There are games, and there is life. We try to separate the two, often using the former to take our minds off the latter. But sometimes, they intersect, often for those who participate in those games at the highest level. And this brings us to two hockey players, both sons of Russia, both among the best in their profession, and both caught up with the war in Ukraine and the man who is responsible for the death and destruction taking place in that country.
Alex Ovechkin is, by any measure, among the best hockey players ever to lace up skates. From the time he was drafted as a number one overall pick in 2004, he has been adored by Caps fans and, grudgingly at times, respected by fans and media from other cities. But lurking under the surface has been his support for the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, whose history as a common, brutal, corrupt thug posing as a head of state is long and well known.
Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, though, the history of his support has bubbled to the surface, multiple media outlets reminding people of this photo taken with Putin after Russia won the 2014 world championship and that serves as his featured photo on his Instagram site.
And there is also, if less well-known, his establishment of PutinTeam in 2017, ostensibly a non-political a social movement but one that was supported by the Kremlin on its creation. And, given the object of its support, it would be almost impossible to conclude that there was not a significant political dimension conveying support in its activity.
With the hostilities in Ukraine escalating with Putin ordering Russian "peacekeepers" into Ukraine on February 21st, Ovechkin declined to comment on events, but he broke that silence on February 25th after a team practice. His remarks had the appearance of trying to walk a fine line between support for and criticism of Putin. He called Putin (not by name) “his president,” but literally in the next sentence he pointed out that he was “not in politics.” Noting that he had family back in Russia, the message he appeared to be an attempt to convey that he wanted hostilities to end, although notably without naming the party responsible for starting them or his relationship to him. His remarks had a certain anodyne quality to them, but they could also be described as tentative, weak, and an effort to avoid controversy.
It was a performance not well received, and the fallout in its aftermath has been swift and widespread. He has lost support from commercial partners, such as CCM hockey, which will no longer use Ovechkin and “other Russian players” in its global marketing campaigns, and MassMutual, which pulled its famously hilarious advertisement featuring Ovechkin and teammate Nicklas Backstrom. Media personalities have been severe in their response. Damien Cox of the Toronto Star and Larry Brooks of the New York Post are representative of the media reaction.
No doubt Ovechkin will pay a personal price for this (his commercial contract with CCM is reported to be worth $500,000 per year plus a percentage of sales in Russia for the partnership), but such concerns pale next to the price Ukrainians are paying these days as victims of a madman who thinks little of using civilians as targets in his misbegotten war.
And that brings us to Artemi Panarin, the New York Ranger forward who also can claim to be one of the best players of his generation in the NHL. But on January 21, 2021, Panarin took to Instagram to support Putin rival Alexei Navalny, the post featuring the message “Freedom for Navalny.” Before that, in 2019, Panarin noted in an interview (I highly recommend watching the entire interview) that “[Putin] can no longer distinguish between right and wrong…I don't like the lawlessness.”
In February 2021, Russia sought retribution in the form of an accusation by a former coach that Panarin assaulted an 18-year-old woman in Latvia in 2011, knocking her to the floor and accused Panarin of escaping justice through use of a bribe. The charge was baseless, but Panarin had to take a leave of absence from the Rangers in the wake of the charges nevertheless, and it served as an object lesson in the intimidation tactics Russia would use to enforce discipline among those who wandered off the reservation of Putin worship.
Fast forward to the last few days. Panarin took down his pro-Navalny message on Instagram and took his Instagram account private. He does not impress me as the sort to run from a fight (Caps fans may insert their Tom Wilson joke here), so it does beg the question of what is up behind the scenes that hockey fans and, for that matter, hockey media will never know. It is easy to criticize Ovechkin for his overt support for Putin, and in fact, however indiscreet he might have been as a twenty-something engaging in hero worship for a political leader, he is 36 years old and cannot be blind to what is transpiring and who is the cause of it in Ukraine. But I can’t know – and neither can you – what pressure he is under, as the most famous Russian-born athlete in North America, that escapes the light of media scrutiny.
Panarin’s case is perhaps more complex, and least in terms of what information exists in the light of day. That interview linked above was a master class in guts to criticize Putin in no uncertain terms. He eventually paid a personal price for his rebellious actions, albeit temporary and not of the same magnitude of Ukrainians suffering at the hands of Putin. That he would retreat now behind a social media wall hints at the possibility of dark forces that might be trying to intimidate Russian athletes (and perhaps celebrities more generally) into support for Putin or at least silence. It is worth noting that of 41 Russian players in the NHL, two (Ovechkin and Calgary Flames defenseman Nikita Zadorov) have expressed opinions on Putin and the war in Ukraine, and both in rather non-committal terms. To this you can add Panarin's past expressions of opinion on Putin. And if you think the celebrity of Ovechkin or, to a lesser extent, Panarin or Zadorov would shield them from punishment – for them or their families – by the Putin regime, I think you are engaging in naivete.
Going forward, with respect to Ovechkin, I have seen more than a few Caps fans express disappointment, if not outrage, at Ovechkin’s lack of full-throated opposition to the actions of Putin. And I wonder, will these same fans, who thrilled at his talent and achievement on the ice before turning on him on this issue, will return to cheering him as he pushes forward in breaking NHL records, including (eventually) Wayne Gretzky’s all-time goal scoring record. For those who would, there is more than a whiff of hypocrisy. I wish Ovechkin was firmer in his press conference on this issue last week, that he, as the face of Russia in the NHL, would express more outrage at the actions of his president, but I cannot stand in his shoes. I wonder what it was that prompted Panarin to take to the background on this matter, but I can’t stand in his shoes, either.
When games intersect with life for professional athletes, it is all too often with bad results. Ovechkin and Panarin, while they have spent years living and working in the United States, might not be comfortable emulating the American tradition of free debate and criticisms of their government, especially given the recent history under Putin’s Russia. Ovechkin, who is in a uniquely difficult situation among NHL players and is under a great deal of pressure, might be deserving of a measure of restraint from fans and media as this sad story of the war in Ukraine plays out. But please, Alex… take that Instagram avatar picture down.
Peerless, thanks for posting this thoughtful article.
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