As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues, there’s far more important things to worry about than the opinion of a couple hockey players.
Still, the silence from the NHL’s top Russian stars was deafening.
Washington Capitals captain Alexander Ovechkin and Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin are just two of the 37 active Russian-born players in the league, but eyes and ears shifted to them on Thursday to see if they’d respond to the horrific acts committed by their homeland’s government.
Ovechkin evaded the media Thursday, with Samantha Bell, a Capitals beat reporter for The Washington Post, stating on Twitter that the captain wanted, “further time before speaking on Russia’s attack on Ukraine,” and that the team wished to focus on the game against the New York Rangers.
Bell also reported Ovechkin’s wife, children and parents are all in Russia.
Malkin wasn’t made available to reporters Thursday night, despite scoring the Penguins’ lone goal in a 6-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils. No statement was released by the team or Pittsburgh reporters on the matter.
On Friday afternoon, Ovechkin appeared in front of the media and gave a carefully curated message on the state of affairs.
“It’s a tough situation. I have family back in Russia and it is scary moments, ”Ovechkin said. “But we can’t do anything. We just hope it’s going to be end soon and everything is going to be all right. … Please, no more war. ”
The 36-year-old Moscow native’s response aligned with that of other Russian athletes in light of the invasion.
Tennis player Andrey Rublev wrote “No War Please” on a TV camera lens after advancing to the final match at the Dubai Championships on Friday.
Dynamo Moscow’s Fedor Smolov became the first soccer player to speak out against the invasion Thursday when he posted a blacked-out photo on Instagram with the caption “No to war” followed by a broken heart emoji and the Ukrainian flag.
Many fans on Twitter thought Ovechkin’s response wasn’t enough, others felt it was irresponsible to ask his opinion at all, and some saw the message as perfectly acceptable.
There are no winners in this situation.
It’s important to note that journalists have a responsibility to ask the tough questions that plague the collective minds of fans. It’s equally important to understand these players are bound by the unjustness of their home government that makes it a difficult decision to answer openly.
They do not have the same privilege of freedom of speech in Russia that we have in the US. Their words said on American soil can have consequences for their friends and family abroad and their reputations and careers in the NHL.
Nobody knows that better than Rangers forward Artemi Panarin, who called out Russian president Vladimir Putin in a 2019 interview with the YouTube channel Vsemu Golovin. The winger, who was 27 years old at the time, subsequently took a leave of absence from the NHL after his former coach accused him of a Russian tabloid of assaulting an 18-year-old girl 10 years prior.
Panarin insisted the claim was fabricated, and the Rangers’ organization stood by him with a statement saying the accusation was “clearly an intimidation tactic being used against him for being outspoken on political events.”
The investigation came back empty of evidence and Panarin returned to the NHL, but remained vocal against Putin and the Russian government.
Speaking out against Putin can be dangerous; however, it still feels frustrating to watch Malkin remain silent and Ovechkin give a blanket statement after both publicly and outwardly supported Putin for years.
In 2017, Ovi, who currently holds the nhl record for most points scored by a Russian-born player, launched the social movement PutinTeam to help campaign for the president’s re-election.
The home page of putinteam.ru includes a photo carousel with an image of Ovechkin and the message: “Hi, I’m hockey player Alexander Ovechkin. I created the PutinTeam to unite those who are proud of Russia and our president, who want to make our country stronger. ”
As of Friday, Ovechkin’s Instagram profile picture was still an image of him and Putin together.
Malkin, who has dual citizenship in the US, supported the movement in November 2017 by posting an image of himself posing with Putin in matching Russian national jerseys on Instagram. He tagged Ovechkin in the post and captioned it, “Putin team.”
At the time, the Magnitogorsk native told reporters, via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “We want (Putin) to understand that we support him. We play here (in the United States). We’re far away, but we understand what’s going on. We try to be together. It’s not like me or (Ovechkin) are the right-hand (men) for Putin. We just try to offer our support because, in 2018, we have the World Cup in Russia; they have elections, too. It’s a tough year. We want to be together and support him. ”
What makes the 35-year-old’s support odd is the fact he had to be smuggled out of Russia to play in the NHL, after the local hockey team coerced him into signing a one-year contract on the basis of national pride, according to a 2019 article posted by the Pittsburgh Penguins titled “MAlKIN: Escape from Russia.”
While publicly praising Putin, both players have equally tried to backtrack on the political standings when questioned in the past.
In the same 2017 interview, Malkin feigned ignorance, telling reporters, “I don’t know what’s going on here. (Whether Americans) don’t like or like him. I’m not trying to read everything. I just want to support him. ”
Ovechkin refused to denounce Putin on Friday, stating, “Well, he is my president. But how I said, I am not in politics. I have an athlete. ”
Sure, Ovechkin isn’t a politician, but he’s thrown himself into the political atmosphere by campaigning on Putin’s behalf.
It’s quite well known that Ovi has a fairly close relationship with Putin.
After the Ovechkins ’2017 wedding, his wife shared an Instagram story showing a gifted tea set from Putin, along with an official letter of congratulations. A telegram from the Russian president was also read aloud during the reception, according to video footage posted on Instagram by model Yana Rudkovkaya.
Ovechkin has always tried to claim political neutrality and to use his position as an athlete to denounce the blame put on him for supporting Putin, but an athlete is what you are, not who you are.
While the statements and silence of Russian athletes, Ovechkin and Malkin included, will not put an end to the invasion of Ukraine, it does show their character in the face of adversity.
Athletes are superstars in Russia, where Putin is actively engaged in the hockey culture, making Ovi’s and Geno’s support influential in some way – even if it’s just by feeding into the president’s ego.
It also makes it that much sadder to see average civilians protesting against the war in the streets of Russia with all the risks it entails, while some of their most influential voices are hushed by fear overseas.
These athletes are beloved figures in their American communities, as well – even Malkin’s parents have become local legends when they visit the Steel City.
It’s natural for fans to want their favorite players to also be good people who care about the world around them, and it’s hard to make a judgment of character when they’ve been so outwardly open with their support of a man who implemented a violent invasion of a sovereign country under unjust claims.
Ovechkin’s comments were safe and Malkin’s silence is cautionary.
Both are ultimately disappointing, even under the impression that morality takes a back seat to self-preservation.
We’ll probably never know whether Putin’s public support is genuine or a survival mechanism, but it doesn’t make the situation any less disheartening.