Russians shine in NHL playoffs as country goes to war in Ukraine

A little more than a mile from the United Nations, where Russia’s war in Ukraine was front and center, the Madison Square Garden crowd chanted goalkeeper Igor Shestkin’s name in the closing moments of a playoff victory.

In the opening round, Washington Capitals fans chanted “Ovi! Ove!” for longtime captain Alex Ovechkin, who has long been with Russian President Vladimir who ordered the invasion · Putin (Vladimir Putin) linked.

The National Hockey League playoffs have inadvertently become the intersection of sports and politics, with the Russians leading the charge on the North American ice against the backdrop of Europe’s largest military conflict since World War II. While their compatriots have been banned from games from football to tennis, the NHL’s Russians kept a low profile while staying away from the ice.

“In extremely difficult circumstances, everyone is doing their best,” Commissioner Gary Bateman told The Associated Press in a recent interview. “Our players play for their NHL teams, no matter where they come from. At this particular point in time, Russian players are in an impossible situation.”

During the regular season, a total of 56 Russians participated in NHL skating, or about 5% of the total number of players, and 29 of them participated in the playoffs, a little less than 8%. Some of the best this game has to offer, from Shesterkin backing the New York Rangers into the second round to Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy propelling the Chargers to their fourth Eastern Conference finals in five years, Win the Stanley Cup for the third time in a row.

The NHL never seriously considered banning Russian and Belarusian players like Wimbledon, which helped the invasion. It issued a statement condemning the war, ended commercial operations and partnerships in Russia, and stopped postings on Russian-language social and digital media sites.

Since Putin’s forces invaded Ukraine on February 24, individual players born there – whether in the Soviet Union or the Russian Federation – have been on the ice. The NHL expressed concern for the well-being of players from Russia, adding, “We understand that they and their families are in an extremely difficult situation.”

“It’s a quagmire with no easy way out,” said Stefan Szymanski, a professor of sports management at the University of Michigan. “The clearest answer is, ‘We won’t ban any athlete,’ or ‘We’ll just ban all athletes,’ and anything in between will fall into these gray areas.”

Russian players have remained largely silent about what Putin called “special military operations,” which can be jailed for anyone calling it a war. Ovechkin, who campaigned for Putin in 2017, called for peace, Calgary defender Nikita Zadorov posted “no war” on Instagram, and Carolina forward Andrei Swaych Nikov called it a “difficult situation.”

Agent Dan Milstein, a Ukrainian native who represents 14 Russian players who have signed in the NHL, including Kucherov and Vasilevski, told Reuters in March The Associated Press, because of the family back home, talking about the war in any way is worrying. He and several other NHLPA-certified agents with Russian clients either declined to comment or did not respond to messages seeking comment.

High-profile Russian players have largely tried to focus on their work during the most important time of the year, while staying off the radar on the ice. Success on the ice is unquestionable, as Russia has scored 41 goals — 8.3 percent of the total in the playoffs — and the goalie has won 21 of 71 as of Sunday. .

“When you play, you forget everything,” said Pittsburgh star Evgeni Malkin. “This is the perfect time to step on the ice and do what you’ve been doing your whole life.”

Whether or not they should be on the ice when their country is waging war on the borders of its neighbors is a topic of debate in all corners of the hockey world. Retired Hall of Fame goalkeeper and Czech Dominic Hasek called on the NHL to suspend the contracts of all Russian players, saying the public participation of Russian athletes is “a huge advertisement for the Russian state and its actions.”

Szymanski sees the Olympic truce from ancient Greece as a reason for a blanket ban on Russian athletes.

“Citizens of countries involved in war cannot participate in sports,” he said. “It’s a celebration of the human spirit, not an indirect means of waging war.”

Of course, this includes sport as a form of propaganda and nationalist achievements, the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany being a familiar example. Brendan Dwyer, director of research and distance learning at the Virginia Commonwealth Center for Sports Leadership, said any ban on Russian hockey players would be a blow to the Kremlin.

“Putin put these athletes on a pedestal, not football, not tennis,” Dwyer said. “One of the things I go on to say is how important sport is to this regime. In general, it goes beyond From this regime, back to communism and the Soviet Union and their use of sport as a way to demonstrate power internationally, hockey is more important than any other sport.”

Hockey has been taken away from Russia.

The NHL is no longer considering hosting any future games there, and the International Ice Hockey Federation has banned Russian and Belarusian national team players. The IIHF also stripped Russia of hosting the 2023 World Youth Championships and the Men’s World Championships, while Sweden said anyone playing in Russia’s KHL was ineligible to play for its national team.

Yet the NHL continues to bring in Russian talent, such as Nashville signing top goalie Yasoraf Askarov. Or Philadelphia signing goalkeeper Ivan Fedotov to a contract months after supporting the “Republic of China” team to a silver medal at the Beijing Olympics, when Russia was banned from competing under its own flag due to doping sanctions in multiple sports .

Bateman said the league has not in any way hidden or downplayed the Russians’ performance, whether it’s Ovechkin chasing Wein Gretzky’s career scoring record or Kucherov and Minnesota’s Kirilka Pritzov ignited it in the playoffs.

“We’re not going to run away from that,” Bateman said. “Their performance is something to celebrate, and Alex is on his way to immortality. We celebrate it, we celebrate every player’s achievement as they perform in the NHL for their NHL team and NHL fans.”

During apartheid, national teams were banned, while individual players in tennis and golf were allowed to continue playing sports, which Szymanski compared to South Africa. He and Dwyer agree that there is no easy answer to this conundrum, especially for a league like the NHL, which has flourished with an infusion of Russian talent in recent decades.

“I don’t know if there’s a better way to get through it,” Dwyer said. “It’s a very, very complicated situation.”

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