And of course, this is all about the dollars anyways, isn’t it always? The TV ratings, the Ovechkin jerseys, the hype, the ticket sales, us watching little Ovi’s every single move on social media, living his life of privilege in The Motherland, while most other Russians are content just to have a functioning toilet or an extra bag of beets for their Sunday meals.

Standing on the other side will be Dominik Hasek. Warrior. Because like we said, not all warriors brandish a weapon on the front lines.